Monthly Archives: January 2007

Heirs and Graces: Woodside Farm by Lucy Clifford (1902)

This is rather an odd romance; it doesn’t start out like one at all. The heroine is Margaret Vincent, a fact stated in the first line. But we hardly meet her until chapter five. The first four chapters deal with her parents – how they met, the years of their marriage, her father’s circumstances, and I can’t help but feel that were the MS of this novel to be sent to an agent or a publisher these days it would summarily rejected for not starting with enough oomph. And yet, this background is important to the story, because without it, we would not understand the events that follow. To summarise, Margaret’s father was the practically penniless younger son of a debt-ridden and extravagant noble family. His wife, a farmer’s daughter some years his senior, unaware of her spouse’s background.

The plot involves Margaret’s gradual introduction to the friends and connections of her father’s youth, including the spiteful ex-fiancée who jilted him on his declaring his agnosticism – she was the daughter of a bishop. Margaret herself is pursued, stalked even, by a local grocer’s assistant, determined to marry her although having ostensibly got to know the family to pursue her elder half sister, a female of unpleasantly fundamentalist outlook. One of the ex- connections takes a shine to Margaret, and she to him, however, the ex-fiancée has determined that he will marry her daughter, and sets out to put a spoke in their wheels. The twists and turns of the course of true love make up the rest of the story.

In Mr Garret the grocer’s pursuit of Margaret, I was reminded of the equally unpleasant pursuit of Hulda by her cousin Ivo in Cousin Ivo, by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, and also of the novels by Mills and Boon author Louise Gerard, although in the latter case, it was always the hero who behaved so unpleasantly.

I think there is also an echo of late nineteenth century pastoralism in the highly educated sophisticate finding sanctuary in a rural fastness only for his daughter to narrowly escape the corrupting influence of his ex-fiancée. Although of course, it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. The rural idyll isn’t that wonderful, and not all inhabitants of his former life are corrupt.

It’s worth a read, if you can find a copy; it’s not that hard to come across, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to track it down.


Arrr, Jim Lad: Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

It’s been years since I read this; I think I must have been in my teens. I’ve read Kidnapped more recently, but I’ve never paid that much attention to Stevenson’s adventure tales. This is the archetypal pirate adventure, a real swashbuckling story of buried treasure, double-dealing and murder, and it sparkles as much today as it did when first published. It is equally popular, as evidenced by the huge number of sites devoted to it on the web, and by the number of catch phrases from it that have moved into popular consciousness and the language at large. Extraordinary for a Victorian novel. In fact, so successful has it been, that a genre which might have died with Queen Victoria is still spawning descendents, as such entertaining farragoes as the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean ultimately owe their existence to it.

While it operates at one level as a coming of age story, it is also a quest story. The two often go together. The plot follows the standard format for such tales – at the start the hero, Jim is a child, but by the end he has matured to the extent that he has outwitted the most bloodthirsty of pirates and secured the treasure. As with all quest stories there is the call – the discovery of the map, the gathering of companions, and then the journey through increasingly difficult experiences to the final confrontation with the villain. As in many such quests, one of the companions proves false and this gives impetus to the plot. It is of interest here as this false companion, the villain, Long John Silver, is not as black as such villains usually are, but is a more morally ambiguous character, and indeed for part of the novel acts as a role model for Jim. Unusual for a Victorian children’s novel. Of course, Jim is ultimately triumphant, overcoming this false friend and finding the treasure by himself. Thus the group of companions owe their success in their venture to him.

This is an eminently readable novel, with marvellous characters and a zippy plot, if not quite in the modern style. I love it.

You can download the complete text at Project Gutenberg, or here among many other places.

Wikipedia has an excellent synopsis and literary assessment, but there are many similar resources available.

Editing never stops

I’ve decided to start on a re-edit of the beginning of my previous novel, rather than try and continue with the current one at the moment. Inspiration is still far away for that. I wonder if this is a form of procrastination?

At least I will be doing something constructive, and I’ve been growing increasingly uneasy about the beginning of the previous novel. It needs to start with more of a bang I think. I can’t think what possessed me to write a prologue. Well I can – I wanted to set the scene, provide the catalyst for the story. But set-up is set-up, and immediately slows the pace. And pace, it seems is everything. If the story doesn’t hurtle along to its conclusion, it won’t stand a chance. What I need to work out is, which bits of information given in the prologue, need to be inserted elsewhere in the narrative.

Horns of a dilemma: The Betrayer by Violet Needham (1950)

This is the fourth of Needham’s novels that deal with Richard Fauconbois, and it takes place several months after the end of the House of the Paladin. In it a former member of the dissident party that Dick worked for, decides that things are not going as they should and that the young Emperor must be removed. Working with a hired assassin and a woman seeking revenge for her brother’s death, they begin to stir up trouble. However, Dick’s mentor, Far Away Moses is concerned about his old friend, and Dick is soon involved. He is faced with the unwelcome need to reconcile loyalties to various groups of old friends and his determination never to betray them brings tragedy in the end.

As an adult, I began to feel more sharply than ever the lack of an ideological context to Needham’s various revolutionary groups. These conspire to replace various bad monarchs with good ones rather than do away with monarchy altogether, which would ring more truly. However, at least with earlier novels there really was a bad monarch to be dealt with. Here, the entire conspiracy seemed very artificial, and although the dilemmas faced by Dick are a sign of his maturity, I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied with this book.

This book is not as easy to come by as earlier novels, and this was the first time I had read it.

See also
The Black Riders
The Emerald Crown
The House of the Paladin

Due North: Susannah of the Mounties, by Muriel Denison (1936)

The fish out of water or lonely orphan being sent to stay with strange relatives is a common trope of children’s literature. Here Denison gives it her own spin. Susannah is not an orphan, but is merely being sent to stay with a relative while her parents are posted elsewhere in the British empire of the 1890s. It must have been a common occurrence for the children of middle ranking administrators of the British empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this case the relative with whom Susannah is sent to stay (with virtually no notice whatsoever) is a bachelor army officer posted in the wilds of Canada. She is not welcome.

However, despite a sad habit of disobeying the rules, Susannah soon wins the hearts of minds of those around her, including those of both her uncle and the fort commander. There is also a sub plot or romance between ‘Monty’ a young man Susannah meets on the train to Regina where he joins the Mounties, and Vicky the commander’s daughter. Since he’s only a trooper things don’t look too great for them, but in traditional style he turns out to be an aristocrat, so it’s OK.

Apparently the book was made into a film starring Shirley Temple, but the storyline seems to have been drastically if the synopsis is anything to go by.

I first read this when I was eight or nine, I think, and I enjoyed it then. I never realised Denison wrote a number of sequels. I would have enjoyed reading them also. While apparently no longer in print, Susannah is readily available second hand. My paternal grandfather did not approve of Susannah. I recall that he gave me a copy of Psmith in the City to wean me away from such rubbish. I won’t pretend it’s on a par with Wodehouse, but children should still find it entertaining.

Heiring off: Cousin Ivo, by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1899)

Another romance from the pen of this Anglo-German writer. Attentive readers who noted my previous post on this author will recall that she originally published this novel under a pseudonym. Like the previous Sidgwick novel I reviewed, this involves one of the main characters travelling to Germany where they Meet Their Destiny. In the case of this novel, it is the hero who is English.

The hero, Jem has suffered a Disappointment. His love has married a fat, elderly lord for his money. He immerses himself in work to Forget. He is a lawyer, and is sent by his firm to track down the relatives of a deceased German expatriate, to tell them something to their advantage. He does this and it turns out the heir is an heiress with whom he is quickly besmitten. Sadly despite being a lawyer, Jem’s finances are not what they could be, and being a gentleman he feels unable to ask the fair Hulda to marry him. She meanwhile is pursued by her dastardly cousin Ivo, who is determined to marry her and secure the inheritance. Naturally, all turns out well in the end but not without much heart stopping excitement.

The narrative is split between a first hand account by Jem, and Hulda’s diary, so we get to see what both the principals think about each other – as well as the inevitable misunderstandings that fire the plot. I was also interested to note the acknowledgement that in British society there was a developing uncertainty about Germany and immigration. This exchange early on, reflects this.

“Mr Berneck was a wealthy manufacturer. He left his native country at an early age and settled in ours.”

“It’s a way they have,” I murmured.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and it’s worth a read if you can find a copy.

All tensed up. Present or Past?

What is it with tenses these days? I picked up a book this morning at the library that looked extremely promising – all sorts of accolades in the blurb and it was a debut, which I try and make a point of reading. But on flicking through it, I realised it was written in the present tense so I put it down. I’ll admit I’m old fashioned – I like my narratives in the past tense and while I’ve written a couple of short stories in the the present tense I can’t imagine sustaining it for an entire novel. I deliberately chose present tense for effect, to make it more immediate, given the types of stories they were (ghost stories).

And yet present tense narrative in fiction does seem increasingly popular with writers. Choice of tense doesn’t seem to be something that’s necessarily related to genre – the book I put down today was a contemporary crime thriller, but I’ve seen present tense narrative used in historical novels, but mostly ones I gave up on I have to say.

Is it a thing of personal taste in the same way that I’m not over fond of first person narrative, or is there something else to it? Indeed does it reflect a change in the language where we can relate events that occurred in the past in the present?