The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg (Hodder, £10.95).
FOUNDED on historical fact, ,The Maid of Buttermere tells the 'story of Colonel A Hope, who by meeting Mary Robinson was to inspire one of the most extraordinary scandals of the 19th century.
Good looking, strong, and immensely plausible, Colonel Hope MP made his way to the newly fashionable Lake District. His object was to exhort money and respect from the well-to-do, an ambition easily realised when aided by his remarkable powers as an actor, and his finel sensitivity in recognising the snobbish and fortune hunting gullibility of his prey.
Caring nothing for natural beauty, with his eloquent and impassioned praise of Cumbria, Hope insinuated himself into the affections of rich and poor alike, representing himself as a possible and highly eligible husband for the former, and finding release of his more physical desires amongst the latter.
But it was his meeting with Mary Robinson which was to turn the imposter from a careless philanderer into something almost resembling a saint.
Mary, or the Maid of Buttermere, was already famed for her exceptional beauty. Writers had celebrated her, and the curious made pilgrimages to see her. But such attention served only to force the girl into a frightening isolation, a selfimposed aloofness, since although she longed for love she mistrusted the men who sought her, believing that her own' beauty made her untouchable.
But on meeting Hope, she seemed to discover a corresponding sympathy. Both underwent an apoealiptic cohesion, real love was immediate, culminating in Hope's first true action of
honesty to himself in marriage with her.
The trust between them, however, was shortlived. Coleridge's imagination was fired by the story, and in an article for the Morning Post, he described this romantic union as well as remarking that Hope was already known to be paying court to another girl "of beauty and fortune", Miss Amaryllis D'Arcy.
Coleridge went further, and questioned the identity of Hope; the article was to herald his downfall. Public interest was ignited, Mary and Hope could no longer remain in romantic isolation, and the wrath of Miss D'Arcy's guardian, the pompous and slightly ridiculous Colonel Moore, was provoked. Not only had Hope betrayed the Colonel's ward, but he had also mocked Colonel Moore by his action. Along with many others, Moore set out to expose and prosecute the imposter. The chance identification by a judge finalised the matter, proving Hope to be masquerading under another's name and reaping the attendent benefits.
Hope yet eluded his captors, escaping across water where he was briefly joined by Mary who, though bewildered and deeply hurt by his deception, was still greatly in love with him, as indeed was he with her. But rather than force Mary to lead the life of a fugitive, apart from the more obvious practical reasons in that her beauty would cause their immediate apprehension, Hope deserted her.
On her return home, Mary discovered letters proclaiming Hope not only an imposter, but also a bigamist, and in her desperation betrayed him. Because Hope has weakened and allowed the intervention of his emotions to thwart his ambitions, he invited his downfall that was eventually not only to lose him Mary, but also his life.
If slow moving at the start, The Maid of Buttermere is a cleverly balanced and very readable novel. Melvyn Bragg succeeds in taking two historical characters and investing them with finely woven sensibilities which not only bring them alive, but also secure the reader's deepest sympathy. For although Mary appears in many ways an ideal in virtue and beauty, she has also many humanising
failings. , Hope, more complicated, inspires respect as well as sympathy, for in his increasing awareness and dependence on Christianity and love for Mary, there is the portrait of a remarkable and apparently invincible man in the grips of terrible torment which led to his redemption. His love for Mary induced an honest longing for God and his salvation, which proved stronger than his powers
as an actor. Repentant, he concentrated instead on a real love of mankind.
Possibly the novel loses momentum towards the end, when Bragg seems to turn increasingly towards historical data, leaving behind the inevitable power that so successfully animates two such distant figures. Dependence on actual documentation leaves the prose dry in contrast with the passionate description and narrative force which characterises the bulk of the novel.
Possibly the cast is too big — too many 6ndeve1oped "grey" characters to haunt the periphery of the main story. Nonetheless, the romantically described Cumbrian scenery provides ' a magnificent backdrop to the story of two people of tremendous magnetism, and one is left impressed and inspired.