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A trio of elegant English novels for the Anglophile reader

The Gentlewomen, by Laura Talbot. Introduction by Polly Devlin. New York: Penguin/Virago Modern Classics. 280 pp. $6.95 paper. Fielding Gray: A Novel, by Simon Raven. New York: Beaufort Books. 208 pp. $13.95. Gentlemen in England: A Vision, by A. N. Wilson. New York: Viking. 311 pp. $17.95. What reader of fiction does not recognize the poignant figure of the governess, that poor, plain, perceptive spinster struggling to maintain her dignity in the limbo-land between master and servant?

Her sister believes that Laura Talbot (pen name of Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot [1908-1966]) would have liked to have been a governess in the bygone days when she might have served royalty or the higher nobility. But surely not such a governess as Miss Roona Bolby, the protagonist of Talbot's third novel, ``The Gentlewomen.''

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Unlike the classic Jane Eyre-style governess, plain of face but noble of heart, Miss Bolby is beautiful -- in the lingo of her youth, a ``scorcher'' -- with huge violet eyes, but very little heart. She has had ardent suitors, but none ``good enough.'' Snobbery has consumed her life.

When we meet her, Miss Bolby is a middle-aged gentlewoman leaving a dreary private hotel in Birmingham for a position as governess at an aristocratic country house. Gradually, with consummate skill, Talbot unveils the heartlessness beneath the pathos. Not only is Miss Bolby her own worst enemy, but she also does irreparable harm to another gentlewoman, the truly ``gentle'' Miss Pickford.

First published in England in 1952, this quietly devastating novel, critically undervalued in its own time, is indeed a gem: clear, bright, sharp-edged.

If Miss Bolby is a person in difficult circumstances who turns out to be worse than her milieu, Fielding Gray is an arrogant young man whose situation turns out to be far worse than he. ``Fielding Gray,'' the first of Simon Raven's widely admired 10-novel series, ``Alms for Oblivion,'' takes us back to 1945. This is the first American publication of this postwar English novel. Its hero -- an outstanding student with a brilliant future at Cambridge awaiting him -- makes a mistake that will alter the course of his life. The complications and catastrophe that overtake him have more to do with Fielding's hubris -- and his relative innocence -- than with the initial transgression.

Fielding's story is told through his journal in a voice that is at first slightly off-putting: cool, clipped, and callow. But as the story unfolds, the solid ground on which he has been standing crumbles beneath him. Fielding is an artless sophisticate in a world far harder and more devious than he -- or we -- first imagined. When he believes he is suffering for his selfishness, the more appalling truth turns out to be that he is actually being victimized by those more selfish and less scrupulous than he.

The novel's tonically bitter theme of dashed expectations and blighted hopes is all the more chilling because its hero does not consider himself particularly worthy of the sympathy we come to feel for him.

Tersely written, tautly elegiac, ``Fielding Gray'' should win many enthusiastic readers in this country.

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The title of A. N. Wilson's latest book comes from Shakespeare's ``Henry V'': ``And gentlemen in England now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here. . . .'' In this case, ``here'' is not the battle of Agincourt, but late Victorian England, where Wilson's increasingly bemused characters are, in Matthew Arnold's words, ``wandering between two worlds'' in an era rich with contradiction, which seems still richer and sweeter in retrospect. Laden with literary allusions, studded with cameo appearances by Victorian luminaries, steaming with the scientific, religious, and aesthetic controversies of the day, lightly and fantastically comical, yet filled with moments of luminous insight, this is one of Wilson's most ambitious and successful novels to date, second only to his ``Wise Virgin.''

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