Week two: visualisation

The novel, being the genre of the ordinary world, respects circumstantial detail, but Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda gives unusual attention to visual particulars. His narrative visualises because its leading characters think through their eyes. What is described is what matters to them. Even costume is character, not period colour. Lucinda dons grey silk bloomers to proclaim her feminist sympathies; Oscar’s friend Wardley-Fish is a trainee clergyman aspiring to roguishness in “a loud hound’s-tooth jacket with a handkerchief like a fistful of daffodils rammed into a rumpled vase”. When the novel describes how Miriam Chadwick’s “lovely peach silk dress” is dyed black, falling “like a rose, a ‘Prince’s Pride’, into a copper of Indian ink”, it is to register the bitterly disappointed hopes of the wearer. Just out of mourning for her father, she has come to Australia for a new life with a case of “scandalously bright” clothes, only to witness her mother’s drowning when their ship is wrecked as they arrive. Now it is back to mourning, as the woman who employs her as a governess pushes the glowing frock into the dye: “the dress sucked in the black and first it ran in blurry lines along the fine pleats and then it spread, a rush of grey, a blanket of black”.

The novel’s early chapters, much influenced by Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son, find a rationale for visual attentiveness. Oscar has an early education in visual detail from his naturalist father Theophilus, who “had an eye well trained to the nicest degree”. He dredges and sieves the tiny life forms from the cold English sea: “Antheas with fragile white tentacles, red-bannered-dulses, perhaps a sleek green prawn or a fragile living blossom, proof of the existence of God, a miracle in ivory, rosy red, orange or amethyst.” His father is a Christian fundamentalist whose scientific curiosity is, in the very age of Darwin, focused on God’s Creation. Look closely, describe precisely, and you will demonstrate a Divine will.

Delighted by its descriptive precision, Wardley-Fish later reads Theophilus Hopkins’s book aloud to his mystified fiancée, Melody Clutterbuck, as they ride in a carriage through Hyde Park. “The body is about one and a half inches thick . . . of a purplish brown hue marked with longitudinal bands of a dull lilac, each band margined with a darker colour”. (In homage to his original Carey acknowledges the passage to be taken from Philip Henry Gosse’s A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast of 1853). For such an observer the visual may be almost too ­engrossing. Theophilus must also ignore “the pleasures of the view, the bare-legged women collecting out on the mud flats, the lovely lustrous sheen upon the wet earth, the misty blue-white sky”.

The matching idiosyncrasies of Carey’s leading characters are registered by a visual trick. We remember both of them by their unusual hair. ­Oscar has red hair, “that frizzy nest which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting”; the infant Lucinda cuts off all her doll’s hair, punishing it for looking like herself, her own reddish hair sometimes caught by the light “in a slightly frizzy halo”. Made ladylike for her trip to Sydney, her hair is pinned and clipped: “Her hair was a sea of snakes, each one struggling to insist on its freedom.” We keep being reminded of the odd appearance of each of them by references to their hair, a visual metaphor of each one’s eccentricity. They are brought together (but finally severed) by a mad project to build a glass church in the outback, for glass is the novel’s dominant metaphor. Glass miraculously turns the stuff of the earth into frozen light. Visiting the glass factory that Lucinda owns, Oscar is thrilled that imperfect humanity can produce anything so fine. “Glass. Blinding white. Glowing red. Elastic. Protean. Liquid. Vessel for light.” Like the ­narrative itself, the glass makes us see, through the characters’ eyes, just how light falls. Lucinda becomes ­entranced by the way glass takes on the tinctures of its materials, green from the oxides in the sand, or poison blue from the addition of lead. The samples glow for her on the red leather desk of the ­Reverend Hasset, a flirtatious glass expert.

Oscar meanwhile inherits from his father, who has a name for every colour in nature, a geologist’s eye for the telling shade of rock and soil, their tones the evidence of oxides and alluvia. But the observant scientist also feels by visualising. Oscar’s father cannot permit himself the full measure of grief for the loss of his wife, for God has taken her: “He had not been able to bear it, but he had borne it.” As his son leaves for Australia – which means for ever – he allows himself an image of what he has lost, “a child and a wife in a Devon lane – myrtles, perfumed hedges, luscious red mud, which caked so thickly on their boots that their feet became as heavy and padded as creatures in a dream”. For the reader, as well as for this character, what you remember is what you have seen.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.

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