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 butgain 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.

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 here?

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?