A Castle In England is the latest in multi-faceted explorations of the history behind single structures, having been preceded by Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Richard McGuire’s Here, and Vincent Mahé’s 750 Years In Paris. It might be more structurally straightforward than any of these, offering brief slices from real events with the comics section bringing to life meticulous text portions of the history, but that doesn’t mean its impact is necessarily slight.
Focusing on Scotney Castle, located in Kent, author Jamie Rhodes spent four months living there, and the research that resulted inspired these stories of the different families who lived in the castle, each realized by a different cartoonist. The historical events themselves are fascinating, and the stories concocted to present them to readers are consistently intriguing, often harrowing, and occasionally depressing.
The first story, “The Labourer,” depicts a period of revolt in 1381 when the country, under the rule of a young King Richard II, must pay for a pricey war with France and bleeds its citizens dry with taxes to do so. The actions started in Kent and Essex and spread to London before a gruesome end, but historical texts point to the possibility that the revolt manifested as some point in the fury at Scotney Castle. Jamie Rhodes’ story with Isaac Lenkiewicz illustrating follows a laborer’s son whose poor abilities at doing the work demanded of him leads to hand-wringing by his parents and fury for himself, requesting a role in the growing revolt.
In the following story “The Priest,” Briony May Smith’s scratchy renderings take us back to an incident involving the Darrell family, devout Catholics who lost a daughter in a marriage to a Protestant and then secretly during the reign of Elizabeth I house a Catholic priest who becomes their personal spiritual leader. In theory, this speaks to the intensity of the family’s belief, but in presenting religion as a means of control, the family itself seems like a group of victims, persecuted by the monarchy and held captive by the father, Thomas Darrell, when the only thing that seems important to them is survival.
“The Smuggler” is a more frantic piece concerning Thomas’ great-great-grandson, Arthur, who, though master of the castle, is rumored to be in with smugglers. William Exley’s story picks up in the middle of smuggler action, following a Revenue Officer as events lead up those that would cause Arthur to fake his own death. It’s a speedy story, well-rendered in Exley’s chaotic style, but feels a little slight after the previous two, with perhaps the most interesting information about it relegated to the historical notes accompanying it.
“The Widow” concerns the Clive Family during the mid-1800s, and portrays a period of transition for the castle from a dark place to one of light. Part of this comes from the young inheritor Edward’s refusal to honor the castle’s history, and therefore its gloom, and instead, use parts of it to reconfigure a proper manor house. Historically, Edward and his mother were health fads and gadgets of the times, represented in the story and perhaps manifested in the castle as a sick building that Edward must heal through destructive surgery. Becky Palmer’s sepia presentation is also the most metaphorical in the book.
In “The Hunter,” which takes place in the early 20th Century, features the Hussey family, who inhabit the mansion apart from the castle, now mostly a ruin. Most of the action takes place far from the family home as son Arthur travels the world exploding with manliness and sending the exotic trophies that result back to crowd the family home. The more his mother dismisses his efforts, the more outlandish Arthur’s trophies become, and the more the property becomes the province of the women there. Artist Isabel Greenberg takes a more abstract approach than the previous stories, which unites the alienation the reader feels to both situations being portrayed.
Separately, each story stands, but probably doesn’t pack the same punch as they do as a collection. The idea of spaces and structures playing host to multiple dramas over periods of time has interested plenty of others in comics, and A Castle In England manages to make this conceit its own. It’s concerned with the enormous swathes of history for sure, but it realizes its goals through the smaller, more intimate details of people.
These are related in a brisk sweeping style which at times prevents you from getting drawn into the specific situations as much as you could be, but the work is bold enough that you are still affected despite the brevity. Thematically, it works beautifully, since these are lives that are being swept up by the movements of history. These are little moments on the broader story and Rhodes does well to represent them as significant parts of a whole story without giving them an overwrought quality that would take away from the expanse.