Recognising Robert Neill: Black William

Robert Neill’s first four novels have proved very easy to review, which is hardly surprising. I’ve owned the books for over thirty-five years, read them at least ten times each. The stories are familiar, old friends, and these are smooth, flowing books. It’s been interesting to read them again with the intention of writing about them at the end, and equally so to see them, for the first time, as a continuum: the work of an author developing.
Later in his career, Neil would announce his intention to write a trilogy of novels set in the latter half of the Stuart century, from Restoration to the Glorious Revolution. But Black William, published in 1955, completes an informal trilogy on the same theme in which there’s a clear progression of political opinion.
Moon in Scorpio was a fervently Royalist book, Rebel Heiress begins with the same imperative, but balances itself with a growing recognition of the worth and solidity of the Roundhead stock, and by Black William, the world is equally fervently Whig, anticipating a half century in which the party that seeks to limit the King’s reach would enjoy an uninterrupted hegemony.
The events of the novel take place over a handful of weeks between the beginning of October and Christmas 1714. Queen Anne is dead, and the Stuart line has come to an end. George, the Elector of Hanover, has accepted the throne (his Coronation takes place less than a week after the book’s  opening scene). The Whigs, the inheritors of Milord Shaftesbury’s Country Party, are fully in support of the new dynasty: the Tories grumblingly accept the Hanoverians as a fait accompli, but among them there are the Highflyers, those who believe that their honour, their duty, holds them to the oaths they swore to the late James II and to his son and heir, the Chevalier de St. George, James Edward Stuart. At this early date they are already beginning to be known as Jacobites.
What develops is seen through the eyes of Mally (Mary) Lawley, a young woman living as a poor relation in the house of her Aunt Chandler: Lady Chandler, that is, of a gentleman’s family, who married an up-and-coming Merchant, John Chandler. Sir John, who hales, as does his once-loving bride, from Gateshead, is now a London-based Merchant Prince, and a staunch and supportive Whig, yet his wife hosts balls, parties and routs to which Highflyers flock, even to the Earl of Derwentwater, whose nobility stems from his illegitimate connection to the late Charles II.
This dichotomy does not disturb Mally, whose eyes have been caught by the popular – and handsome – Captain Marriott, an expert at the card-table, attractive to man and woman alike. And Tony Marriott has noticed Mally too, and been impressed by her, which starts a chain of events that leaves the Captain disgraced and of no more use in his present role, and Mally thrown out by her Aunt, to live with her Uncle, John Lawley, in far away Gateshead.
Responsibility for Mally’s conveyance into the North Parts falls on Sir John and, at the other end, his younger brother, partner and even sharper counterpart, William Chandler – the ‘Black William’ of the title.
On arrival at the Tyne, Mally swiftly learns that her Uncle John, and most of his friends, are also Highflyers: country gentlemen resenting the end of times when they were of value, impossibly indiscreet, none too penetrating of mind, unlike Mally and her new cousin,Jane, who learn far too easily, and fearfully, that treason is plotted in these North Parts, and that it isn’t necessary for it to take place under their noses for information to begin circulating.
Having been separated – permanently, it seems – from Tony Marriott, Mally finds another follower almost immediately, in Dick Chandler, son and Lieutenant to Black William, and set fair to be equally as competent and far-thinking as his father. But this is before the arrival in the North Parts of Colonel Storm, raiser and organiser of Rebellion: Tony Marriott.
So the inevitable, but characteristically underplayed romance in this novel is to take a new, and interesting form. Mally has two completely contrasting suitors, each immediately set on her becoming their wife, total opposites to one another, not merely in their political leanings, but in their personalities.
Tony Marriott is passionate and fervent, charm, elegance, good manners and flamboyant: Dick Chandler steady, thoughtful, calm, reliable, secure and understanding, and not without humour. Mally, it is clear, will have to make a choice, and equally clearly, her choice of lover is symbolic, for in their persons, Tony Marriott and Dick Chandler are living representatives of the choice facing the country in these early days of a new Royal Dynasty. Charm or competence? Romance or commitment? Tory or Whig? The Past, or the Future.
But behind everything that happens is the shadow of Black William. Cleverly, Neill keeps him offstage until almost 100 pages into the story, letting him be defined mostly by those who hate him, but also by his extremely reliable, and surprisingly thoughtful son. William is the most competent man in the story, foreseeing everything before every step is taken, sat at the chessboard before the pieces have even been taken out of their bag.
The Rebellion – a foreshadowing of the Fifteen Rebellion to put the Old Pretender on the throne – is headed off with ease, as, to be frank, in the hands of these would-be Jacobites, it was always going to be. It’s a mark of William’s mastery that it’s done without a single arrest or punishment, and that even Colonel Storm is removed from the board – and from England – without hurt.
But Marriott still leaves in despair. Not for the failure of a cause in which he truly and passionately believes, and for which he will continue to fight, but for the loss of Mally. The choice is forced on her, by William as much as circumstance, and though there will be no immediate move in that direction, as the lucky man understands, it is finally the world offered by the Whig Dick that prevails.
It is William who makes the final pronunciation on the Stuart dynasty, on the political path developed over these three, achronological, novels: it is charm and heartbreak that the Stuarts offer: it always has been.
I like all these first four novels not merely for their sense of the times in which they are set, and their unobtrusive depiction of past times, but also for their invocation of place. For the third time, a novel begins in London before removing to its true scene of action elsewhere, and each place is in different. Summer in Lancashire, a friendly, robust, self-reliant county, autumn in Worcestershire, a soft, sylvan, rich countryside, near winter in the Tyne Valley, on the Durham/Northumberland boundary, with its lonely, windblown moorlands, its cheerful self-reliance and its memories of the Border Raids.
Each book has its own feel, above and beyond Neill’s secure, formal tone, binding them into a unity I’m long familiar with.
For his next novel, Neill would forsake the background of political turmoil, and the efforts of men to shape the rule of the land, and settle for a more personal story, set against that most faithful of historical backgrounds – Smugglers!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s