William Jones walks down the streets of Oxford, navigating its shadows, crossing the boundaries of its inner and outer foreignness – the ones that mirror his relationship with his wife. Night is falling, it is the Nineteenth century, stars are falling in the sky, and at home his wife Eleanor is giving birth to Edgar. Edgar is smaller than expected, very healthy, with unnaturally aged skin and a line of hair down his back.
Elizabeth Garner‘s prose is light, taking much prosetic licence – the effect is charming, and very gripping. Within an illustrative, detailed (though incomplete) geography of Oxford, William Jones, porter at an unnamed college, looks at his son as a delightful miniature of himself. Eleanor wanted a girl, and got an “unnatural” boy instead. William is much older than his wife, and spends most of his waking hours in the darkness, at the college gates. Eleanor stays at home, watching over her son. Her only visible contact outside of that home is Mrs. Simm – practical, clear-sighted Mrs. Simm, who assisted at the birth, who gave Eleanor a job as a seamstress, who advises her to accept her son as he is.
While William dreams of the greatness his son will achieve, and Eleanor stitches and dreams of the life she wanted to escape to, Edgar runs literally wild through his home and garden. If Eleanor accepts that her boy is a rambunctious, William, brought up a foundling by the Oxford clergy, is alarmed. attempts at disciplining Edgar fail only in part to Edgar’s unmalleable incorrigibility – William’s process is didactic, incoherent; Edgar might be dyslexic. William’s growing disillusionment reflects in a waning expressed love for his only son.
Edgar has nothing with which to woo his father save his brilliance and his eagerness to please. Instead of acting out and breaking all his father’s stuff, Edgar goes out into the world and seeks employment. The idea of his son serving an apprenticeship with a blacksmith pleases William even less. William glowers through his nights, Eleanor sews in her private room full of light and colour, and Edgar leaves smoky prints wherever he goes – until he gains the attention of The Professor, who sees in Edgar the small, agile, smart, starved-for-love tool he needs to build his Museum to Biology and Evolution.
In time, William is displeased by this, too. Eleanor is stuck in the middle, playing peacekeeper, but William is not the sort of man who listens, and Edgar still very young. The entire novel is set up in terms of opposition and advancement – the Pagan, the Medieval, the Christian, the Rational, the Academic, and the Desiring all jostling for overlapping spaces within one small household amidst three small people. Oxford and the Jones household lay out the cartography of the human soul – itself liminal, changing, selectively steadfast, and not always in the right contexts.
Edgar has been ruined by the wrong kinds of mentors for years before he finds the perfect fit – unlike Goldilocks, he cannot truly appreciate his third and final helping, since he is so hung up on the first two, and how much he needs them to love him. Mr. Stephens the instrument maker is a lovely man, whose shop is somewhere in between the University and the Jones’ home. (Coincidentally next to Eleanor’s first home in a tavern.)
And then disaster strikes(!). Eleanor learns of the perfidy of mankind, William learns nothing at all, and Edgar loses the little freedoms he has. The novel careens to its inevitable dénouement, and at the closing the three Jones move their separate ways.
That’s not really a spoiler, so I’m leaving it in.
Garner’s prose, as I’ve mentioned, is light and gripping, and she has a knack for saying a great deal without beating the dead donkey over the subject. The novel is descriptive with that hint of enigmatic other-worldliness that we see hints off through out Oxford’s gargoyle-laden streets. What makes this novel less than ideal for me is the ending. Where William goes, well, that is perfect. It fits in neatly with all the facets of his personality, the concrete details of his life as he walks stonily through it. Eleanor and Edgar do not give us the same sort of closure. I would have appreciate a. a sequel or b. more chapters, telling me what the hell happens to them. The Ingenious Edgar Jones reads like incomplete but lovely novels (I’m looking at you, Heyer and Steinbeck!) – lovely, but incomplete. The reader is left hanging, while Eleanor and Edgar move away with no knowledge of each other to do – what? I found it completely unsatisfactory, worse still because I was hooked from the beginning.
You could read it as a way of allowing them their freedom, unfettered by our gazes (gaze, and entrapment within gaze, is a running subtext through the novel), but that still leaves me hanging. Eleanor and Edgar has a great deal of potential in terms of development and adventure(!!), and I’m basically left with them saying goodbye, this isn’t for you anymore.
All in all? The Ingenious Edgar Jones is a lovely, emotional novel about the boundaries of loyalty, and the damage that a trespass against loyalty can cause – no matter how much love there is to patch up the breaches. It has an ending that will leave you wanting more, with little likelihood that you will get it. It’s an exercise in humanity and frustration. I wouldn’t recommend it.