Oscar and Lucinda: A sweeping romance

Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize and was made into a
beautiful movie, I am told, and it is easy to see why. It vividly
recreates 19th century England and Australia as it tells an impassioned
love story. And it is clever. When Lucinda the heiress confesses her
love of gambling to Oscar the clergyman, he says that is not a sin.
Believing in God is gambling, too, he says, referring to Pascal’s
Wager: there is no reason to believe or disbelieve in God, but it’s
wiser to bet He exists because we lose nothing if He doesn’t exist but
gain infinite happiness and eternal life if He does.

Lucinda is shocked to hear this from a clergyman, but they settle down to a game of cards, for Oscar is a gambler too.

With colourful characters like that, and history and romance in the
bargain, what’s there not to like about this novel? Well, it’s a little too
long and the ending is jarring.

Of course, it has to end in tragedy, given the nature of the hero
and the heroine. Lucinda is the conventionally unconventional 19th
century heroine, rebelling against convention and paying for it. Oscar
the gambler and eventually defrocked clergyman is a tortured soul, a
guilt-ridden anti-hero.

But the author gives a savage twist to the plot when after
describing their romance almost throughout the book, he suddenly
introduces another woman who destroys their relationship in just a
couple of pages. Miriam not only wrenches the lovers apart but gets
everything in the process, for she finds out about Oscar’s gamble with
Lucinda. A gamble in which the winner takes all.

It was a gamble of love. Oscar, believing Lucinda was in love with
another clergyman, suggested they build a glass church at her
glassworks in Sydney, which he would then deliver to the clergyman at
remote Boat Harbour. Oscar thought that would make Lucinda happy.
Lucinda agreed to build the church because she thought that would make
Oscar happy. Inveterate gamblers, they staked their entire fortune on
whether he would succeed in his mission –- and he did. Lucinda wanted
him to succeed, of course, and hired men and equipment to accompany him
on his dangerous journey overland through the Outback. But she expected
him to come back to her –- and not lose everything.

But why didn’t Oscar realise she was in love with him when they were
living together and making love? Because of the letters she wrote but
didn’t send to the clergyman, Dennis Hasset. So why didn’t he confront
her and sort out everything? Because Oscar and Lucinda are not ordinary
lovers; they are too romantic, too willing to sacrifice and make each
other happy to find real happiness themselves. That is what makes their
romance poignant.

My complaint is not with Oscar and Lucinda’s doomed romance but with
the author’s manipulation of the plot. There are weak spots in the plot
one can drive a hole through. Why does Oscar’s old friend,
Wardley-Fish, miss him so much that he abandons his fiancée and sails
all the way to Australia in a futile journey to meet him? Why does the
Reverend Stratton, who has been poor all his life, hang himself after
piling up a mountain of debt? Why does Lucinda’s father have to fall
from his horse and die almost as soon as the book opens?

The answer may be the author is manipulating the plot to underscore
the folly of gambling, the charisma of Oscar, the independence of
Lucinda. Even the glassworks she buys with the wealth she inherits from
her mother becomes a prop to show women’s position in society: her
workers do not like her presence in the factory. And the glass church
she and Oscar build — a radical innovation -– highlights their
difference from the rest of society.

Analysed like this, the book becomes a heavy-handed morality play,
but it is saved by the writer’s wit, imagination and descriptive
powers. It is hard to forget the scene at the restaurant where Oscar
and Lucinda come close to declaring their love for each other and end
up with their wager about the church. Oscar is too tortured and
guilt-ridden to be liked wholeheartedly, but Lucinda is independent,
wilful and sensuous. It is hard to forget her coming down to greet an
early morning guest, looking fresh and rosy after making love with
Oscar.And yet Oscar doesn’t realise she loves him! Who is being wilful

This is not just a book of love. It is also rich in history,
recreating the Victorian age. We see the technological progress
represented by the ocean liner in which Oscar and Lucinda sail to
Australia; the birth of a nation in rough-and-tumble Sydney; and the
opening of a continent in the journey through the Outback. We see the
damage done as Oscar’s bullying companion, Jeffris, cuts down trees and
fights with the Aborigines.

There is a memorable scene near the end of the story where Oscar
sails up a river alone in his glass church on the last leg of the
journey to Boat Harbour. The stretch of the river is so untouched by
civilisation that the bush flies, dragon flies and water beetles there
panic at the intrusion and dash against the floating glass church,
cracking its panes. Oscar, who is terrified of water and made the
overland journey to avoid a sea voyage, eventually arrives at Boat
Harbour a nervous wreck.

But it is all for nothing. Hasset has built a new life for himself
at Boat Harbour where he does not want any gossip and scandal tying him
with a woman in Sydney. When Oscar mentions Lucinda to him in front of
a crowd, he hastily flees. Oscar is left with Miriam. What follows
fills Oscar with shame and remorse. His suffering is mercifully
shortlived, but Lucinda’s life is blighted forever.

This is a story of a spiritual crisis as much as it is a love story. Oscar cannot be the man he wants to be.

Yet notice the irony. Oscar achieves a sainthood of sorts after his
death. His story is told by a latter-day descendant. The narrator
recalls his deeply religious mother was so proud of her
great-grandfather, Oscar, that she showed  his portrait to every
visiting clergyman. She would speak of him and his church. But, the
narrator says, there was always something false in the story she told
though as a child he could not pin down exactly what was wrong with it.

Oscar and Lucinda is too big and ambitious a novel to be perfect,
but it has history, romance and vivid details, transporting us to
another world. What more could we ask for?

By Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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