"Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."
" 'I quite dote upon Miles Lufton,' these ladies would cry, 'and it is a great shame that he should be so poor, for he is a delightful creature. We must get him a seat, we must get him a place, and help him to grow rich'. They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness and my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead."
A subtle, complex novel, perceptive about its characters and the class systems by which they lived, it portrays all Miles' dreams slipping away:
"I saw, in Paris, a painting by David which recalled Edmee to me; a young girl drawing by a window, who turns to look at the new-comer just as she turned from her embroidery frame. By what genius is that evanescent magic caught by the painter! Long after we are all dead she will glance up from her drawing-board with a look that shall recall, to men unborn, the loved and the lost, -- the transport of an hour, the regret of a lifetime."
Young girl drawing Marie-Denise Villers, pupil of J-L David
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Miles purchases a house in Wiltshire for his future retirement, called Troy Chimneys, once Trois Chemins for the three roads which meet before it, and with a river below the house.
"I sat in the window seat of the larger parlour and watched the slow, liquid play of the sunlight upon the ceiling, with its reminder of the constant current passing below. This particular has always delighted me in Troy Chimneys. …upon a sunny morning...the passing of time never presents itself in a more agreeable fashion; I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and the water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling, -- the same sun, the same river, -- only the current gives the illusion of change. I already saw myself living there and beholding it daily…and the stream of time, rolling ever past us, might carry away all that I wished to forget."
The author moves her narrative backwards and forwards in time, between the 1780s and 1818, with diaries, memoirs and family correspondence, and the recollections of a later Victorian generation, gradually revealing Miles Lufton's compelling story. But, as his Memoir says:
"In any case, time will not run back. Not even the river at Troy Chimneys does that, where time runs at its gentlest. Elsewhere he tramps forward. 'And the foot of Time advanced!' "