Victorian humour generally doesn't translate well across time. The Wrong Box is one of the exceptions. The plot revolves around the supposed death of Joseph Finsbury, who, as a youth, with his brother Masterman, joined a tontine - a scheme whereby each entrant pays a fixed amount and the sum total, with interest, is given to the one who lives the longest.
At the beginning of the story, there are three survivors and then two - the Finsbury brothers. Joseph is guardian to two boys and a girl, Morris, John and Julia. He was responsible for the boys' legacy of £30,000 and invested it unwisely in his failing leather business. The money has all but disappeared, and on reaching adulthood they want their inheritance back! Uncle Joe must be kept alive at all costs. Then there is a train crash....
The novel was either ignored or strongly criticised when first published, not least one suspects because of the irreverent attitude to death and its attendant rituals, subjects which commanded huge respect and veneration almost amounting to obsession from the Victorians. It is, however, a hugely entertaining story with a convoluted, complicated plot that can defy comprehension - but it is of no matter!
A cast of gloriously eccentric characters certainly had a comic effect on one notable literary figure of the period. "I laughed over it dementedly when I read it. That man [Stevenson] has only one lung but he makes you laugh with your whole inside." (Rudyard Kipling)
The Wrong Box is one of the most darkly funny stories I've ever read. And for it to have been written by Robert Louis Stevenson seems nearly a miracle. Of course Stevenson was far more than the author of "boy's books" like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. (I'm not knocking those: I re-read them nearly every year and wonder anew at their brilliant characters and swashbuckling plots.) He wrote many serious and adult-oriented stories, like The Suicide Club and his South Sea Tales, which I'm only now beginning to read. But nothing prepared me for The Wrong Box.
The humor is as close to the gallows as it can get. Much of the action involves a badly mauled body that keeps getting moved from one container to another. There are cousins, hilariously distinct in personality, who scheme against each other for a large fortune either may inherit (but not both). Or, maybe more accurately, one of them schemes, and the other, a cheerful and high-functioning drunk, counter-schemes in self-defense. It's all played out at breakneck speed and with plot twists worthy of the most over-the-top farce.
Peter Joyce reads it with delightful brio, getting heaps of mileage out of the vividly contrasting characters. I listened to it with great pleasure, and it expanded my awareness of what Stevenson was capable of.
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