Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensign Carey by Ronald Welch

Ensign Carey, the eleventh (and second-last) in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series, begins unconventionally with a burglary. In a gritty Victorian London setting, an impoverished young blueblood robs the house where he was a guest the week before, then murders an accomplice who seems a little too curious about his real identity.

It quickly turns out that this character is not, in fact, our protagonist and the latest Carey whose adventures we'll be following through some pivotal moment of history... but it's a brilliant opening to one of the more unconventional of the Carey series, an opening that manages to neatly foreshadow just about everything else.

Because William Carey, our actual protagonist, is not a particularly heroic figure either. Selfish to the point that he's never felt true sympathy for another human being, William Carey is an idle young man who prefers slumming in the London underworld to study or honest work. An encounter with a billiards sharp provides William with his first real ambition: to become a billiards sharp himself, and use his skill to line his pockets.

After a drunken horse race at Cambridge goes terribly wrong, William is sent down in disgrace and forced to enlist as an ensign in the extremely uncelebrated Bengal Army. William endures his purgatory in the heat and boredom of life in India in his usual way, but trouble is in the air: not just for him, but for all the English sahibs in Bengal.

I often feel that plotting is not Welch's strong point, and as with many of his other books, this one, while never dull, is not particularly tight. But it made up for this with some terrific characters, plus opening and closing chapters that form deliciously ironic bookends for the story.

Ronald Welch's heroes usually have a character flaw to overcome, but none of the ones I've read are so close to sociopathery. William is a genuinely repulsive character, but I was impressed by how well-written he was. Welch is always showing him doing understandable or even thoughtful or brave things, and then just as you think William has grown and learned, yank! out comes the carpet from under your feet, as you learn the truly selfish motivations William has for his actions. This is not to say that William doesn't grow or learn: by the end of the story, he's risen to the occasion in a number of ways, and managed to feel sorry for someone not himself. But I was fascinated and impressed by the deftness of the characterisation here, which never completely breaks your liking for this character, despite all his avarice, low cunning, and gutsy determination to live comfortably on the misfortunes of others.

It was huge fun to have a black-sheep protagonist for a change. After all, not all families turn out generations of unblemished military heroes. But my favourite thing about this book was what Welch did with this character in the end. I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that William does not get away with the fruits of his misdeeds. I am a huge fan of morally compromised characters in fiction, as long as the author doesn't then attempt the belly-dance of moral relativism in an attempt to get me to approve of their wrongdoing. Ronald Welch is not, on the whole, that kind of author. He's the ruthless kind, and I loved it.

That said, it is nice to have a rather more heroic Carey in this book. The protagonist of the previous instalment, Nicholas Carey, turns up in this one to provide a foil for what William might have been if he was less selfish. Of course, Nicholas had his own character arc from apathy to sympathy in his own book, and it's interesting that in both the books Welch wrote in a Victorian setting, he was savagely critical of the vices of young Victorian men.

Another part of this critique of Victorianism crops up in the India passages. I know that the case against colonialism is often over-stated these days (at least one Indian intellectual has dedicated significant time to exploring the benefits of colonialism in India), but Welch has some thought-provoking things to say. He depicts, without overt judgement, a life of idle luxury which depends on armies of native servants to do the exhausting work of keeping the sahibs and memsahibs comfortable; and he blames the Sepoy rebellion, at least partly, on the fact that few of the British officers took the trouble to learn the names or language of their men. I don't know how historically accurate all this is (Welch's book Knight Crusader, while pretty fair considering how little scholarship had then been done on the history of the Crusader States, is not a miracle of historical accuracy), but as usual with Welch, it's even-handed and level-headed.

I particularly enjoyed this installation of the Carey Family Series. With a delightfully unpleasant protagonist, and an ending that is as ironically satisfying as anything I've every read, this book surprised me in all sorts of delightful ways.

After years out of print, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is briefly available in beautiful heirloom-quality limited editions from Slightly Foxed. Find Ensign Carey on their website, or better yet, check out the whole series. It's very good! Generally appropriate for middle grade and up, although this book and the next in the series, Tank Commander, include some PG-13 level swearing.

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