Friday, March 24, 2017

Escape from France by Ronald Welch

Book 8 in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is Escape from France, a fast-paced adventure set during the French Revolution. I first stumbled across Ronald Welch's stirring adventure stories for boys at our local library, which still owned a few of the old Oxford University Press hardbacks, and Escape from France was one of the books I read. At the time, I considered it an exciting story, but also less substantial than many of the other Carey Family books I'd read, especially my favourite, Captain of Dragoons.

So I was interested to see what I would think of it lo these many years later, as an adult.

We meet Richard Carey at Cambridge, a capable but arrogant young man who easily deals with all the challenges that come his way--whether it's academic study, a crooked bookmaker with a pugilistic bodyguard, or a ne'er-do-well cousin who must be rescued from his gambling debts. Meanwhile, however, political conditions are deteriorating across the channel in pre-revolutionary France. When the Careys' distant cousin the Marquis of Vernaye is arrested, Richard's father (the 7th Earl of Aubigny) and uncle (international hellraiser Sir Rupert Carey) commission Richard to cross the Channel to France and rescue the Marquis's family.

Richard laughs at Sir Rupert's wild stories and wilder advice. But once landed in France, he finds that the once most civilised nation on earth has become a more dangerous place than he imagined. To make matters worse, cousin Armand is determined not to escape until the Marquis of Vernaye can be rescued from the feared Abbaye Prison itself. In a France beset with spies, informants, adventurers, card sharks, and duellists, Richard begins to realise that Sir Rupert may not be as crazy as he thought...

This story reminded me very strongly of two other books, GA Henty's In the Reign of Terror and (of course) Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Indeed I'm sure there have to have been a lot of other books written about heroic Englishmen crossing the Channel to rescue French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Given that, it's tempting to ask what Escape from France adds to the conversation.

In some ways, I don't know that it tries to add much to the conversation about the French Revolution and as usual, Ronald Welch shies away from investigating too closely the ethical questions inherent in the period of history he's writing about. The Marquis of Vernaye is said to have been kind to his tenants, while other aristocrats and the ancien regime at large are shown to have been oppressive. One thing I liked was that there are sympathetic characters and villainous characters among both the aristocracy and among the republicans, and one main character is shown to be a moderate republican who remains loyal to his country despite the Terror--I felt there was a good representation of a few different perspectives.

Ronald Welch is worth reading for two main reasons. One is the depth and accuracy of his military history, and his best books (like Captain of Dragoons and Tank Commander) tend to focus on wars. I actually missed that focus in Escape from France, which seemed a little more romantic and less grounded in tone.

There's another main reason to read Ronald Welch, though, and that is his continual discussion of masculine maturity. Escape from France is about a young man who thinks himself competent, but has really lived a short and privileged life. It's only when he finds himself alone and on the run in France, without any of the advantages of being an Earl's son in England, that he begins to realise how much he has to be humble about.

Escape from France is an exciting, fast-paced adventure through revolutionary France. I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it, together with the rest of the Carey Family series, for children and young teens. The series has been out of print for many years, and is currently being reprinted in limited clothbound editions for Slightly Foxed, so get a copy while you still can!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

DEATH BE NOT PROUD cover reveal and release date/ONCE freebie

Hello, friends! I'm just popping my head in to tell you that the Death Be Not Proud standalone will release on March 27 - next Monday! It will be available in ebook format and also illustrated paperback.

(Once again, the illustrations are by my talented little sister Abigail, who keeps getting better. Click here for a preview!)

You want to see the cover? I know you want to see the cover. Here's the cover!

As usual, I started designing this cover on the side, as I worked on the very first draft of the story. In the end, it went through many, many more drafts than the story itself did!

Design note: that's not actually black there against the red. I tried black, but it didn't stand out well. However, when I altered it to a very very very dark green, the effect was much better. Why? Because green is opposite to red on the colour wheel, which means that the colours contrast more vividly.

And now you know.

Anyway, in case you missed it, Death Be Not Proud was originally released in December 2016 as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales boxset. Which is available right now for free on Amazon, one day only, if you haven't had the chance to read it yet! So, go ahead and grab that if you haven't already, because it also features five other stories besides mine.

But--if you enjoyed the story itself--when Monday comes, do consider nicking off to order the Death Be Not Proud paperback (so that it can sit next to the Rakshasa's Bride paperback on your shelf, looking colourful). I need hardly remind you that Suzannah Rowntree books make excellent birthday presents, paperweights, and flyswatters.

Keep an eye out for the Death Be Not Proud standalone, coming Monday, and add the book on Goodreads while you wait!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Eothen by AW Kinglake

I'm still a little amazed that I got sucked into reading travel non-fiction; after all, you would think that there were few things less interesting than listening to someone telling you in exhaustive detail about his holidays in places you've never been. On the other hand, as I attempt to write convincingly about such places, a bit of travel non-fiction has certainly come in handy.

William Dalrymple, surely the most entertaining travel writer of recent years, cites 1830s traveller Alexander William Kinglake as one of his inspirations. Since Kinglake also roamed through the Levant, stopping at Smyrna, Cyprus, Nablus, Cairo, and Damascus, I decided to read his account of his journey. The prospect was tempting on account of being a look at travel in the Levant before the upheavals of the twentieth century, but I was a little surprised by how very entertaining it was.
It is the plague, and the dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other.  All coming and going stands forbidden by the terrors of the yellow flag.  If you dare to break the laws of the quarantine, you will be tried with military haste; the court will scream out your sentence to you from a tribunal some fifty yards off; the priest, instead of gently whispering to you the sweet hopes of religion, will console you at duelling distance; and after that you will find yourself carefully shot, and carelessly buried in the ground of the lazaretto.
Armed with this dry wit, a small army of long-suffering servants, and the kind of swagger that Englishmen abroad could command in those days (which has now transferred itself to the Americans), Kinglake sets out on his journey into the Ottoman Empire. He spends an evening with the famously peculiar Lady Hester Stanhope in her ancient monastery in the Lebanon. He gets lost and almost starves on the east side of the Jordan, is told off by a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem for not joining a clerical brawl with the Greek Orthodox, sightsees in Cairo during a plague epidemic that kills half the population, and pretty much has the time of his life.

Modern readers might find Kinglake's attitude toward the locals rather snobbish and condescending - and so it is, although I don't believe moderners themselves are any less so when beholding their forbears. One of the local traits that strikes Kinglake about the inhabitants of the then Ottoman Empire is described like this:
[T]he Sheik explained to Dthemetri the grounds of the infinite respect which he and his tribe entertained for the Pasha.  A few weeks before Ibrahim had craftily sent a body of troops across the Jordan.  The force went warily round to the foot of the mountains on the east, so as to cut off the retreat of this tribe, and then surrounded them as they lay encamped in the vale; their camels, and indeed all their possessions worth taking, were carried off by the soldiery, and moreover the then Sheik, together with every tenth man of the tribe, was brought out and shot.  You would think that this conduct on the part of the Pasha might not procure for his “friend” a very gracious reception amongst the people whom he had thus despoiled and decimated; but the Asiatic seems to be animated with a feeling of profound respect, almost bordering upon affection, for all who have done him any bold and violent wrong, and there is always, too, so much of vague and undefined apprehension mixed up with his really well-founded alarms, that I can see no limit to the yielding and bending of his mind when it is wrought upon by the idea of power.
I think Kinglake is often guilty of sweeping generalisations, but it was interesting that this theme kept cropping up in many of his dealings with the locals, so as to bear out his observation that "You will find, I think, that one of the greatest draw-backs to the pleasure of travelling in Asia is the being obliged, more or less, to make your way by bullying." Personally I think this has to still be something of a generalisation, because every human being has eternity in his heart and knows the worth of liberty and grace. But I also think it's no accident that people ruled for so long by a religion that sees God as a principle of total, raw power should finally extend their worship of power into their daily lives like this. 

Not all of Kinglake's generalisations seem as valid as this, and generally he views the local people among whom he travels the same way Mr Bennet viewed his neighbours. This results in an interesting sort of two-level effect, where Kinglake is laughing at the oddities of the people he travels among, and the modern reader is laughing at the oddities of Kinglake. In fact, I'm convinced Kinglake was aware of this - he spends plenty of time laughing at himself and his people, not just at those he calls "Asiatics". There's the hilarious passage where he passes another English traveller in the desert: the hope that the fellow-countryman won't disturb his privacy by attempting to speak to him; the embarrassment and then resignation when their servants stop to exchange greetings; the social tact and delicacy necessary to speak to a gentleman one hasn't been introduced to and isn't particularly interested in, on matters of mutual interest. There's an equally funny passage where Kinglake, lost in the desert and suffering from thirst, shocks a pair of Bedouins considerably - but I risk giving away too much.

Eothen, Or, Traces of Travel Brought Home From the East, to give it its full title, was quite simply a lot of fun, compounded by the fact that it's not just a journey to far-away places, but also back in time.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Book Sacrifice Tag!

I haven't finished reading any fine vintage literature lately, so I don't have a review to post today. Instead, a few months ago there was a rather hilarious bookish tag going around the blogosphere, and I thought I'd fill it out. Here unapologetic thoughts on 5 books that I could definitely do without.

#1: An Over-Hyped Book

Situation: You are in a bookstore when the zombies attack.  Over the loudspeakers you hear the military announce that over-hyped books are the zombies' only weakness.  What over-hyped book will you chuck at the zombies?

The Hunger Games. Seriously. It's not that The Hunger Games is a bad book - indeed it's better than a lot of the YA fiction I've dipped my toes into - it's just that then I read Red Rising and realised that it was everything I'd wished The Hunger Games had been, and wasn't.

#2: A Sequel

Situation: You are caught in a torrential downpour and you're probably the type who melts when you get wet.  What sequel are you willing to use as an umbrella to protect yourself.

Maybe this is cheating a little, but let's say Zorro: A Novel by Isabel Allende. The original Zorro of Johnstone McCulley's pulp novel The Curse of Capistrano (no, I'm not kidding) was a swashbuckling hero who dashed about with sword, pistol, and black horse righting injustices and stealing hearts. In Isabel Allende's dour, sour reboot of the story, highbrowishly subtitled ~*A Novel*~, Zorro rates high on gender equality and racial inclusivity but fatally low on suavity, swashbucklery, dashitude, or fun.

#3: A Classic

Situation: You're in English class and your professor won't stop going on about a classic that "revolutionized literature". Personally you think the classic is garbage and you decide to express your opinion by hurling the book at his head.  What classic is that?

The Great Gatsby. I did not like that book. Now that I am grown, I suspect that I was not meant to like it, but where is the point of reading something meant specifically to annoy? Down with you, Gatsby.

#4: A Least Favorite Book

Situation: You're hanging out at a bookstore (where else would you be?) when global warming somehow manages to to turn the whole world into a frozen wasteland.  Naturally, your only hope of survival is to burn a book.  Which book would you not regret tossing into the fire?

To this day the worst book I have ever read is Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber. *shudder* I could probably keep warm for a century burning the planet's supplies of Forever Amber, and the world would be a better, brighter, braver place for it. But I'm actually not sure I could face ten minutes with nothing to read but a giant pile of my most loathed book of all time, let alone a century.

#5: A Series

Situation: There's a flooded stream you have to cross on your quest and you can't get your feet wet.  Which series (oh yeah, btw, you brought your whole bookshelf and also probably local library with you) will you use as stepping stones?

I never told the kind friend who loaned me this series at the time, but I could barely stand John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began series and after the only character I liked died at the end of Book Three I loathed it. (Sorry, Alice). You probably have never heard of this series, but it's basically Red Dawn in Australia, and while looking back I can appreciate certain aspects of the storytelling, which could be very gritty and brutal, mostly the memory just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (Also, the premise is kind of ridiculous. Australia is overrun in a night or two by some unspecified Asian nation, really? And none of our allies want to help us...except New Zealand? Seriously? I love NZ, but they aren't exactly a military powerhouse...and, they make fun of our accent.)

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Song of the Cid, trans. Burton Raffel

Regular readers of this blog will know that I generally take the few weeks after Christmas to work my way through an epic poem of some description (because for thousands of years before the invention of the novel, the epic poem was where you went for great fiction). This year, I really wanted to read The Song of the Cid, a chanson de geste from roughly the same time period that I've been researching for the last couple of years. Last year I'd read another chanson, the great Song of Roland, and was surprised to discover how much bearing it had on the Crusader history I was reading - from clues dropped in the poem that it was written during or shortly after the First Crusade by someone familiar with its discoveries, to its overriding concern about the antithesis of history between Christian and pagan.

My interest in The Song of the Cid was whetted by the fact that it had recently been published in a new translation by the legendary Burton Raffel. As a result, I was happy to postpone reading the poem until after I'd got my hands on the new translation (thanks Mum!). I devoured it over the last couple of weeks, and as usual where medieval literature is concerned, I loved it.

The Song of the Cid, like The Song of Roland, is a story from the Spanish frontier, set amidst the wars between Christians and Moors. The opening of the poem has been lost, but by this chance we are dropped straight into the action. The Cid, already a legendary warrior in the service of King Alfonso of Castile, has been given nine days to leave the kingdom. We find him in tears, leaving his home at Vivar. Then it's into the saddle and away into exile in the Moorish borderlands between Toledo and Valencia. Forced to part from his beloved wife and daughters, no money to take with him, a following of only a small band of faithful friends, and no chance of finding safety and rest except in whatever towns he can conquer, the Cid faces annihilation.

Still, the legend is not for nothing, and bit by bit the Cid fights his way into wealth and a kingdom, even regaining Alfonso's good graces through his loyalty and generosity. But it's when a pair of unscrupulous fortune-hunters set their eyes on an alliance with his family that the Cid proves his true worth.

Mio Cid

Like Roland, the Cid, Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, was a real historical personage. And similarly, his story has undergone a great deal of embellishment in the transposition from historical figure to folk hero to knightly paragon of a chanson de geste. The historical Rodrigo Diaz, for instance, was exiled multiple times and may not have been as unswervingly loyal to his king as the poem depicts him. But, by the time the poem reached its final form (no later than 1204, and potentially decades previously) the purpose of the anonymous storyteller (or storytellers) was to hold him up as an example for other knights to follow. Chanson de geste literally means "song of heroic deeds"; the literary form calls for a certain kind of aspirational paragon as its hero.

The Cid of the poem, himself, is a less flawed character than the war-fain Roland. But despite, or perhaps because of this, he's a warmer character, and the poem seems to depict a warmer, gentler story world. One of the first things you'll notice reading the poem is that throughout, the Cid is referred to not as "the" but rather "my Cid". Partly, this is grammatical correctness. Rodrigo Diaz's nickname originated as the Arabic "Sayyid", lord, rendered into Castilian as "Cid". One speaks of one's overlord as my lord. And yet, from the very beginning of the poem, there is a wonderful literary effect as the poet follows the adventures of "my Cid": the audience is warmly included among the few loyal warriors following the Cid into exile. And that's just the beginning. Maybe it's just me and my particular affinity for this time period, but I found this poem an unusually submersive experience. By the end of it, I realised that to some degree I must have been reacting to the plot in much the same way that its original hearers might have.


As Maria Rosa Menacal points out in her introduction to the text, you might expect that the substance of this poem would be the clash between Christian and Moor (as it was in The Song of Roland). To be sure, the Reconquista forms the historical backdrop, but it forms very little of the story and the conflict at the poem's heart. The Cid's most significant enemies are his Christian rivals at the court of Alfonso and the arrogant Carrion heirs who seek his daughters' hands in marriage. In the first Moorish town he captures, the Cid leaves only after enriching the Moorish citizens there with some of the plunder he gains raiding neighbouring towns; understandably they bid him farewell with reluctance. The Christian count of Barcelona attacks the Cid at the head of a combined Moorish and Christian army in Canto 1, and in Cantos 2 and 3, the Cid's most trusted ally is the Moorish ruler Albenalgon. The unknown poet takes some time impressing us with Albenalgon's courtesy and nobility, and it's hard not to conclude that we're meant to compare this behaviour with the savage and arrogant conduct of the Cid's enemies.

The message of The Song of Roland was that there is ultimately no peace between Christ and Mahomet, which, in a way, is correct. But I'd be slow to conclude that The Song of the Cid had discovered a more humanist interpretation of this conflict. Rather, it is concerned with pointing out the ways in which professing Christians may be more heartless and wicked than heathens. After all, the antithesis does not just run between armies; it runs through the centre of each individual heart.

The Song of the Cid certainly sees it as the Christian's duty to fight the heathen. The fighting Bishop Don Jeronimo is, as the Introduction points out, the only character in the poem who fits the stereotype of bloodthirsty Christian warriors inexorably rolling through Moors (he's nowhere near as lovable as Roland's Archbishop Turpin), but the poem commends him for his attitude. At the same time, however, the poem also commends the Cid's attitude to war. He has an endearing habit of saying a loud and grateful prayer of thanksgiving every time he sees Moorish armies roll up to his doorstep wanting to annihilate him, but he usually waits for them to come to him: as he declares after one victory:
"My victories, Lord, come
At your pleasure: Moors and Christians fear me.
In far-off Morocco, inside their mosques, they hear me
Coming in the darkness, and they tremble,
Though conquering them is not my plan.
I'm not on the hunt: right here is where I am,
In Valencia."
And although the Cid's methods often seem piratical, as I read the poem, I thought this attitude made all the difference. The same attitude is evidenced earlier, when the Cid forbids his men to take their booty and return to Castile:
"So if a man leaves us, or something is missing,
He'll give it back to me, and it will be given
To those who stay, guarding the city and patrolling around it."
The Cid travels far before he finds a city which he feels capable of holding in the long term; the other cities he takes, like Alcocer, he ransoms back to the Moors before moving on. Finally, it's Valencia that he deems defensible enough to provide him with a long-term home, and at that point he settles down there. "Campeador", "Master of the Battlefield", he may be, but the Cid does not live for war. A warrior who fights for the sake of fighting will simply destroy everything, but the Cid's concern is to stay, defend, and build. This is wisdom. If you are going to fight, you must expect to win. If you win, you must expect the responsibility of nurturing and protecting what you have won. It was what the prophet Jonah had to face. It was what Godfrey of Bouillon had to face. It's no laughing matter, and shirking this responsibility makes either pirates or cowards.

Note epic beard.

Women and Children

As he goes into exile, the Cid stops along the way to bid a tearful farewell to his beloved wife, Dona Jimena, and his two small daughters, Elvira and Sol. The passage is extremely endearing:
He stretched out his hands, his heart as soft as his beard;
He picked up the little girls, and held them
Close to his breast, held them and loved them,
Weeping. He sighed from deep in his heart:
"O Dona Jimena, my wonderful wife,
I love you so much, and I always have.
You see I have to leave you, O soul of my life -
I go, and you must stay behind.
May it please God, and his mother Mary,
That some day these hands will give them in marriage -
And let fortune favour me, adding some days to my life,
To serve you, O you, my much-honoured wife!"
I quote this because it seems to me to mark a definite progression. The Cid's wife and daughters play a highly important role in his life, and in the plot of this poem; a role that stands out in comparison to the literature that comes before it, but not in comparison to the literature that comes after. The medieval chanson de geste eventually morphed into the late medieval romance, tales, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Le Morte D'Arthur or The Canterbury Tales that included some very vivid, unique female characters. Before this, however, knightly epics, whether we're talking about The Song of Roland or earlier Anglo-Saxon tales like Beowulf or The Wanderer, depicted something that was much more a man's world, in which women were much more marginal.

Something was happening at this stage in history. Owen Barfield speaks of it in History in English Words, where he says,
A new element had entered into human relationships, for which perhaps the best name that can be found is 'tenderness'. And so - at any rate in the world of the imagination - children as well as women gradually became the objects of a new solicitude. ... [L]yrical devotion to the Virgin Mary and to the infant Jesus had helped to evolve a vocabulary which could express, and thus partly create, a sentiment of tenderness towards all women and young children.
This tenderness took a long time to mature, though it was a little quicker as it regarded women. What you see in The Song of the Cid is a pivotal stage in the gradual maturing of the knightly ideal from the Germanic tribal loyalty to ring-giver of its youth (still strongly in evidence here, with the Cid's loyalty to his king and generosity to his men) to the romantic courtly-love conventions of its decadence. With regards to children, the sentiment likely encountered a setback during the pandemics and famines of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not to mature until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But that is here in The Song of the Cid too.

Barfield explains how new, and different, and peculiar to Christianity, this new sentiment was; and The Song of the Cid depicts a moment in history when it had finally begun to change the way warriors thought of their honour.

A Different Kind of Honour

So, (spoiler warning, in case you've never heard the story before!) in the second canto of the poem, a pair of young bluebloods, Fernando and Diego Carrion, seek the Cid's daughters in marriage. Despite the Cid's own misgivings, his king presses the match, and so the marriages are made. The Carrions believe they're marrying beneath themselves (as the Cid is not of their own rank, but simply "someone from Vivar"), but are attracted to the Cid's fortune. This attraction doesn't last long, particularly as they find themselves expected to fight in defence of Valencia. Despite the Cid's gracious attempts to overlook their cowardice, the sons-in-law feel insulted and hatch a heartless scheme. They bid the Cid farewell, pack up their wives, their retinues, and the Cid's princely gifts, and travel back to their own lands in Carrion. Partway there, they stop in a forest, beat their wives, leave them for dead, and hasten on to Carrion, planning to remarry more advantageously.

Dona Elivra and Dona Sol are rescued by their cousin and returned to their parents. What happens to them then is eye-opening, especially by contrast to pagan cultures. There is no question in anyone's mind that they are to blame, that they have been shamed, or that their marriages have survived these events. There is no sense of personal diminishment to them: they are expected to (and in fact, by the end of the poem, do) marry men of even higher status. The shame of the crime does not fall on the girls; it falls on Alfonso, the overlord who made the match and therefore is responsible for what they have suffered.

This is a totally different concept of shame and honour to that of pagan cultures. In pagan cultures (Ancient Rome, for just one example), honour was all about dominance. You won honour if you were a man, if you were strong, and if you could get away with...well, with acting like the Carrions. Christ was a severe problem for the pagan world because he voluntarily died a shameful, criminal death. It was insulting to men of honour to suggest that they should voluntarily submit themselves to a god whose supreme moment of triumph looked like that. In fact to this day, Islam has a real problem with this: according to Islamic theology, Jesus (whom they recognise as a prophet, if not God) only passed out on the cross, but did not actually die, because that would just be too degrading: it is unthinkable that a messenger of the all-powerful Allah should actually die like this. In such a concept of honour, shame falls upon those who have been proven most weak and helpless: Elivra and Sol. The women.

The Song of the Cid recognises this, and the confrontation that comes as its climax is self-consciously about the conflict between these two different kinds of honour. Alfonso calls the Carrions to his court to face the Cid and answer for their crimes. The Carrions argue that they had the right to beat and abandon Elvira and Sol because their wives were of much lesser birth. In fact, they argue, doing so has increased their own honour, since it was beneath them to marry the girls in the first place. Their concept of honour is based entirely upon birth, status, and power.

This concept of honour is rejected by the Cid and his supporters. What the Carrions have done has dishonoured only themselves. Honour is defined by loyalty, by generosity, by obedience to the rule of law (it is very notable that the Warrior wins his vengeance at court, without personally taking up weapons) and above anything else by tenderness toward, and service of, the weak. This argument is proven true in two ways: first, by the victory in combat of the Cid's champions against the Carrions; and second, by the sudden arrival of envoys from two kings who have apparently heard what has happened and are eager to marry the Cid's daughters.


The Song of the Cid is a fascinating moment in the development of the chivalrous ideal. It might be easy for a modernist to sniff patronisingly at the depiction of women in the poem as weak and in need of protection (though I note that Dona Sol is a smart enough girl to warn her husband and brother-in-law that they are about to get themselves in some serious hot water). Not only would such an attitude fail to take into account certain inconvenient physical realities, it would also fail to recognise just what a turning-point this poem marks in the way western culture has historically treated women.

All this, and the poem is a fast-moving, vivid, martial epic, by turns exciting, suspenseful, comic, heart-rending, and stirring. Of course, I loved it.

Find The Song of the Cid in the Burton-Raffel translation on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Has anyone seen the 1961 film, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren? I reviewed it on Vintage Novels several years ago and would recommend it (though screen swordfighting has come a long way since!).

Friday, February 24, 2017

Marietta: A Maid of Venice by F Marion Crawford

Much as I approve of the Victorian era in theory, I have to admit that in practice, I usually don't enjoy Victorian novels. (Unless they're by Anthony Trollope, and he is a different story). Recently, however, I decided to read F Marion Crawford's 1901 historical romance, Marietta: A Maid of Venice - and enjoyed it much more than I expected.

In 1470 Venice, the glassmakers of Murano enjoy a privileged position. Their social status permits them to intermarry with the nobility, and it's forbidden to teach their trade to foreigners, which ensures that the secrets of fine glassmaking never leave the lagoon. These two privileges benefit the wealthy Angelo Beroviero, a glassmaker who plans to marry his daughter Marietta to the young patrician Jacopo Contarini - but they pose a significant challenge for his young servant, Zorzi the Dalmation. Despite the law, Zorzi has learned the craft of glassblowing while assisting Beroviero, and has become a truly great artist - but being a foreigner, he'll never be able to go into business for himself, or to win the hand of Marietta, whom he loves.

When Beroviero sends him on a secret mission to Venice to arrange a meeting between Marietta and her intended husband, Zorzi stumbles upon a secret society and sets in motion a chain of events that threaten his whole future - his work, his love, and even his life.

Looking back, I can acknowledge that this story has its faults. The plot is not particularly tight, and some of the supporting characters are either underused or cartoonish. Contarini's villainous mistress, Arisa, is particularly deplorable - she's depicted as "savage" based purely on being Georgian and female.

But is that any worse than writers today who would depict her as being inherently righteous based purely on the same factors? More and more these days I'm finding I can identify the culprit in a murder mystery or guess the outcome of a sci-fi drama, just by ruling out the Minority Representation Characters - the real villain is never going to be the Moor, or the homosexual, or the difficult-to-communicate-with aliens. It's time we stopped evaluating moral worth based on social identity, and started evaluating it based on actual moral worth defined by Scripture.

Which I felt was actually something that Crawford overall did right; Arisa's character stood out as an aberration, a generally careful author falling into laziness. Because the main thing that impressed me about this book was how carefully and thoroughly it challenged the oppression in Renaissance Venice.

I recently read another book set in Venice, a twenty-first-century YA novel, and that one was very hamfistedly passionate about how badly women were treated in this time and place. I did not expect to find an author in 1901 getting passionate about the very same issues. Marietta, the title character, like every other girl in Venice, is expected to marry the man her father picks out for her. And if she refuses or disgraces herself, she'll be locked up in a convent whether she wants it or not. Crawford emphasises, again and again, the fact that Marietta is privileged to have a decent father who loves her and will listen to her, even as he takes for granted his right to dispose her life for her: many Venetian women didn't even have that much, and nobody thought twice of disposing them in the way that would be most profitable. 

The book was a breath of fresh air. Followers of this blog will be aware of how irately I react to hamfisted feminist critiques of past social eras. Too many ignorant feminists want to depict the entire past with a paint roller instead of a pencil. Any culture prior to 1960 (or 1980, or 2010) was a time of partriarchalist misery for women, right? Wrong: you can't just assume that every single person in every past culture in every part of the world believed the same thing about women. They were different. Some of them were quite good for women; many European cultures in the High Middle Ages, for instance. Some of them were terrible. Renaissance Venice seems to have been one such culture. And yet, the feminist answer is to say that men are baaaad, and women are goooood, and call for the latter to band together in a sort of revolution against the former.

The Christian answer is that men and women are bad and good, and that the line between good and evil goes right through the centre of every human heart; and that that is the great dividing-line, not the difference between the sexes. Men and women are allies in this fight. This is the truth that Crawford expresses in his book. Marietta's fight against the injustices her society imposes on women is a mirror of Zorzi's fight against the injustices his society imposes on foreigners. When Marietta finally confronts her father, she's described as "fighting for the liberty of her whole life". I was cheering all through the scene because it was such a brilliant picture of how Christians defy authority: with reason, respect, and love. Marietta is having no more of her father's nonsense, but she refuses to respond with fussiness, entitlement, or self-pity. It was great.

This book was all about patriarchal oppression, but I've rarely read anything less feminist. I loved it.

In addition, I really enjoyed how vividly the book was written, and the convincing detail about the art of glassmaking. Though not without flaws, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, informative, and stirring read.

Find Marietta: A Maid of Venice on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Mohawk Valley by Ronald Welch

Thanks to the good folks at Slightly Foxed, my adventures through history with Ronald Welch's Carey Family continues...

In Mohawk Valley, young Alan Carey is forced to leave Cambridge in disgrace after being accused of cheating at cards. Expelled from the college and a pariah among his erstwhile friends, Alan heads back to the ancestral home at Llanstephan to face his father, the formidable old Charles Carey familiar to readers from Captain of Dragoons. The Earl, together with his friend Mr William Pitt, comes up with a plan: ship Alan across the Atlantic to make his fortune and repair his reputation taking care of the Earl's properties on the American frontier. Once in America, Alan finds his hands full learning woodcraft and dealing with untrustworthy stewards. But not all is peaceful in the backwoods, and political maneuverings in London and Paris threaten to bring war on the frontier.

You guessed it: this is the book about the French and Indian War. Overall, I have to say that this is my least favourite of the Carey Family series so far. The plot was more episodic than most of Welch's other books, and I didn't at all care for the portrayal of one of the villains as a Scripture-quoting fanatic who first cheats and then attempts to murder our hero. The New England Puritans had their oddities, especially as time went on, but as a general rule they were sincere, law-abiding people, and I felt that by making their sole representative in this book a villain, Welch was trying to say something about the Puritans, and sincere religious faith, as a whole.

Still, there was plenty to like about Mohawk Valley. Ronald Welch wrote for young people, especially young boys, but I usually find his books full of thoughtfulness on topics of maturity and manhood. One thing that I think all his books have in common is that they challenge their young heroes, and through them the readers, with difficult decisions and tasks. And one of the reasons why this is so challenging to the reader is that Welch does a very good job of showing how difficult his heroes find their tasks: he writes sympathetically to their fears and doubts in such a way that he seems sympathetic to the fears and doubts of the reader too.

So, in Mohawk Valley, Alan Carey faces nearly the most depressing fate for any young member of the English nobility: when he elects to fight a duel to clear his name, his nerves fail him and he drops his pistol, convincing everyone present that he's not just a cheat but also a coward. Alan heads home convinced that he's shamed not just himself but also his family name and his swashbuckling old father. The rest of the book is about how he rediscovers his courage and self-respect, even as he relinquishes his status as an English nobleman for the harsher and more egalitarian life of an American backwoodsman. There's more than one way of being brave, and more than one way of being noble, the book seems to say: if you fail at one thing, pick yourself up and try another. I can imagine that being a fairly encouraging thing for a young man to read.

The last third or so of the book is taken up with the French and Indian War, with fairly detailed accounts of the battle of Ticonderoga and the fall of Quebec. As usual, Welch writes about wars without criticising the diplomatic decisions that cause them, but his battle scenes are always vivid, visceral and intensely serious.

Mohawk Valley may not be my favourite Welch book, but it contains all the things that make the rest of the series worth reading: historical detail, military realism, and sympathetic characters facing tough decisions. The series is currently in print in beautiful limited editions available from Slightly Foxed - particularly recommended for home educators!


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