What an adventure! The Black Riders, Violet Needham (1939)

I must have been nine or ten when I first read this book. My copy had belonged to my mother when she was a child and is a 1940 edition. I loved it. It’s a stirring tale of secret agents and revolution, with the eleven year old hero at the heart of events.

The story opens when Dick Fauconbois (the names are always vaguely French) who lives some miles outside The City (always un-named) the capital of The Empire (also un-named), meets up with a man named Far Away Moses, driving a gypsy caravan. Dick helps him escape from a troop of Black Riders (some sort of mounted police) and they take shelter with the owner of a nearby castle who goes by the nickname of Wych Hazel. The dreaded Count Jasper, Governor of the Citadel follows and nearly catches them, since Wych Hazel is not a good conspirator, and nearly gives them away. But they escape and Dick returns safely home.

A year passes, during which Dick meets others of the Confederation – a revolutionary (and yet pro-monarchist group), who want to replace the existing emperor with a newer model, rather than a different one entirely. The politics is never gone into very deeply, the adventure is much more important for Dick, and one assumes for the intended audience.

There are plenty of desperate chases, moral dilemmas and races against time, to thrill the most bored of children, and the values are always solidly middle class British despite the foreign setting. All ends happily when the old emperor dies, leaving Far Away Moses (rescued from a firing squad by Count Jasper’s intrepid daughter) and Count Jasper to come to terms.

I’ve said elsewhere that I feel that The Empire is reminiscent of the pre-WW1 Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one could certainly take The River as similar to the Danube. The illustrations by Anne Bullen don’t give a 1930s feel to the story.


12 responses to “What an adventure! The Black Riders, Violet Needham (1939)

  1. emily pender

    dear cas,

    i agree that violet needham is compelling reading…i love the ruritanian atmosphere and the kind of decayed aristocratic atmosphere. also the drama of dick holding out psychologically against the governor,(in the black riders) who is trying to force him to betray his friends….there is often a theme in her books about a child under enormous psychological pressure, often surrounded by hostile adults, don’t you think? tho i haven’t been able to get hold of many of her books. i understand she came from a very aristocratic family that had come down in the world, if i’ve understood it correctly. there often seems to be a theme about restoration too, triumph through adversity of the hero or heroine. (she has some good heroines too, brave and stroppy, like the girl duchess in the house of the paladin) have you read the others about dick fauconbois? the house of the paladin is as far as i’ve got. the others sell for absolutely humungous prices on e-bay but i live in hope of finding some at a fete or an op-shop. a kind of modern day treasure hunt, instead of a jewelled chalice, i’m hoping for a copy of the Red Rose of Ruvina or Richard and the Golden Horseshoe

  2. You’re right about the recurring theme of a child under pressure – The House of the Paladin (which I’m going to review in the next day or so) is a classic example. Sadly I haven’t been able to get hold of any past tHotP either and I would love to. I keep an eye out on ABE books but prices are as bad there.

  3. emily pender

    I have a spare nice copy of The Betrayer, if that is any help.(nice Collins edition with DJ).I dabble in childrens books on e-bay. And I also have a copy of The Stormy Petrel (not a spare but I’m sure we could arrange something).I also have a spare House of the Paladin (also nice Collins Seagull with DJ)let me know if you would like one of these.(maybe by private emeail if that’s posible?)..do you like Monica Edwards too? Storm Ahead is a fabulous book, also about a most believable girl confronting her fear to help another child. BTW, Abe books I think is very expensive. There’s an Australian site called booksandcollectibles.com which is much more reasonable than Abebooks -you’d get the advantage of the exchange rate too(I’m assuming you’re in the UK -I’m in Australia). They have quite a bit of V.needham, but the rare ones are still pretty expensive. There’s a very pleasant bookdealer who I think works out of Sussex (where v.needham lived I think) who I’ve had some correspondence with on e-bay -she has V.Needham too -I think she’s called Jane Badger at BadgerBooks.you probably already know this, but there’s a publishing group called Girls Gone By, who are reprinting VN’s books -I think they’ve done two or three including The Emerald crown, which has the stormy petrel in it. hope this is not all preaching to the choir
    Great to find another VN enthusiast.

  4. Hiya … I managed to get a copy of this book on Amazon last year (not great quality, but it was the story I wanted) for much cheapness. Reading it again was just magical. The password is Fortitude! The book was one of many read to our class when I was 9/10 and I loved it – the mysterious names and the thrilling adventure stayed with me always. I’m now studying to become a teacher – and it’s definitely one I’ll be reading to the next generation!

  5. Hilary Clare

    Glad to hear of Violet Needham enthusiasts. Have you found the new website of the Violet Needham Society?
    Girls Gone By are about to bring out The House of the Paladin and will be doing the rest of the Stormy Petrel series in due course.

  6. Hi Helen,
    It’s good to see the new Needham site. I reviewed the House of the Paladin in September. It was always one I liked.

  7. Roberts, M “The Mystery of the Man in Black, Children’s Literature in Education 28:1 1997 – Michele Roberts describes re-reading “The Black Riders” as an adult.

  8. jeremy c. barnes

    I first read this book over 60 years ago! it has vividly remained in my memory as not only being an outsatanding book of thrilling reading which gave me as small boy in an orphanage from 5 years old a treasured memory and great excitement. I have always tried to obtain a copy but never found one. Thank you Violet

  9. Dale Komander

    Bless you forever! I loved this book when I was a child and have spent years trying to remember the title. I have so often googled the name “Wych Hazel” without success, and now – bingo! Many, many thanks.

  10. Madeleine Marie Cochrane

    I was born in 1939 and was reared on the heady romanticism and heroism of Violet Needham’s books, particularly those which featured Richard Fauconbois a.k.a. The Stormy Petrel; I have read all the publications except the Sword of Cyprian.
    I am an English and History graduate and consider that I owe a great deal to to the principles, sentiments and passions which are overt in these books. They have nurtured many qualities within me which have diverse results. When I teach French or History I tell French or European history stories to my students as a reward – this results in numerous students eager to have historical excursions to Europe so they can share in my passion for European history.
    The young heroes and heroines in these books experienced many vicissitudes and faced numerous psychological challenges but demonstrated great spiritual integrity: indeed the password was “Fortitude”!
    These characters made a difference to me when I was growing up. I now live in Australia and my children are adults but I still collect the books in the hope that my grandchildren may join me in this idealistic passion.
    I also still travel at 71 years of age by myself to parts of Europe every year to explore places I have missed. I really do thank Violet Needham’s inspirational books for the pleasure I am still enjoying.

    I am still collecting her books – but alas at rather inflated prices. However, I consider they are worth it!!

  11. Richard

    The most ‘mythic’ of Violet Needhams’s novels, THE BLACK RIDERS,
    is structured as a sequence of multiple journeys through darkness (death) to light and love.
    Dick, opens the novel longing to join his deceased parents – hence his neutral handling of Far Away’s expressed death wish – loving farm-life, failing in school and with remarkable persuasive power. He meets a guide and escapes, through a limestone underworld, to a magical place of 11th century masonry, romantic music and perennial gardens. He falls in love. Dick follows his guide and love to a land of shepherds, only to discover he cannot turn-back and must die-to-self.
    Praying for Fortitude, Dick is reborn, as a circus performer. He suffers a third death/rebirth on death-row, then a fourth on transfer to Souvenir.
    Whatever his circumstances, our pilgrim alters those whom he meets; a will-to-live for his guide; sleep and peace for a regiment traumatized by war; conversion of his jailor and an autocracy.
    The Black Riders is furthermore structured as a double-story-molecule of two principal characters, who prove other than first appearance. Jasper is introduced as a cold, deadly power against whom young Dick is no match. In fact, Jasper is the novel’s protagonist and Dick is the antagonist who inspires his friends to choose life and love.
    We come to another Needham sleight of hand. Needham introduces the word FORTITUDE as a password, a fancy synonym for courage. In fact, Fortitude is an infused virtue, a participation in Providential Charity. Far Away tells Dick to pray for the virtue, to cope with his isolation, and Dick does so. His prayer is answered and Dick’s ever growing Fortitude will affect others as a psychological and spiritual buoyancy. By novel’s end, with core psyche and relational flames burning strong, Jasper has grown, a foster father to his royal ward and nation.
    With The Black Riders, Needham created a Children’s Epic. Observational reality is used to ground larger-then-life characters and forces in a plausible universe. The operative power, Fortitude, is continually referenced, but is nearly invisible.

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