"The whole world? A bunch of stuffed shirts and over-dressed wives," deadpans William Dysart, Gregory Murphy’s accomplished lawyer and practitioner of strategic obliquity in the spectacular Incognito. Deftly written by Murphy, whose sparse prose communicates more period detail than the best of historical fiction, William emerges here as the omnipresent tragic, privileged, put-upon man the author intends him to be.
The novel is an Edwardian societal
commentary-cum-spectacle, a story that grows more feverishly luminous as William’s plight worsens and he finds himself questioning his marriage to beautiful, social-climbing Arabella. At the same time, William falls hopelessly for Sybil Curtis, a girl of mysterious means. Even his best attempts to extricate Sybil and save her five-acre Long Island property from the officious hands of the splendidly rich Lydia Billings (widow of the infamous Henry Billings) are in danger of being sabotaged by his slightly sensitive soul.
Philipse Havering, William’s managing partner in their law firm, informs Peter that Lydia fully intends to annex the woman’s property to her two-thousand acre estate, endowing it to the State in her husband’s memory. But William is uneasy.
He’s sure that Lydia wants Sybil’s property because she’s rich and powerful and she’s convinced she’s going to get it. William resents being used as a tool in Lydia’s attempt to wrest Sybil’s property from her without negative publicity.
William makes a habit of visiting Sybil, and they grow much closer. Warm and inviting, Sybil reads George Elliot‘s
Middlemarch and enchants William with an offer of sugary sarsaparilla. There’s a haunting look in Sybil’s eyes as she proceeds to tell William that she will refuse to sell for any price, even when the price Lydia Billings is willing to pay is more than generous.
The State will certainly condemn the place if they can’t come up with an agreement.
William, once the detective, becomes Sybil’s savior. There’s history here and something personal, familial perhaps, a grudge and a need for revenge or vindication. There’s also a sense of William’s apprehension that shakes the steady rhythm of his uneventful life as Murphy unfurls an extraordinary assortment of characters who shuffle like cards on a table. The novel has a sense of inevitability as we read into Incognito the shadows of Henry Billings’ deplorable behavior and a deeper sense of hopelessness: William’s fear of loving and of being loved. William realizes that most of the virtues he had originally admired in Arabella were merely the result of “a strenuous pretense.”
An increasing sense of lives twisted awry and misplaced devotion drives William into the arms of Sybil and ineluctably away from his chilly, overbearing father, Charles Dysart, a dispenser of hateful sophistries.
Tthe secret of success in polite society is keeping hypocrisy hidden. Even William’s Aunt Edith, a bourgeoning figure in the suffragette movement, has been banished by Charles, accused of harboring secretive desires of an “unnatural nature.”
From a father who only wanted to change his wife and to make a great lady of her, “a woman all feathers, jewels, and perfume,” to manipulative Lydia, who asks William “is our little contretemps at an end?” Murphy gently ushers William through the gilded streets of wintry Manhattan until all those stiff, corseted worries turn on a series of troubling questions that gather around Sybil “like dark clouds in the distance on a beautiful summer’s day.”
Deriving its power from Murphy’s major themehow a willful gentleman of means and integrity can be crushed by the social mores of early twentieth centurythis intense novel excavates the notion of regret and how damaged psyches can be suddenly transformed into evanescent joy when faced with the promises of true and faithful love.