Elizabeth Garner’s second book, The Ingenious Edgar Jones, is a slight and eloquent tale of a young boy growing up in 19th century Oxford, interwoven with a quiet magic and the age-old struggle between science and religion.
It follows Edgar Jones as he grows from a wilful toddler to restless child, a boy happy to climb trees and clamber through bushes, but far too impatient to learn to read. However his intelligence manifests in other ways, encouraged by a series of metalworking apprenticeships and a furious sense of adventure. Edgar’s story is complemented by those of his parents. His father is a traditionalist who finds that his love for Edgar and his respect for the institution of Oxford are a difficult match; his mother is a seamstress striving for some small measure of independence through her trade, her actions a faint echo of those committed by her only son. And when their lives start to unravel, all three of them do so together.
I picked this novel up from the fantasy section of Borders, but it easily could have been shelved (or classified) as ‘regular’ literature. Although there are a number of supernatural flourishes at the start and the end of the book, the bulk of the narrative is rendered magical by the prose alone. For example I thought that the wrinkled old dame who was fortuitously present for Edgar’s birth, and who acts as his mother’s confidant for most of the novel, must be some sort of faerie – but she was nothing of the sort. And although Edgar may have been born on a rare night of shooting stars, with a thin line of fur running the length of his spine and the careworn, knowing face of a “man who had already lived his life,” the events of his birth have little impact upon his subsequent development as a quick-witted inventor and rebellious young man.
The oppressive hierarchy of Oxford is key in shaping this novel and its main characters, both the men and the woman. As one character exclaims in the first 50 pages, “Only think of the way the world is set! A woman is a daughter, a wife and a mother, and that is her lot in life. But a boy can be anything that he sets his heart upon.” Unfortunately, the unfolding narrative shows this comment to be half-true at best, for the choices of the men in this novel are clearly constrained by class rather than gender. Edgar, for all his intelligence, finds it impossible to rise above his station – due to his age, his parents, and his unfortunate illiteracy – and his father, despite being raised in the college and therefore fairly well-read, only ever becomes a night watchman. This rigid social order pervades of the novel, and could perhaps be considered Edgar’s main antagonist.
Although the minimal touches of the fantastic and the time spent fleshing out Edgar’s apprenticeships at the expense of the ending (a rushed and therefore slightly unsatisfying affair) might make some readers frustrated, The Ingenious Edgar Jones is an excellent novel overall. It’s definitely worth reading, and beautifully set-up for a sequel should Elizabeth Garner ever chose to write one. We can only hope!...
Verdict: Read it! For the prose, or the plot, or both. You won’t be disappointed. 4/5 stars.
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