The Fly on the Wheel by Katherine Cecil Thurston


If you love nice long sentences, this is a good book for you. It was published in 1908, the year my father was born, and is set in Waterford, Ireland. The Irish author was successful, having been the first author to have two top-ten best selling books on The New York Times list in one year (1905). She died when she was only 36.

It tells the struggle of one family to become middle class in contrast to the remnants of another family that had lost its money and status. Barny Carey was ambitious to become middle class and had specific plans for his seven sons in this order:  lawyer, priest, architect, engineer, banker, sailor, doctor. His business failed and he died young, but his son Stephen did become a lawyer, married well, had two children, and shepherded the others into their fields. The youngest was studying medicine in Paris when he met and fell in love with the daughter of the other family who had just finished school and was preparing to return to Waterford.

Because Isabel’s family no longer had money, or, apparently, middle class standing, Stephen strongly disapproved and determined he would end the alliance. When they met, Stephen was charmed by the voluble Isabel and she was taken with him. Frank made the journey from Paris to plead his case which involved showing her the poison he would take if she spurned him. We have here a case of Chekhov’s gun showing up in the first act, so we are ready for it to reappear. Frank meekly returned to Paris to complete his studies and it is Stephen and Isabel who prepare to abandon their middle class mores.

The title of the book refers to a person who overestimates their own importance. The old priest tells Isabel the story of the fly who tells the mule he can make him move faster by stinging him. The mule assures the fly that it is the man with the whip and reins who controls him. Isabel rejects the notion that Stephen can be as fine a man in Waterford as anywhere and believes that she could sting him into being a great man in London or New York.

I do love a book with long florid sentences, and here’s a good one. Stephen, as a youth, had dreamed of the world beyond his home where a fortune was available to the adventurous, but had compromised his ambition as required by his country.

In Ireland the bread of expediency is the staff of life, and Stephen Carey had early seated himself at the frugal board. If now, in these later days, a ghost of the lost ambition ever glided behind his chair, pointing a wavering hand towards the great market-place of life, where the fountains flow to quench all thirsts, only his eyes saw the passing of the shade:  none guessed that for a moment his achievements shrank to their true proportion, and the good substantial bread became as ashes in his mouth.

Shepherding and subsidizing six brothers counts for nothing?

I count myself fortunate to have happened onto The Fly on the Wheel. At various points along the way, I was surprised by the direction this book took. I loved learning a bit about Waterford and its crystal from Wikipedia.

Katherine Cecil Thurston, The Fly on the Wheel, Virago Press Ltd, 1987 (first published in 1908), 344 pages. Available from the UVa library.

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