SPOILER ALERT: The title of my review is a quotation from the next to last page of Walter Besant's offbeat novel of 1883, ALL IN A GARDEN FAIR: THE SIMPLE STORY OF THREE BOYS AND A GIRL. The "girl" of Besant's title is Claire Philipon, born in France but raised by her widowed, exiled onetime revolutionary father Hector Philipon in a village just north of mid to late 19th Century London, England. Gertrude Holt is an older "literary" woman in London who has taken under her wing one of the title's "three boys," budding poet and playwright Allen Engledew. Gertrude lives with a beautiful younger cousin, Isabel Holt, who does not write but can declaim and act out a poet's verses brilliantly. END SPOILER ALERT.
Claire Philipon from a very early age becomes friends with three village boys each a year or more older than she:
-- Allen Engledew, a brilliant dreamer;
-- Olinthus "Tommy" Gallaway, a sluggish plugger; and
-- Will Massey, definitely not a dreamer.
ALL IN A GARDEN FAIR is about M. Philipon's plan to teach the elements of future human greatness to the three boys Allen, Tommy and Will. He will make them hunger to become great thinkers, writers, orators and statesmen through the willing cooperation of his daughter and the boys' close friend Isabel. Meanwhile polymath Philipon endures the boredom of teaching French to bored girls in a local academy.
Year after year, season after season, the four youngsters romp, stroll and play in the nearby still wild but gorgeous Hainault Forest. Part One of M. Philipon's plan is to persuade the parents of the boys to allow him to teach them French. This plan is approved by Allen's mother and Will's parents. But it is rejected for Olinthus/Tommy, as he has a rich uncle in the City to whom he will be apprenticed. And anyway who needs French to make money? Be it noted in passing that the village where the principals live is poor but is honored by a number of failed and aged entrepreneurs, including a onetime Lord Mayor of nearby London.
The Philipons work together to teach Allen and Will French. M. Philipon exposes the two brilliant boys to French and English classics. Both boys join the same London international silk firm. Both are equally good in their work. But Allen hates clerical work while Will enjoys it, with an eye to advancement within the firm. One day the firm's partners offer to Allen promotion to running the firm's suddenly vacant office in Shanghai, China. He declines, resigns and dedicates himself to becoming a successful poet. Will however accepts. Meanwhile rather dull Tommy is ensconced in his uncle's firm. Up to this point the three "careers" show little difference.
All three boys want to marry Claire. Her father informs them on the very same day when all three formally propose marriage, that Claire will give them her answer in three years. Meanwhile there is to be no formal wooing. Distant Will is not to be disadvantaged because his friendly rivals in love abide in England.
Thus ALL IN A GARDEN FAIR is well launched. Will is off to Shanghai and for three years of notable success. Allen nearly starves for his first six months in London while publishers reject his poems. But he soon finds that literary "connections" are everything. Through one newly made male friend he becomes editor of a trade journal on leather. Through the other (himself a crypto-author in a clan of famous writers) Allen enters the circle of novelist and essayist Gertrude Holt and her beautiful young kinswoman Isabel Holt. Through those two adoring, supportive London females he is inspired to write and publish first very good short stories and eventually his first play. Meanwhile back in the sleepy village of the "three boys and a girl," Claire also teaches French to younger girls and a spectacularly failed financial speculator has secretly taken gullible Tommy/Olinthus in tow and now uses him as an instrument to make both himself and Tommy fabulously wealthy in short order.
Three years pass.
All four friends remain fast friends, even though Claire can marry only one and must shortly choose which. How she reaches her decision keeps the reader in suspense. Meanwhile M. Philipon resignedly accepts that although his pupil Allen Engledew is well launched to become a distinguished writer, he will never be the history-altering "Martin Luther" that Philipon had planned for. Neither will Will Massey. Will will become a great "man of action" and worker for the poor, but no Napoleon. As for plugger Olinthus/Tommy ... read the novel and find out where fate propels him!
Walter Besant's writing is quirky, his narrator's perspective always omniscient and ironic. He skewers English pretense and foibles. But each of his characters is three dimensional and will live in a reader's memory.
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