My rating: 8.5/10. Parts of this one – many parts! – were decidedly “10” in quality. I rated it lower only because the author ran a few sections just a bit harder than they could take; I did have to force myself onwards here and there. But it always got interesting again.
I greatly enjoyed this book, and found it playful, amusing and gloriously cynical in parts. Graves has his authorial knife keenly honed and digs it into such things as British prep and public schools, golf, the British upper classes in general (with the hearty sporting types coming in for the most blatant caricaturizations), and, for reasons known only to himself, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I laughed out loud several times while reading; a thing I seldom do.
This is an intricately structured, highly detailed, cleverly framed, humorous and yet deeply cautionary tale about sibling rivalry, and the dangers of pursuing familial tit for tat to extreme lengths. Robert Graves, already a well-established and very prolific writer of “serious” literature and poetry, apparently wrote this atypical farcical novel as a result of a bet that he couldn’t pull off a “modern” bestseller. Graves is, of course, probably best known now for his screen-adapted historical fictions I, Claudius and Claudius the God, among something like 150 other published works, most rather sober and scholarly examinations of the classical world, biography, historical fiction and poetry.
Oliver Price and his younger sister Jane grow up together in an atmosphere of stereotypical English upper-middle-class respectability. Their father is a country vicar who hobnobs on equal terms and with a strong element of rivalry with his wealthy neighbour, Sir Reginald Whitebillet. Their mother, the daughter of a marquess, was cast off by her family for marrying the Castle chaplain, and through her there are connections to the aristocratic Babrahams. These details are important; both the Whitebillet and Babraham connections figure crucially in the saga of the siblings a few years later on.
Oliver, at the age of twelve, is the proud curator of a stamp collection while Jane, a year younger, yearns to participate in her brother’s hobby. Through maternal machinations on behalf of Jane and a set of rather devious circumstances – the mother of the family exhibits a strongly manipulative technique which her daughter fully inherits – Jane attains a half-interest in the collection, and proceeds to contribute a number of rare and unusual items to the album, including a one-of issue of a purple-brown (“puce”) Antiguan one-penny stamp, the only surviving example of a lot which has gone to the bottom of the sea in a ship wreck.
Aha! That’s the explanation of the rather odd title. Antigua, penny, puce. It’s the description of a postage stamp! I did not grasp this until I started reading, at which point it became as clear as day.
Time marches on, and Oliver and Jane grow up and go their separate ways, with varying degrees of success.
With the assistance of her childhood friend Edith Whitebillet – a scientific prodigy – and her own single-focus ambition, Jane has become first a highly successful actress and then the brilliantly manipulative proprietor of a theatrical company known as Jane Palfrey Amalgamated, consisting of actors whom she has groomed and renamed to each fill a very defined character with a strong appeal to public sentiment of one sort or another.
Oliver has gone through his school career and on to Oxford aiming for and just falling short of his desired goals in every aspect of his endeavours. He only makes the Second Eleven in football, misses the scholarships he aims for, and generally places as an also-ran in everything he does. Now he’s deeply involved in writing his first novel, which he has stellar plans for, but samples we are given of his prose style make it very clear that in this too Oliver will be less than successful.
Oliver is by nature rather pompous and quickly belligerent; his clever sister runs rings around him now as she did in their younger days. First as a joke engineered to raise his ire so she could examine closely his mannerisms when taunted – one of her stage characters is based on her blustery and rather laughable brother – Jane reminds Oliver of her half-ownership of that childhood stamp collection, and announces her intention of coming to take away every second stamp. Oliver’s subsequent tantrum swings Jane over from merely joking to deadly serious about this intention.
Much devious work on both sides now goes on, as Jane and Oliver are well-matched in their desires to not let the other get the better in any sort of confrontation. A series of wins, losses and draws ensues, with the titular Antiguan stamp as the catalyst of their many explosive altercations.
Robert Graves was nothing if not a well-prepared author. His attention to detail was legendary, and even in this “light” novel he includes a plethora of background information on every subject he touches upon. This article, from a website dedicated to his work, details the research and process of writing Antigua, Penny, Puce. Absolutely fascinating!
As well as being a well researched author, Graves has a strong sense of humour and a very readable, deeply satirical way with words. He examines the real world, translates it into a fictional one, and rather maliciously – though never mean-spiritedly – probes and lays bare the absurdities he finds.
Little Raven says it well; she approves, too.