September 2023

The Romantic

By William Boyd
Review by
The Romantic spans most of the 19th century, and William Boyd is both interested in and very knowledgeable about the period. Fascinating details hum beneath the exuberant plot.
Share this Article:

There’s a bit of the trickster in William Boyd’s delightfully engrossing 17th novel, The Romantic, which purports to be the biography of a real man named Cashel Greville Ross (1799–1882), drawn from an oddment of journals, letters, sketches and maps (some of them reproduced herein). With a wink, Boyd writes in his author’s note that Cashel’s story is best told as fiction.

And what a story it is! Orphaned as an infant when his parents’ ship sank, Cashel is raised by his loving aunt, a governess in County Cork, Ireland. He leads a downstairs childhood until the revelation of his true parentage so upsets him that he runs away from home. At 15, he becomes a drummer boy and is gravely wounded in the Battle of Waterloo. That experience gives Cashel cachet with the infamous Romantic poet and wannabe soldier Lord Byron, with whom Cashel strikes up a friendship some years later in Italy, along with Percy and Mary Shelley. The sharp-eyed chapters about this poetical crowd—their privilege, dalliances and tragedies—are some of the novel’s greatest pleasures.

When the self-regarding Byron throws a party for Cashel (a fete that turns out to be a celebration for Byron himself), Cashel meets Contessa Raphaella Rezzo. They share a this-is-the-one moment, but unfortunately, she is married to a wealthy man almost 50 years her senior. With the help of a conniving servant, Cashel and Raphaella carry on an affair, which is eventually brought up short by a lie Cashel is foolish enough to believe. For him, she is the touchstone of love, but he will not see Raphaella again for 40 years. Cashel, it turns out, is unlucky in love but mostly fortunate in adventure.

Cashel goes on to live a Zelig-like existence, standing at the edges or unseen in the midst of historical moments. A sprightly comic element recurs: For every success, there is a disaster, and after every disaster, Cashel eventually lands upright. When Cashel writes two bestsellers—a travel book and an anonymous roman a clef—his publisher steals his royalties. Cashel ends up in debtor’s prison, out of which grows an idea to found a Utopian colony in Massachusetts. And so it goes.

Cashel’s life spans most of the 19th century, and Boyd is both interested in and very knowledgeable about the period. Humming beneath the exuberant plot are fascinating details ranging from the life of a military drummer boy to the class privileges available in debtor’s prison. Issues of money, power and privilege also reverberate. And of course there is Cashel, a good-hearted innocent whose luck and haplessness make The Romantic such an enjoyable read.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

The Romantic

The Romantic

By William Boyd
ISBN 9780593536797

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.