Penelope, the daughter of a local priest, is lured to a villa in the south of France where she is the victim of a cruel hoax. As to how she came into the situation, we are first introduced to her as a child and the background is set out with Stewart’s usual wit and highly descriptive writing. Fulke Ferneydale, now a rich novelist, knew Penelope then – indeed, in her later teenage years he suddenly proposed to her, but she turned him down. At the time, he had something of a chip on his shoulder as his father was ‘in trade’, which is something Penelope’s father looked down upon in a snobbish manner, although it didn’t affect her. Accordingly, Ferneydale went off and married Sophie, although he subsequently managed to enjoy a string of mistresses and young boys. Penelope married Caspar, but he is withdrawn, scholarly and boring, not to mention materially unsuccessful. So what is to become of her in France? There are many twists to this tale, not least the final surprise.
This novel yields high comedy and mystery surrounding an Oxford College, told by a schoolmaster narrator, and written by J.I.M. Stewart, himself an Oxford Don and master of dry wit and surprise. Supported by his wife, Arthur Aylwin’s desires to be Provost of the College – so much so he is prepared to give up a University Chair so as to achieve it…
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