Palliser brooks no numbskulls. Surely he chuckled at the scores of puzzling plot elements he injected throughout this intensely paced mystery. It is 17-year-old Richard Shenstone, recently rusticated from Cambridge, and author of the journal that draws the reader into the events of December 1863 and January 1864 in a village outside Thurchester, England.
We trip on red herrings all the way. Enjoy them, for Palliser is in full control of these smoked fish. How very keen of him to have us encounter them through the words of young Richard, our tainted narrator, opium addicted, curiously unwelcome in his own family, and suspiciously unforthcoming when questioned about the death of his Cambridge friend Edmund. Oh well! More entertainment for the reader for young Shenstone, a gifted diarist, shows lively intelligence, nimble curiosity, and a boundless ( i.e. without boundaries) attraction to women.
Mysteries abound. Richard, older sister Euphemia, and mater Shenstone formerly of Thurchester, are suffering the loss of status and comfort due to the unexpected death of the head of the Shenstone household. While waiting for situations to improve, the family lives in the dilapidated mansion inherited by the Mrs. Dark rooms, drafts, strange smells, eerie sounds and voices inside the house with pale moonlight, swirling mists, and bizarre characters outside ground us in the Gothic. As you pick your way through Palliser’s maze, keep track of the unexpected death of the head of the Shenstone household. Father, husband, and cleric in the Anglican Church, he fell short of reaching the office of Bishop. The distribution of his pension to his survivors is delayed. This being Victorian England, a plausible solution would be for the stunning Effie (Euphemia) to attract a wealthy husband: She gives it her very best effort though in a manner that doesn’t fall within what we think of as a proper Victorian stereotype.
And what is to be made of the grammatically crude, sexually profane letters sent to citizens of the village. Wouldn’t it be possible that the author of these be someone who knows how to distort his excellent writing and play out his own sexual obsession? Go there if you’d like. I’m just saying.
Palliser writes of the Victorian period in a Victorian style. Typically, moral behavior or its lack is judged by the end of these novels. Because we read “Rustication” with something like a 21st century sensibility under the authority of the magnificently skilled Palliser, we forsake judgment for the greater pleasure of the puzzles. And though the ending may appear a little too suddenly, Palliser stays true to the Victorian style. Some would say, with ambiguity.