The Quincunx  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Quincunx is the epic first novel of Charles Palliser.

Published in 1989, The Quincunx was a surprise hit. Set in early 19th century England, it charts the fortunes over a number of years of a single mother and her young son, through the eyes of the latter. Through a complex web of scheming and conspiracies by relatives and others, they fall from comparative wealth to poverty and eventual destitution. The book is notable for its accurate and evocative portrayal of English life at the time, covering the breadth of society from the gentry to the poor and from provincial villages to metropolitan London and dealing with the eccentricities of Georgian English land law. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that the narrator may not be as objective as the reader probably assumes.

The book is obsessively researched, and includes period maps of key locations in London -- but not of the country estate at Hougham, a key location.

The book follows a theme of the number five - it traces five branches of one family over five generations, as they circle and maneuver around a fortune being determined in Chancery, and which of several wills (and one codicil) will be found valid. The book is divided into five parts, one named for each branch of the family (although they don't necessarily focus on that branch of the family, but are still primarily told from the point of view of one character, John Huffam.) The family branches are The Huffams, The Mompessons, The Clothiers, The Palphramonds, and The Maliphants.

Each part is then divided into five books. And each book is then divided into five chapters. In general, in each book there are four chapters from first-person narrative of John Huffam, and then one chapter about other characters in a much more detached Dickensian tone, very similar to the way Esther Summerson's narratives are alternated with others stories in Bleak House.

In at least one case, this pattern is reversed, and there are four chapters about other characters, and only one about John Huffam.

As the chapters go by, quatrefoil roses from the family's crests are displayed at the top of each chapter, and at the beginning of each book, and you begin counting them down. At the end of the book there are five "quincunx" arrangements of five roses each, showing all five families' devices. This becomes an important visual clue later in the book, when a code of a sort must be broken using the heraldry as a guide.

Five parts of five books of five chapters each makes 125 chapters of this slowly unfurling story. The patterns continue, as at the very central chapter in the book, which is the 63rd one, the third story of the third book of the third part, there are five subsections, and what is revealed there, if the reader is perceptive, will make the plot clearer at the end of the book. (Palliser leaves it to the reader to figure out one key fact, which John Huffam only alludes to obliquely in the last few pages.)

At the end of each large "part" of 25 chapters, a partially revealed family tree is given, showing the parts that John Huffam has figured out, and some characters are shown on the tree who do not yet have a known connection to the family, but are displayed later.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Quincunx" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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