"Time flies, death urges, knells call, heaven invites." All is encapsulated in this dense and multi-faceted novel of love, madness, and religious propriety set in 18th-century England. The life of the improbable William Cowper (1731-1800) lies at the heart of this story. An unlikely hero, Cowper was one of the most popular poets of his time and changed the direction of 18th-century nature poetry by writing of everyday life along with scenes of the bucolic English countryside.
Throughout much of his life, however, Cowper suffered from periods of severe depression.
Although he found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and feared that he was doomed to eternal damnation. Lynch carefully builds his life from an older man where all he can think of is his own fate and his fragile mental condition: “to be despised is my destiny.”
Together with a young companion and a housekeeper who comes across as “a vinegary old whinger and a scold,” the aging poet thrusts us into his turbulent early years. Emotionally wounded and left by his lost mother, frail William copes with the impotent bullying at school, the realization that he is “different”, and his friendship with his beautiful cousins Theadora and Harriet. Throughout, Cowper constantly battled mental illness, his early life resembling madness, the gigantic demons of the night doing battle with his dwarfish anxieties of the everyday.
The visit to an apothecary to purchase some laudanum probably instigates many of the feverish nightmares. A man of his time, Cowper believed like everyone else that madness was at best a sign of moral weakness and at worst a criminal depravity. In an effort to conquer his inner demons, he falls into an association with The Reverend Unwin. With his friendly temperament and a devoted wife to guide him, Unwin introduces Cowper to the world of hymns and evangelical sermonizing.
Although the Unwins provide him with food and shelter, it appears that William’s financial prospects are dim. Although an allowance comes quarterly from his father’s estate, William rapidly gains a reputation for priggishness and irresponsibility, the fund just about enough to support his sanity even though his family are always seeming to pay extra for his madness.
After an unfortunate accident, Mary and William are surreptitiously thrust together, the two forming a scandalous friendship, the middle-aged woman almost an emotional buttress toward William’s meager existence. Steeping his novel in Cowper’s hymns and poetry, Lynch’s tale bursts with literary and religious allusions, the gentle towns of pastoral England brought seamlessly to life. The author’s rather wry rendition of English society dominates even as Cowper is portrayed as fey and frail, a man seemingly at a loss in England
full of social and religious pretensions.