An abiding impression of the Victorian period is its mania for being straight-faced to the point of seeming strait-laced, for order and precision, for enumeration and explication. The Times affirmed that ‘just now we are an objective people. We want to place everything we can under glass cases, and stare our fill.’ Gathering the Water tells the story of the 1847 flooding of the Forge Valley in West Yorkshire for a reservoir in a fussy, finicky Victorian way. And the problem is not staring our fill, but finding enough to fill our stare.
Charles Weightman, the narrator, is the ‘flooder’ charged with supervising the evacuation of the remaining habitable homes in the valley before the water comes surging in. But such a summary actually — and drastically — over-dramatises the little that happens in the novel, which could be more efficiently rendered as: Weightman waits and weightily watches. His narration comes to represent a simple stock-take of the stock characters he meets along the way: the strong, unattached female (‘I was always considered the more valuable catch. No sons in the family’); and her sister, a madwoman let out of the attic, for example.
This is padded out with lengthy musings that busily tell us absolutely nothing. Take this anodyne anecdote, with its futile spasms of parenthetical self-translation:
I have made my first significant error. I daresay there have been inadvertent others — countless small miscalculations and misjudgments that the rising water has quickly erased, leaving that mirror in which only perfection is reflected — but I call this the first of my significant errors — perhaps ‘deceit’ would be more honest — because I was complicit in its making, by which I mean it was the result of a decision on my part where other, more honest courses still remained open to me.
Indeed, the author is so keen to be matter-of-fact in the Victorian manner that he forgets entirely about the more important matter of fiction. This is a story almost entirely without remarkable incident. The closest we are given to a diversion worthy of a 19th-century novel of sensation is when Weightman is confronted by a ‘maelstrom’ in the water, ‘a cataclysm which could not be ignored’. What we actually get is a whirl-puddle less than two feet deep and ‘eight or nine feet in diameter, and slow-moving, though with an appreciable increase in speed as it progressed’. Weightman gets his feet wet; the reader’s interest is dampened by ditchwater-dull prose. Like this digression, given at absurd length while the maelstrom rages:
Throughout our conversation he called me ‘mester’. It is a hybrid of a word, born of and meaning both master and mister and all points in between. The scope of its additional meanings, twisted one way or another by the slightest inflection, was limitless. It might mean a dozen different things in the course of a single conversation from the lips of one man, depending on how he feared or favoured you in your dealings with him. Written down, the word acquits itself of all bias by being spelt ‘maister’.
This sort of writing is more autistic than artistic, the hypnotic specification of minutiae to serve no narrative purpose. Indeed, one of the few pleasures of reading the novel can be found in challenging oneself to spot the most spectacularly banal assertion. The mester/maister dissertation above is beaten into a well-deserved second place by the following (and note especially its first sentence, which has a sadly inescapable truth to it):
I did not allow myself to become over- imaginative in my fabrications; I merely addressed each stream through an understanding of its morphology, its flow and its gradients, and made predictions which, eventually, the rising water would allow to be neither proved or disproved.
Readers who wish to find a fictional treatment of the period that is as lifelike but less lifeless can be directed to Mick Jackson’s vital The Underground Man (1997), which winningly details the likeable life of the fifth Duke of Portland. Regrettably, the interest-free account of Charles Weightman — the underwater man, perhaps — feels like rather less of a worthwhile investment of your time.