Quentin Letts must be the most prolific journalist in Britain. His devotion to duty makes the late Comrade Stakhanov look like one of the Drones Club’s more assiduous loafers. Not content with doubling up as the Daily Mail’s parliamentary sketchwriter and drama critic, he writes regular regular op-ed articles for the paper and fronts entertaining Radio 4 documentaries. Somehow he has now found time to write his first novel; but before discussing what the book is, it is worth saying what it isn’t.
Letts is well known for holding a low view of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. In column after column he has excoriated the Speaker for his conduct in the chair, while Bercow’s unfortunate private life since he succeeded to the office in 2009 has been lovingly chronicled by the rest of the media. So you might well grab a copy, seduced by the title into thinking that a book by Quentin Letts called The Speaker’s Wife will be a racy account of the humiliation of the holder of that distinguished office by a blonde, pneumatic, publicity-addicted wife who towers over her spouse, drinks too much, makes a fool of herself on a television “reality” (i.e. utterly unreal) show and finally admits to a torrid affair with her husband’s cousin. Letts’s publisher perhaps concluded that nobody would believe such a ludicrous plot and urged him to come up with something a bit different while retaining the title, despite the risk of prosecution under the Trades Description Act.
The result is a much more interesting novel than you might expect. It is on the surface a comedy based on the House of Commons, displaying all Letts’s habitual wit and comprehensive knowledge of parliamentary procedure, along with a deep-rooted cynicism about the characters who inhabit the place. In style and approach, it is reminiscent of John Mortimer’s Titmuss political trilogy, but where Mortimer was a weary old rationalist, Letts looks for something deeper.
The core of his novel could not be more topical: the battle between religion, in the shape of a decaying and defensive Church of England, and secularism, in the form of Augustus Dymock, dubbed “the Don of Doubt” by the press, head of the Thought Foundation and promoter of Reason Week. He is at the heart of a dastardly alliance involving various corrupt MPs and a property developer whose aim is to slide a bill through a comatose Parliament which would expropriate all the CofE’s churches and turn them into housing (at enormous profit to all concerned, of course). Fighting an apparently losing battle against the forces of modernity is the Speaker’s Chaplain (which should really be the book’s title, although you can understand why the publishers might have jibbed at it) — Father Tom Ross, a disillusioned near-alcoholic whose heart lies in the King James Bible and his gloomy Herefordshire parish, a tragi-comic figure lurching from one disaster to another in an alien capital city.
Letts handles his plot skilfully, with only one obvious clunker, a preposterous arranged marriage between the property man’s daughter and a mysterious Indian, and it races along to a satisfying climax, with a tragic coda thrown in to counterbalance the comedy.
Dare one hope that Letts’s promising debut might herald the rebirth of the political novel? The genre has been in a bad way for decades, although thriving on television with such hit series as House of Cards and The West Wing. Perhaps its decline reflects the faceless nature of contemporary British and European politics. Now we are entering more uncertain but exciting times. Who but the novelist, after all, could do justice to the resurrection of Jeremy Corbyn?