About the Book
Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross experiences myriad lives: joyous and devastating, years of luck and unexpected loss.
Moving from County Cork to London, from Waterloo to Zanzibar, Cashel seeks his fortune across continents in war and in peace. He faces a terrible moral choice in a village in Sri Lanka as part of the East Indian Army. He enters the world of the Romantic Poets in Pisa. In Ravenna he meets a woman who will live in his heart for the rest of his days.
As he travels the world as a soldier, a farmer, a felon, a writer, a father, a lover, he experiences all the vicissitudes of life and, through the accelerating turbulence of the nineteenth century, he discovers who he truly is.
This is the romance of life itself, and the beating heart of The Romantic.
Format: Hardback (464 pages) Publisher: Viking
Publication date: 6th October 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction
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The Romantic is one of the books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2023 but it had been on my RADAR long before that. The Romantic has been compared by other readers to one of William Boyd’s earlier books, Any Human Heart, which is also a ‘whole life’ story, albeit set in a different period. I haven’t read that book although it is on my virtual TBR pile.
The Romantic is a faux biography, complete with footnotes, sketches and draft letters, of Cashel Greville Ross which recounts events in his life from his childhood in 19th century Ireland to his demise at the age of 82. It’s picaresque in style with Cashel undertaking many adventures including being wounded whilst serving as a drummer boy at the Battle of Waterloo, becoming an ice trader and pioneering a new kind of beer (‘Rossbrau’) in New England, and undertaking a search for the source of the River Nile. Cashel’s fictional exploits are intertwined with real historical events and actual historical personages such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, and the explorers Richard Burton and John Speke. There is a colourfully drawn cast of minor characters. For example, banker Mr Forbes Harkin described as ‘a slim, serious-looking bald man with a stiff-pointed white wisp of a beard growing from his chin that looked as if it had been stuck there as a prank’.
Described by one reviewer as ‘Around the World in 80 Years’, Cashel’s adventures take him across the globe to places as varied as Oxford, Venice, Zanzibar and Madras. It’s during his time in Italy that the most significant event in his life occurs: the moment he meets the Countess Raphaella Rezzo. From the start he is completely bewitched by her. ‘And he knew – as an animal knows that he has found his mate. He need look no further, ever.’ However, as we know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’.
Yes, there’s a love story so Cashel is a romantic in that respect but he is also a romantic in outlook, being driven by impulse and circumstance, rather than by thoroughly thought through plans. ‘Why did he always have to act so spontaneously, he wondered, driven by absolute conviction? Absolute convictions could all too easily be wrong – as his own life had demonstrated.’ Quite. Cashel experiences all the vicissitudes of life from becoming a bestselling author to (shades of Dickens’ Little Dorrit) being imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt. In the process he gains both friends and enemies leading him to adopt new identities from time to time. It also has to be said that he leaves a trail of discarded relationships in his wake, there always seeming to be one more obstacle for him to overcome. ‘He thought he could detect a malign pattern in his life – that he was always moving on, for some reason or other, and leaving something precious behind.’ Somehow, though, Cashel always picks himself up, dusts himself down and sets off anew. By the way, you’ll need to be patient for the significance of the image on the cover to be revealed.
The Romantic is quite a big book but the sheer zest with which Cashel’s story unfolds means it doesn’t feel like that. It’s a wonderfully entertaining romp through the 19th century with the most engaging travelling companion you could possibly hope for. It’s an achievement of literary imagination that surely makes it a strong contender for the shortlist; some even tip it to be the winner.
In three words: Sweeping, witty, engaging
Try something similar: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph
About the Author
William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of sixteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of short stories. He is married and divides his time between London and south-west France. (Photo: Publisher author page)