The plot of The Ship of Stars revolves around three contrasting families, those led by the Rev. Samuel Raymond, Squire Moyle and Sir Harry Vyell.
The Raymond Family
Firstly there is the family of Raymond, consisting of the Rev. Samuel Raymond, his wife Humility, their son Taffy and Humility’s invalid mother, Mrs. Venning. Samuel Raymond, a typically English figure, originated from Tewkesbury, is senior curate at Bodmin and is offered Nannizabuloe as his first parish.
Squire Moyle and Family
The living is in the gift of wealthy Squire Moyle, an unstable combination of bloodthirsty sportsman and religious neurotic, whose antiquated dress betrays him as a relic of the eighteenth century. His granddaughter, Honoria Callastair, whose parents died in India, lives with him at Tredinnis (tre – homestead; dynas – fort), spending her days humouring or evading his eccentricities.
Sir Harry Vyell and Family
Raymond’s churchy Anglicanism fails to satisfy Moyle or the Cornish parishoners, who are more attracted to revivalistic Methodism, symbolised by the Bryanite preacher Jacky Pascoe. Neither does it impress the secular and sophisticated Sir Harry Vyell. Sir Harry is the epitome of a Whig aristocrat as Moyle is of a Tory squire. The home of the Vyells could well have been modelled on the Elizabethan house of Trerice, now a National Trust property. Young George Vyell has all of his father’s appetites, without his intellect. Below the agreeable manners of the family is a callousness, which later in the novel rebounds upon Sir Harry, making him on the death of his son a figure of tragedy. In this he ranks above Moyle, whose death partakes of Gothic horror rather than of Greek tragedy.
Raymond’s demise, occasioned by dedication to the reconstruction of the church and the defeat of the forces of anarchy, is more noble than Moyle’s or Vyell’s, although it is a low key affair and happens off-stage. Of all the main characters Taffy alone remains triumphant at the close of the novel, yet it is triumph riven through with bitterness. Having inherited his father’s stubborn sense of duty, he dedicates himself not to God, in whom he no longer believes, but to humanitarianism and the cause of Trinity House.
The Opening of the Novel
The first two chapters, set in a county town easily recognisable as Bodmin, introduce the reader to all the main characters of the novel, except for the Vyells. In the town square Taffy meets Squire Moyle, who is about to offer the living of Nannizabuloe to Samuel Raymond, and Honoria Callastair, whose face is partly hidden by a Leghorn hat – no doubt the gift of a smuggler. That night Taffy experiences a premonitionary dream of the Quiller variety. Chapter III has the Raymond family aboard the Vital Spark, a coach owned by J. Job. From the writings of W.F. Collier we learn that ‘Vital Spark’ means ‘gift of life’. The family are journeying to the north coast of Cornwall, to Nannizabuloe by St. Annes or St. Agnes, the birthplace of Zephania Job of Polperro. The wild nature of the parish is attested to in that Job refuses to drive his coach beyond the Indian Queen, a hostelry on the western edge of the Goss Moor. The hostelry is still there today, and was used by Q in Castle Dor, It is to the Indian Queen that Linnet and Mark Lewarne resort for a publicans’ dinner and from which Linnet and Amyot Trestane elope. The more cautious Raymonds indulge in only a light repast. With the family are a group of carefree sailors, one sporting a tattoo of a ship of stars and the initials ‘W.P.’
The End of Innocence
On reaching Nannizabuloe, the Rev. Samuel Raymond is confronted with a dilapidated church, an indifferent parish and an unstable patron. Taffy is introduced to the pleasures of country life by having his face smeared with the gore of a recently dismembered fox. Immediately afterwards he views a cock-fight in the parlour of Tredinnis, with Squire Moyle and Sir Harry Vyell as the sponsors. Gradually Taffy is befriended by Honoria and George Vyell, enabling Q to create scenes of rural idyll. The three are tutored by Samuel Raymond, with Taffy as the most intelligent, Honoria as the most acute and George as the most sluggardly. Behind these episodes of youthful innocence rises the disquieting shadow of Squire Moyle, whose instability is enhanced by the arrival of Jacky Pascoe, the Bryanite revivalist. A craving for instinctual life and a terror of final retribution leave Moyle as a pawn before Vyell’s cynical secularism and Pascoe’s religious emotionalism. He craves for an experience of ‘conversion’ to heal his divided nature. Moyle and Raymond are beyond each other’s comprehension. Moyle’s disillusionment with Raymond, whose religion is a sedate Anglicanism, results in the desecration of the church. With this Taffy’s period of innocence comes to an end. The transition from innocence to experience is enhanced through a visit to a Plymouth pantomime organised by Sir Harry. In the colour, movement and vitality of the theatre, and the air of sophistication exuded by Sir Harry, Taffy encounters a ‘secular baptism’. One is reminded of the religious Simon Dedalus on a beach outside of Dublin in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Conflicts and Disasters
The Rev. Samuel Raymond’s sensitive nature never quite recovers from the shock of the desecration. In the immediate aftermath, Raymond and Taffy, helped by the repentant Jacky Pascoe, endeavour to rebuild the interior. Taffy is apprenticed to a nearby smith so as to effect the ironwork. Unfortunately, he encounters Lizzie Pezzack, the sensual and simpleminded daughter of the local lighthouse keeper. Her advances are refused, but Honoria’s suspicions are aroused. In accordance with his desire to convey the dangerous nature of the north coast, Q punctuates the parish conflicts with maritime disasters. In one wreck the body of the tattooed sailor, whose songs had enlivened the journey in the Vital Spark, is washed upon the sands. Did Q see in his mind’s eye the body of John Quiller, whose remains had come ashore a little further to the north? Yet the horrors of the coast are not drawn on as luridly as the ‘devil hunt’, instigated by Jacky Pascoe, led by girating Lizzie Pezzack and lashed to red heat by Squire Moyle. There is scarcely a more grotesque or fantastical scene in Q’s writings. It results in the death of Moyle and the disgrace and departure of Pascoe.
Through his manual work and intellectual occupations Taffy drifts apart from Honoria, ever more isolated at Tredinnis, and the dissolute George. Sir Harry sees Honoria as a match for his son. Loneliness and Taffy’s romantic indifference forces Honoria to accept George. They marry and honeymoon on the continent. Taffy wins a place at Oxford, escaping for two terms of academic calm. Following the death of Samuel Raymond, he returns to discover that the financing of his tuition fees had been by Honoria; a fact which comes to light when she suspects Taffy of having fathered Lizzie’s child and withholds further contributions. Taffy decides to renounce Oxford, repay the money and confront George, the rumour-monger. In severe weather the Samaritan runs aground near where Taffy has found employment rebuilding a lighthouse. Wreck and rescue follow, but in the confusion little Joey Pezzack disappears. He is finally discovered by George, who loses his life in saving the child. Honoria, still childless, discovers the father of Joey to be George Vyell. Taffy is offered extended employment by Trinity House on the north coast of Wales. He accepts service in lighthouse construction as an alternative to the clerical profession of his late father as his faith in God has disappeared. Before leaving, Taffy is courted by the widow Honoria. Although rejected, Honoria convinces herself that the mature and practical man she sees departing is a creation of her own, whose soul she will always possess.