Thursday, September 30, 2010

Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades by GA Henty

Ah, Henty! Writer of many, many novels in which a young man of great fortitude and intelligence joins the army, meets famous historical characters, describes in educational detail many famous battles, and earns a happy ending and the love of a highborn lady. Formulaic though they may be, Henty's novels are always fascinating glimpses into history, usually with enough adventure to keep you reading. The books can be an acquired taste, and I wouldn't call them really high literature, but they're an excellent plain diet.

GA Henty's books are now mostly known only among homeschoolers and the homeschooled, and as such I made their acquaintance early and often. I've read perhaps fifteen of them—not a huge amount—and found them all educational and adventurous, but even then one stood out head and shoulders above the rest. It is Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades, and it is pure high-octane fun.

The story is set during the Third Crusade, the most famous one, King Richard the Lionheart's Crusade. It was during this Crusade that Robin Hood made his home in Nottingham Forest, that Prince John made a nuisance of himself, that the brethren Geoffrey and Wulf sought their cousin Rosamund, and that Wilfred of Ivanhoe won undying glory. And it is for this Crusade that a fearless teenager named Cuthbert leaves his home to follow his aged benefactor the Earl of Evesham to the Holy Land, whence the story follows him through many adventures back to his own home and the final battle he must fight on his own doorstep.

While the plot in many Henty novels can feel ponderous, the plot for Winning His Spurs moves at a snapping pace, almost like a serial for a magazine. I can't think of a single chapter in which something thrilling doesn't happen. Our hero rescues the Earl's daughter from dastardly kidnappers, fights a single combat in the lists of honour, rescues a Princess from dastardly kidnappers, storms Acre, gets captured by Saracens, nearly loses his head on three different occasions, becomes an outlaw, rescues the Earl's daughter from dastardly kidnappers, and then rescues a King from dastardly kidnappers just to round things off a bit.

I don't believe I realised till now how many kidnappings occur in this book. But as for narrow escapes! Whether it's that extremely close shave in Dresden, or that incredibly daring escape in full armour from Evesham castle, or many another thrilling moment—well, all one can do is gape in admiration and feel that even a character named Cuthbert might be worth reading about!

For all that, I think one of my favourite chapters must be “A Hermit's Tale,” an unrelated story full of drama and tragedy right in the middle of the book. There's something inexpressibly authentic-medieval about that melancholy tale; I've always wondered if Henty made it up, or borrowed it from an old ballad.

If you were to invest in this book—and it would make an excellent birthday or Christmas present for any boy or girl with a liking for high adventure--I highly recommend the gorgeous Preston/Speed edition, which comes in a pleasant green hardback complete with adorable illustrations.

But cheapskates and the deserving poor can always try the

Gutenberg etext

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Nobody has ever imitated Tolkien satisfactorily. As a result, I prefer to read pre-Tolkienic fantasy rather than post-Tolkienic fantasy. Hodgson's The Night Land is one such work. And Lord Dunsany's delicate, evocative, beautiful book The King of Elfland's Daughter is another.

It tells the story of the tiny kingdom of Erl. The parliament of Erl, discontent with their obscurity, wishes for a magic lord, a leader who will make them famous. The King of Erl bows to their wishes and sends his son Alveric to wed the King of Elfland's daughter. Alveric travels to Elfland and spirits the princess away, but the marriage of a mortal with one of the elven that dwells beyond salvation cannot be happy, and one can never wish for just a little magic...

This was a fascinating work. Dunsany uses some extremely beautiful and evocative language and he clearly draws upon many fairytale tropes in building his story. For example, Lirazel and Alveric's son Orion can hear “the horns of Elfland dimly blowing” at evening. This is almost a straight quotation of Alfred Tennyson's “Blow, bugle, blow”:
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

In fact as early as the Middle English Lay of Sir Orfeo, the horns of the King of Fairy can be heard:
with blowing far and crying dim
and barking hounds that were with him.

And here we can see the use of the word “dim” rather than “faintly” as in Tennyson, which suggests that Lord Dunsany also borrowed from Sir Orfeo. I have quoted from the Tolkien translation of that poem, and Tolkien too borrowed the image to tell of the Elves hunting in an early draft of his unfinished poem The Lay of Leithien:

Hark! Afar in Nargothrond
far over Sirion and beyond
there are dim cries and horns blowing
and barking hounds through the trees going.

I choose just this one example of the rich and layered language that Dunsany uses in this book. Every other phrase reminds me of something just beyond my reach. Unfortunately I can only source a few of allusions, like this one, but as you can see it provides an extraordinarily rich reading experience even if you can't quite put your finger on why.

The plot is likewise richly allusive. Like every other story you've read, from Narnia to Rip van Winkle, half an hour in Elfland is ten (or fifteen, or fifty) years outside. Like every other story, from that of Gawain and Ragnell to that of Aragorn and Arwen, the union of a man with an elf-woman is problematic at best and tragic at worst—and must always be paid for. And like many of the older fairy-stories, such as Tam Lin, the Elves live somehow beyond salvation, yet not doomed to Hell.

It's thus an extremely genuine fairy-tale and appears to have entered into the well of tales, from which other writers draw when they write their own works: the foreword to the Fantasy Masterworks edition of this book is by Neil Gaiman, whose book Stardust appears to be heavily influenced by The King of Elfland's Daughter.

But Dunsany isn't afraid to subvert a couple of the tropes he borrows, and because he does it sparingly and skilfully, it's intensely effective. One of the most unforgettable passages in the book tells how Orion, Lirazel and Alveric's half-elvish son, hunts a unicorn:
Once more he thrust and failed; he saw the unicorn's eye flash wickedly in the starlight, he saw all white before him the fearful arch of its neck, he knew he could turn aside its heavy blows no more; and then a hound got a grip in front of the right shoulder. No moments passed before many another hound leaped on to the unicorn, each with a chosen grip, for all that they looked like a rabble rolling and heaving by chance. Orion thrust no more, for many hounds all at once were between him and his enemy's throat. Awful groans came from the unicorn, such sounds as are not heard in the fields we know; and then there was no sound but the deep growl of the hounds that roared over the wonderful carcase as they wallowed in fabulous blood.

Wait, unicorns aren't meant to die like that...

Although this is a rich and unusual book, full of beauty and meticulously crafted to fit seamlessly in with all the other old British fairy tales, I don't know that it gets everything right. The poet Yeats would probably have agreed with this particular view, but then nor do I think the poet Yeats was quite right. All freedom and beauty and worth in life is said to come from Elfland, and much is made of the fact that Elfland is without salvation. Meanwhile, “Christom”, the religion of Erl, provides only cold and empty formalism to the mundane world. On the other hand, the beauty of Elfland is static and timeless, warding off sharp grief and sharp joy both: the princess Lirazel wears a crown of ice before she runs away with Alveric, and when she comes to the fields we know that crown melts. So neither Elfland nor 'the fields we know' can give true fulfilment and bliss. Is there nowhere, in Lord Dunsany's fairy-tale, for a human to feel happy and at home?

(Oops! Once again I have managed to review a book not in the public domain! Yet The King of Elfland's Daughter was published in 1924, so I think it qualifies as a vintage novel!)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Poem: Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne

Before I fly away to New Zealand for the weekend (exciting!) here's another favourite poem of mine: Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne, which is a remarkable piece of work. I especially like the very precise and orthodox description of Reason as God's viceroy, which nevertheless cannot lead us to God because it is "captived".

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne at Wikisource
John Donne at Librivox

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge

I wanted to read this book because I enjoyed Yonge's historical novel The Dove In The Eagle's Nest, which was a lovely medieval story full of interesting historical details. Sadly, unlike that book, this one succumbs to all the worst excesses of ladylike Victorian piety: apparently a secret engagement is a sin and dishonour on the level of burglary or passing bad cheques, that kind of thing. And then there's the fact that it takes a third of the book to reach anything like a plot, which peters out again after another third.

The story--set during the author's time--follows the Edmonstone family and their two Morville cousins. The cousins are from two different branches of the Morville family, which have been enemies for years. The story kicks off when Sir Guy Morville, as a teenager whose grandfather has recently died, comes to live with his guardian Mr Edmonstone, Mrs Edmonstone, all the young Edmonstones, and Phillip Morville, the other cousin. The feud has been dormant for years and Phillip Morville--the most thoroughgoing prig in the canon of Western literature--is hardly one to stir it up again. He merely settles in, unconsciously, to make Guy's life thoroughly miserable. That's pretty much the whole story.

From the very beginning Sir Guy seems a little too perfect to be true. The words "too good for this world" are actually applied to him with no irony at all. So are the words "Sir Galahad". And his Dramatic Flaw--a terrible temper--is so underused as a tragic, fatal flaw that it might as well not exist: he battles it conscientiously and with such great success that he might not have it at all.

And it all wraps up with one of those excruciatingly long, drawn-out Victorian Deathbed Scenes, where you know, you know the person is going to die, and to save yourself from a broken heart, you begin to emotionally detach yourself from the character, so when they do eventually keel over your response is to yawn politely and hope the author will wrap it up soon without too much detail of the funeral.

Although I personally didn't enjoy The Heir of Redclyffe much, I do think Yonge is a capable and worthwhile writer, and you might find this worth reading. If you enjoy Louisa May Alcott's tamer works, or the Elsie Dinsmore series, or if Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't make you laugh, even a little tiny bit, then you might enjoy this book. It isn't a bad novel; it's quite good as far as it goes; but it did try my patience.

Gutenberg etext

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I have to apologise for two things in this review. First, commingled in my review of the book will be a review of the movie, which I loved. Second, that the book is not in the public domain, and will be difficult for you to get hold of. But that's not too bad, because all things considered, I don't recommend the book.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day tries awfully hard to be the kind of charming book one reads for a pick-me-up. A modern--well, at any rate a vintage--Cinderella tale, it tells of a timid, plain, poor, middle-aged, and lonely spinster who has never known love. Guenevere Pettigrew, destitute and about to be evicted from her lodgings, is looking for work as a governess. But when she arrives at the apartment of Miss Delysia Lafosse, actress of questionable virtue, to find that charming young lady desperately trying to evict her lover of the night before before the lover who owns the flat arrives, Miss Pettigrew finds herself sucked into a whirlwind of excitement where, suddenly, she can do nothing wrong. Liberated by desperation and the glamorous excitement of clothes, makeup, lovers, nightclubs, and all the things she was brought up to abominate, Miss Pettigrew restores sundered hearts, brings fickle Miss Lafosse to her senses, and even finds love and a home of her own.

I would have enjoyed it immensely had it not been for the author's attitude to all the philandering. The book was written in 1938, in those long-faded, romantic days when gently-reared women still cherished the belief that vice could make one happy. Miss Pettigrew, the daughter of a curate, has been brought up never to smoke, drink, swear, or use makeup; but as a succession of men rush through Miss Lafosse's flat each in the happy belief that she isn't cheating on him, Miss Pettigrew feels not shock or dismay but romantic excitement. As the day passes, with each new vice she tastes for the first time, she feels happier and happier. Of course, she is still too self-possessed to do anything scandalous (and this is the 1930s, after all) but she enters happily into the spirit of the liberated Miss Lafosse.

In the movie, one was not privy to Miss Pettigrew's innermost thoughts; one saw her blooming under a little kindness and affection from an obviously very silly young woman, and one saw her guiding that silly young woman into a conventional and happy marriage with a young man who adored her and expected her to love him to the exclusion of all others: an upright young man, as good as the other men are weak or vicious, full of the Chestertonian vigour of virtue. That still occurs in the book; but the young woman is not at all silly in the book, and the young man is not quite as good, and in the book Miss Pettigrew obviously loses her moral compass.

In fact, even if the movie doesn't have a rock-solid moral compass, it is much more solid than the book. In the book, Miss Pettigrew has been kept from pretty clothes and makeup by her conscience; in the movie, by her poverty, and consequently her conscience is not disturbed by the finery. In the book, Miss Pettigrew's Joe Blomfield drifts to her from a fiancee who he knows has a younger lover; in the movie, he breaks from her when she admits unfaithfulness. In the book, Miss Lafosse's young man is of her own set and presumably of her own morals; in the movie, he is penniless and honest like a fresh wind. The end result is that in the book, Miss Pettigrew is transformed by Miss Lafosse's set; in the movie, she saves Miss Lafosse from it. A far more satisfying conclusion.

Finally, there was one more thing the movie added, and that was--the War, which is declared on the afternoon of the Day during which Miss Pettigrew Lives. As a bit of a World War I buff, I truly appreciated the moment when Miss Pettigrew looks over to Joe Blomfield and says, very quietly underneath the cheers of the younger set, "They don't remember the last one." It's a very poignant moment, which (I think) perfectly captures the feeling of those who were fortunate enough to live through the first war, when the second one was announced. It added a bit of emotional gravitas to an otherwise frothy story.

IMDb page for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

One of the great historical adventure novels, Sir Walter Scott's best-known work was read avidly for generations until the great Scott fell into disfavour with modern literati. Now he's criticised for his wordiness (skies in Scott are always azure and never blue) and noses are turned up at his characterisation. Little may we care: like all truly great novelists, Scott knew how to write a gripping story, and his characters are always extremely vivid.

Ivanhoe deserves its fame. Though it's set in the Merrie England of good King Richard Lionheart, wicked Prince John, and even Robin Hood, it provides a good feel for the anarchy, lawlessness, and danger of those times. England is clearly divided between the Norman overlords and the Saxon serfs and middle-class. The Conquest is still sore in the memory of most Saxons, and especially in the memory of the franklin Cedric, who is something of a figurehead for a simmering Saxon nationalist movement. Cedric's ward, the noble and beautiful Lady Rowena, is a direct descendant of Alfred the Great and his young friend Athelstane is descended from another of the old kings. Cedric's master-plan involves marrying Rowena to the dull but amiable Athelstane, uniting the suffering Saxon serfs, and restoring the line of Alfred to the throne.

Tragically for Cedric, the big spanner in the works came from within his own family. His only son Wilfred began badly by falling in love with Rowena, went on to worse by becoming a loyal knight to the Normal King Richard and receiving the fief of Ivanhoe at his hand, and finished up, worst of all, running off to the Crusade with said Norman King! Cedric, of course, cuts Wilfred off with a shilling, forbids his ward to see him again, and continues undaunted in his great plan—even though Rowena still plainly loves Wilfred, and Athelstane has humbler and pleasanter aspirations than to the English throne.

But all that is some years in the past when this book opens. The Crusade has petered out in the Holy Land—Richard is goodness knows where, perhaps in an Austrian dungeon—Wilfred is likely dead—the dubious John Lackland is anxious for the return of neither—and Cedric doggedly continues throwing Rowena and Athelstane together in the hope that one will conceive a grand passion for the other.

When Prince John holds a great tournament at Ashby, the plot doesn't take long to get started. First of all, there's the mysterious “Disinherited Knight” who sweeps all dramatically before him. Then there's the even more mysterious “Black Sluggard” who doesn't unhelm, even at the end of the tournament, before slipping away into the woods. Then there's the old archer who at times shows a flash of Lincoln Green below his grey robes!

Intrigue also seethes among the spectators: three of the Prince's cronies, three Norman lords of easy morals each sees something he likes. Maurice de Bracy sees the fair, wealthy and noble Rowena and decides, without consulting her, that she is just the bride for him. Reginald Front-de-Boef sees the extremely wealthy and not at all charming Isaac of York, a Jew, and conceives a well-advised passion for the financier's money-bags. And finally, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight Templar, on being asked to help, decides to help himself to the Jew's beautiful, smart, and courageous daughter Rebecca.

Well, it's true that faint heart never won fair lady, but then neither did mass kidnappings. Neither the captives nor their friends outside Front-de-Boef's evil castle are about to give up easily!

I love this book a lot: it's thrilling, the characters are heaps of fun, and I could read a whole book about the lovable highjinks that occur when King Richard and Friar Tuck spend an evening together over a stoup (or five...) of wine!

I shall try not to say too much more about the plot lest I give it all away, but some of Scott's most lovable characters are in this book. There's Cedric, the crusty obstacle in the path of true love who is nevertheless smart, brave, and patriotic. There's Athelstane, one of the most lovable lunkheads in literature. There's dour Gurth and brilliant but unbalanced Wamba; and the opposites of Robert Locksley (jolly woodsman with a streak of avarice) and Isaac of York (avaricious with a real streak of kindness). And Rebecca, the heroine, is one of the great female characters of Victorian literature, being clever, smart, and basically twice as impressive as everyone else in the whole book. But my favourite character is Rowena, that high-born but somewhat underhanded lady, who twists everyone around her little finger, routs fearsome warriors with floods of tears, and always, always gets her own way—I wouldn't call her manipulative; just a bit less direct than some!

Ivanhoe is a real treat. Read it for the characters or for the plot, you won't be disappointed. It does take about seven chapters to warm up and get going, but important plot points occur in those seven chapters and you'll be glad you made the effort!

Librivox recording
Gutenberg etext

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Poem: Jane's Marriage by Rudyard Kipling

Well, I haven't been able to post for a couple of days, for which I apologise, and present the first Friday Poem:

Jane's Marriage

JANE went to Paradise:
That was only fair.
Good Sir Walter met her first,
And led her up the stair.
Henry and Tobias,
And Miguel of Spain,
Stood with Shakespeare at the top
To welcome Jane --

Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand,
Anything in Heaven's gift
That she might command.
Azrael's eyes upon her,
Raphael's wings above,
Michael's sword against her heart,
Jane said: "Love."

Instantly the under-
standing Seraphim
Laid their fingers on their lips
And went to look for him.
Stole across the Zodiac,
Harnessed Charles's Wain,
And whispered round the Nebulae
"Who loved Jane?"

In a private limbo
Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman
Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion,
And it told the plain
Story of the love between
Him and Jane.

He heard the question
Circle Heaven through --
Closed the book and answered:
"I did -- and do!"
Quietly but speedily
(As Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise
The man Jane loved!

--By Rudyard Kipling

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of the great hacks of the last century; he's the man you go to for high-class pulp. This is by far his most famous work, although I think his early science-fiction A Princess of Mars is superior.

Tarzan is the son of an aristocratic English couple marooned on a remote West African coast. After their tragic deaths, a bereft ape mother discovers him in their empty hut and carries him away to raise as her own. Naturally, he grows up incredibly strong for a human, becoming a great hunter and eventually battling his way to become chief of the ape tribe. He also finds the time to study the books in his parents' cabin and teach himself to read. Life is good as a lord of the jungle, but when a party of humans like himself arrive on the coast, including the enchanting Jane Porter and her amusingly absent-minded professor father, he realises how lonely he really is. Unfortunately, having been brought up only to speak ape, he is unable to relieve his aching heart of the burning, passionate words that would make Jane his.

Tarzan of the Apes
is an implausible, light and insubstantial adventure story. Of the three great man-and-wild adventure stories of its period, it is definitely the least; while it's exciting and dramatic, something about it never seems to spark to life, and the characters are flat and forgettable next to Kipling's Mowgli (of The Jungle Book) or Rider Haggard's Umslopogaas (of Nada the Lily). And I can never think of that big denouement without laughing.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and laughed often (sometimes, as hinted above, not where the author intended me to); and I will always have time to read a Burroughs book—but I still can't help being surprised this book is as famous as it is.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

GK Chesterton is one of my six all-time favourite authors (the others are JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, John Buchan, PG Wodehouse, and Edmund Spenser, if you must know) and one of the most remarkable writers of the last century. The Napoleon of Notting Hill was the first book of his that I read. When I opened it up, not expecting anything out of the ordinary at all, the first few words knocked my world askew. They read:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong...

For the first couple of minutes I simply couldn't get past those words—sublime, effortless, understated humour. And then, lurking at the back of them, the suggestion that the human race is not alone in the universe. That we aren't the most important beings in the universe. That the writer has another audience.

I was not aware then that Chesterton was a Christian. But I never for a moment thought he was referring to aliens or pagan gods or beasts. One got the eerie feeling that somewhere, St Michael had taken off his bucket-top boots, slung his rapier to one side, and sat down to have a good chuckle over this very book.

That was how my acquaintance with Chesterton began, and I have never been exactly the same since. People now flee whenever they see me approaching with Notting Hill or The Flying Inn under one arm and an evangelistic gleam in my eye. But I digress.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill tells the story of two men, one without a sense of humour and one with little else. It is eighty years into Chesterton's future—making it, coincidentally, the year 1984!--and nothing has changed, save only that everyone has become much more dull. War is abolished; so are weapons, policemen, and patriotism. Everything works as it should, and nobody enjoys life. The monarchy has ceased to be hereditary; instead, kings are chosen at random from the people, with no pomp and no ceremony, and are expected to be dull and respectable until they die.

When the whimsical Mr Auberon Quin, amateur comedian, ascends the throne he sets out deliberately to ensure his reign is one long joke. He devises legends, heroes, and brilliant medieval robes for each suburb of London, deriving a simple, childlike pleasure from the spectacle of his Provosts—dull and respectable gentlemen all—forced to parade around dressed like the sunset and accompanied by heralds and halberdiers.

How was he to know that someone, somewhere, took it all perfectly seriously? The young Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, hasn't got a sense of humour; he doesn't know that this exaggerated patriotism is a joke. To him, his tiny suburb, with its population of grocers, dentists, and maiden ladies, is as solemn and sacred as Rome or Athens.
"My God in Heaven!" he said; "is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who takes Notting Hill seriously?"
"And my God in Heaven!" said Wayne passionately; "is it possible that there is within the four seas of Britain a man who does not take it seriously? […] Notting Hill … is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I think it absurd?"
When a group of the other Provosts—the dull, respectable kind—try to build a new road through Notting Hill, they are amazed by Adam Wayne's fierce resistance. It is big business—it has been simmering on financial back burners for ten years—and so Provost Buck of North Kensington decides that enough is enough; if Wayne is mad enough to refuse such a business proposition, if he swears to defend Notting Hill to his last drop of blood—well, Buck is only too keen to grant his wish. And that's how the great war of Notting Hill begins.
"I know of a magic wand, but it is a wand that only one or two may rightly use, and only seldom. It is a fairy wand of great fear, stronger than those who use it...often frightful, often wicked to use. But whatever is touched with it is never again wholly common. Whatever is touched with it takes a magic from outside the world. If I touch, with this fairy wand, the railways and the roads of Notting Hill, men will love them, and be afraid of them for ever...It has made mean landscapes magnificent, and hovels outlast cathedrals. Why should it not make lampposts fairer than Greek lamps, and an omnibus ride like a painted ship? The touch of it is the finger of a strange perfection."
"What is your wand?" cried the King, impatiently.
"There it is," said Wayne; and pointed to the floor, where his sword lay flat and shining.
"The sword!" cried the King; and sprang up straight on the dais.
This is the story of how Adam Wayne touches London—dull, respectable London—with that terrible wand, and how London begins to live again. Do you think this message is perverse and bloodthirsty? Then what about this?
I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king or tinker, that it could really capture.
In The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton argues passionately, not for war and death themselves, but for a right understanding of them. Adam Wayne is mad, unbalanced, because he has no sense of humour; but he is right. You cannot love a thing without being ready to fight for it. You cannot fight for a thing without coming to love it.
Chesterton dares to say: it is better to love hard and fight hard, and live a short and difficult life, than it is never to love nor to fight at all. Think about it.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

If you only read one Agatha Christie novel in your whole life, you should make it this one. I'm sure she wrote better books, cleverer or more profound, but this is my favourite—a thrilling adventure with a bubbly and adorable heroine.

It tells the story of Anne Beddingfield, who having led a quiet and scholarly life with her archaeologist father, finds herself free upon his death to do whatever she likes. In Anne's case, that would be thrilling adventure; and being a determined person, she soon finds it. When a foreign actress dies in mysterious circumstances, Anne finagles her way onto the staff of the Daily Budget and follows the chief suspect—The Man in the Brown Suit—to South Africa. The night life on the cruise ship Kilmorden Castle is fairly brisk, she discovers—with bleeding men staggering into her cabin, stolen diamonds changing hands, torrid romance on the foredeck, and attempts on her own life! Who could be behind it—the Man in the Brown Suit or someone even more sinister?

This would be a fun, exciting book to begin with; but the thing that really makes the book memorable is the character of Anne, who spends the whole book in a kind of giddy, ditzy excitement. The writer obviously revels in the fun of writing an adventure story starring a girl: one hilarious scene has Anne, being followed by bad guys through the streets of Johannesberg, ducking into a pub for a pick-me-up, not a whiskey on the rocks but an ice-cream soda!

I loved this book. Who doesn't want to go out and have an adventure like that, with an ending as satisfying as the one Anne gets?

Interesting note--When my little sister wanted to make a short movie with some friends, I suggested adapting this book. Owing to technical restraints the plot had to be altered somewhat (I don't own a cruise ship), as well as the title (the closest thing that could be found was a Brown Coat), and post-production has been a bit of a headache; but we anticipate the thing being finished sometime in the next few months, and great will be the rejoicing thereat!

Despite first appearing in 1924, The Man in the Brown Suit either is not yet in the public domain or has not yet been put in ebook format, but owing to Christie's continued popularity it should be available at a local library.

Some Housekeeping

Thanks for dropping in! Just to let you know that I'm still tweaking the look of the blog & would like to customise it a bit further, so if you come along one morning and the whole thing looks totally different, it's just me experimenting!

And while I've got your attention, here are two more fantastic book links for when you absolutely must have a hard copy of your own!

Abebooks –My favourite internet bookshop, this is the quick and easy way to find the book you want, usually for the lowest possible price. It catalogues books from secondhand and new booksellers all over the world, so chances are you can even search the catalogues of booksellers in your area without even leaving home.

Bookmooch –Now this is a really neat idea, a directory of free-to-a-good-home used books from all over the world. You put up your collection of used books and when people “mooch” from you, you send them the book and acquire points in exchange. Then you use your points to mooch off other people! All you pay is the postage to wherever in the world you have to send your books (though you can opt-out of sending internationally). While it can be hard to find popular or really obscure books, some of my best acquisitions have come from Bookmooch—a gorgeous coffee-table illustrated version of the Kalevala, two Richard Hannay omnibuses, GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and of course the book I mooched on a whim which ended up becoming one of my favourites, LM Montgomery's The Blue Castle.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Little Bush Maid and The Billabong Series by Mary Grant Bruce

And now for something Australian!

A Little Bush Maid tells the story of a young girl, Norah Linton, who lives on a big cattle station (named Billabong) somewhere in rural Victoria in the early 1900s. Only eleven in this book, Norah is thrilled when her elder brother Jim comes home for the school holidays with his friends Wally and Harry. The holidays are filled with fun and adventure, and there's even the mystery of the hermit Norah finds living upriver to unravel.

A Little Bush Maid was a bestseller when it came out, and quickly led the way to a whole series, the Billabong books, which are:

* A Little Bush Maid (1910)
* Mates at Billabong (1912)
* Norah of Billabong (1913)
* From Billabong to London (1914)
* Jim and Wally (1915)
* Captain Jim (1916)
* Back to Billabong (1919)
* Billabong's Daughter (1924)
* Billabong Adventurers (1928)
* Bill of Billabong (1933)
* Billabong's Luck (1933)
* Wings Above Billabong (1935)
* Billabong Gold (1937)
* Son of Billabong (1939)
* Billabong Riders (1942)

The first three books are fun adventure stories about Norah growing older; in the next three (From Billabong to London, Jim and Wally, and Captain Jim) deal with World War I, and the Norah, Jim, and Wally trio get to foil some some German spies. From the dates of each book you can see that they were in fact written during the War.

In the next three books Norah, Jim, and Wally are all grown up and the tone of the books becomes slightly more mature. These three are my favourites, with plenty of adventure and romance as all three find love and settle down, and enough bushfires and opal thieves to keep you interested.

Bill of Billabong deals with the advent of Percival, a sulky boy who hates his name and also expects to hate his school holidays at Billabong. Percival--or Bill, as he prefers--never gets over his name, but he learns to love Billabong and becomes a regular main character from then on. The books go on to deal with the discovery of gold on a remote back paddock at Billabong, the development thereof and the resultant gold rush. Finally, in Billabong Riders, the whole cast goes droving.

The Billabong books are a staple of the children's section at any Australian library, especially rural libraries, and I and my siblings read and re-read them often. They are generally light in tone, and you might as well know that none of the main characters are ever going to to anything despicable or be described as anything but mature, capable, achingly chivalrous, and loads of fun to be around. It might not seem like the height of English literature, it might bother some people, and in fact it sometimes bothers me, but only because I'm jealous. I should like to be so noble, yet so funny and charming, that everyone instantly loves me.

Unfortunately, because Australians are not (alas) all as easy-going and live-and-let-live as the Lintons of Billabong, more recent readers have criticised the books--to quote Mary Grant Bruce's Wikipedia page:

Some of Bruce's earlier works are considered to have had offensive and dated content, particularly in regards to racial stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and Chinese and Irish immigrants, and her earlier belief in the theory of Social Darwinism. More recent reprints of the Billabong series have been edited to remove controversial material.

This footnote appears in the Afterword of all the Angus and Robertson Blue Gum Classics reprints (beginning with "A Little Bush Maid" reprinted in 1992). The Afterword is written by Barbara Ker Wilson.

Obviously the opinions of a hundred years ago are not the opinions of today, and in many ways we have moved forwards. But it's a crying shame that the reaction to those dated bits is to edit the books in paranoia for fear of offending someone. To be quite honest, I have read hundreds of books written in the nineteen-teens--this blog is devoted to them--and Mary Grant Bruce's attitudes appear to be rather fair for her day; minorities are occasionally patronised, but always respected as human beings.

But none of this should prevent you (or probably, at this stage, your kids) from reading and keenly enjoying these stories, chock full as they are of fun and adventure. Fortunately, many if not all of them are now in the public domain in their original and unabridged state. Go forth and read!

Gutenberg etexts
Librivox recordings

Friday, September 10, 2010

Beau Geste by PC Wren

This is the great English novel of the French Foreign Legion—yet another of the old classics that has permeated our cultural subconscious, though that awareness is now fading. Back in the 1950s it was well-known enough to join classics such as Bridge on the River Kwai and 1984 in being parodied by the highly-esteemed Goon Show, as Under Two Floorboards: A Story of the Legion!

I've read a few of PC Wren's books, and Beau Geste stands head and shoulders above the rest. This is partly because of one of the most memorable opening sequences in English literature: Major Henri de Beaujolais and his Spahis cross the Sahara to the relief of Fort Zinderneuf, held by a dwindling band of legionnaires against hordes of the Arab enemy. When they get there, they find that motionless legionnaires still line the walls of Zinderneuf in an eerie silence. Three men disappear, the whole place burns to the ground, and a mysterious scrap of paper links the whole thing to a jewel-robbery years ago in England. But no-one at all can tell you what happened at Fort Zinderneuf.

No-one, that is, but John Geste, or Very Small Geste, youngest of the three Geste brothers, who all ran away to the French Foreign Legion when their aunt's famous sapphire was stolen. John knew he didn't do it, and he was pretty sure Michael and Digby didn't do it either. But it would take a long and harrowing ordeal in the desert before the truth came out.

PC Wren comes from one of my favourite literary schools: the one that believes in writing a rattling good plot, and to blazes with literary realism, existentialist angst, and characters almost so real you can kick them. Fortunately, in addition to having the kind of plot Shakespeare would have stolen if he lived a few hundred years later, Beau Geste also gets a lot of the details of life in the Legion correct; and the characters are huge fun to be around. I never met anyone that didn't like this book.

I've seen the black-and-white movie which starred Gary Cooper as Michael Geste, and I have to say he seemed a little old and pensive for the job; but otherwise it's an excellent, if not a brilliant, adaptation.

Gutenberg Australia etext

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson is a deeply flawed, unusual, eerie, and fascinating work of pre-Tolkien fantasy/horror/science fiction. Like George MacDonald's superior Lilith, it is a weird and rule-breaking tale of adventure in strange worlds. It deeply influenced Lovecraft, who called it "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written." And though the story isn't executed very well, its raw material is one of those brilliant ideas that only strikes once in a lifetime.

It is millions of years after the sun has gone out. The last of humanity lives alone in a monstrous pyramid in the Night Land, besieged by eldritch abominations, unholy monsters, and forces of evil. Our protagonist (not named in the book, but known as "X" to fans and critics) is telepathic; he hears a voice out of the night. It is another human fortress far away in the night, about to fall to the beasts. The speaker is a woman: his lost love from another life. When finally the defences of her fortress fail, X is driven to adventure alone out into the deadly Night Land to rescue the woman he loves and do battle with the horrid beasts. No-one else has ever dared to do such a thing and very few have ever survived even a brief trip into the Night, where sleepless malice lurks forever...

As you can imagine, it's an unusual and gripping read, full of suspense and grotesquerie, epic battles and high melodrama, and even some surprisingly interesting science-fiction ideas. Not that it doesn't have its problems. There's no dialogue, and it's written in an atrociously bad attempt at seventeenth-century prose--and the romance, which grows upon the second half of the book like a giant soul-sucking tumourous beastie, is almost beyond description. It's like being trapped in a haunted house with the world's sickliest cute couple. I don't mind a good melodramatic romance, but this one takes up a little too much time.

Nevertheless, it's a unique read and well worth the effort. The first half is quite good, and what the second half taxes you in gooey romance, it gives back with really, truly epic battles. Unforgettable.

Gutenberg etext

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Favourite (vintage) Short Stories

Who doesn't love a good short story? A fraction of the effort of a full-length novel; and, if you're lucky, just as much of a punch. Here's a list of some of my favourites:


The Sin of the Bishop of Modenstein by Anthony Hope

You've read The Prisoner of Zenda, we hope. You were intrigued and properly shocked by the wild, the wicked, the strangely attractive Rupert of Hentzau. But did you know that not all Rupert's ancestors were wild and wicked? Some of them were wild and good, and it was said of the Hentzaus that the good ones feared God, and the bad ones didn't, but none of them ever feared anything else beside. The delightful Bishop of Modenstein is a case in point...

The Sire de Maletroit's Door by Robert Louis Stevenson

One should never pass through a door that appears to be open for no discernible reason upon a street full of rascals; but if one should be so foolish as to do so, he might as well be ready for what waits on the other side.

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

This is one of the most famous short stories ever written, and the plot has been imitated so many times in so many television shows (as diverse as Get Smart and Dollhouse) that you probably already feel familiar with it; but this is the classic, the first, and the best. Cast away on a sinister island, Rainsford learns the horrible secret of the Most Dangerous Game in the most unpleasant way possible...

The Lemnian by John Buchan

Why are so few stories written about Thermopylae? And yet this one isn't about a Spartan. It's about a Lemnian, a man not even supposed to be there, a man who hates the Spartans. Buchan's unforgettable story brings ancient Greece to life—or, more importantly, to something a little larger.


The Sins of Prince Saradine by GK Chesterton

I admit I haven't read all of Chesterton's Father Brown stories—I seriously doubt anyone could, and remain quite right in the head—but of all the ones I've read, this is one of the most memorable, partly because of the brilliant misdirection and twist...and partly because of the colours, the violent chiaroscuro of sun and sky that Chesterton excelled in evoking with nothing but black ink and white paper.


Space by John Buchan

I don't know exactly why, of all Buchan's masterful eerie stories, I find this most disturbing. How did he make the coldly mathematical so much more terrifying than the ancient and bloody numinous (see, for example, The Wind in the Portico or The Grove of Ashtaroth)? However it was done, I find it truly scary—and it's possibly the only entry in the undeveloped genre of mathematical horror!

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor

This is still the only story I've read by Flannery O'Connor, that sweet Catholic lady who was so given to writing really, really, really disturbing short stories. Unlike 99% of really disturbing short stories about serial killers, however, this one is not about random acts of violence in a meaningless world, but frightening works of Divine Grace in an unsafe universe.


Gertrude the Governess by Stephen Leacock

Leacock, the great satirist, here takes on late-Victorian melodrama in the style of Ethel M Dell and her sobbing sisterhood. The result is one long laugh from beginning to end, and I only wish you could have the benefit of my deceased maternal grandfather's copy of this story, which has rude comments written in the margins that somehow manage to make it even funnier. I will not further describe the story to you, save to say that Leacock is in some sort the spiritual father of the celebrated Goon Show, which in turn influenced Monty Python. Enjoy.

The Coming of Gowf by PG Wodehouse

I had reserved this slot for Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo, my favourite of all Wodehouse's Mulliner stories, but as that is not available online, this is the clear second choice. It is unique among all Wodehouse's short stories in that it is set in an ancient quasi-Babylonian kingdom; it's possibly the only Conan-the-Barbarian-style golf story you'll ever read. Has been one of my favourites for years, despite the fact that it's a golf story and I've never played golf in my life. A Mixed Threesome and Sundered Hearts from the same collection are also particularly good.

The Cast-Iron Canvasser by Banjo Paterson

The Inventor would have argued that it was no good wasting his wonderful invention on a tiny town in the Australian Outback. But the firm of Sloper and Dodge, publishers and printers, were pretty sure it was the ghastly automatic salesman itself that was the problem.

The Loaded Dog by Henry Lawson

Australia's best-loved short story tells of the kind of frantic afternoon three dimwitted prospectors might expect to have if they should be so silly as to let their brainless mutt anywhere near a homemade bomb...

Lawson also wrote some short stories I don't care for at all—I'm a Paterson supporter—but I cannot possibly finish without highly recommending another of his hilarious dog stories, We Called Him “Ally” For Short.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin

The Enchanted April was written in 1922 by Elizabeth von Armin, an Australian-born English novelist who became German nobility by marriage! Elizabeth had a varied and perhaps not an entirely happy life and her marriages seem to have been troubled.

Perhaps she wrote this gentle, funny, sweet comfort of a book to escape into a world where even fading love could be restored. I hope she found as much happiness in writing it as I got from reading it.

The Enchanted April tells the story of four very different women who, for one reason or another, make the spur-of-the-moment decision to rent a small castle in Italy for a month in spring. Mrs Lotty Wilkins hasn't had a holiday for a very long time; at home, she feels both dominated and ignored by her economical lawyer husband. Sweet, gentle Mrs Rose Arbuthnot used to be madly in love with her Frederick, but her pious disapproval of the way he makes money writing about famous royal mistresses has slowly but surely driven a wedge between them. Elderly Mrs Fisher, who finds a way to make people realise that she is in charge of things, rejoices in the personal friendships she had in her youth with all the great Victorian authors. And Lady Caroline Dester, an unhappy young society beauty, only wishes to nurse a broken heart.

Under the spell of an Italian spring, surrounded by sunshine and flowering gardens, one by one lives and marriages are transformed. The book is slow-moving and lazy, like its characters, but weaves its spell so surely, with such deft touches of characterisation and the gentlest possible satire, that you'll only luxuriate in its pace. And at the end of it, you'll feel like you just spent a month in an Italian castle, too.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda. What a book! I still remember the day I got it from the library--an ugly old large-print hardcover--and found myself unable to tear myself away, it was so exciting and wonderful. Even if you've never heard of the book, you know the plot: English gentleman of leisure Rudolf Rassendyll travels to the small Balkan kingdom of Ruritania shortly before the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. There's a family legend that says the Rassendylls have royal Ruritanian blood, and indeed when our hero gets to that country it becomes obvious that he and the new king are identical cousins! Tickled by this happenstance, the King invites Rudolf for a cousinly feast on the eve of his coronation...and then mysteriously disappears, spirited away by his scheming half-brother, Black Michael! The King's two loyal aides, Colonel Sapt and Count Fritz von Tarlenheim, swear that Black Michael shall never sit on the throne of Ruritania...and the only way to stop him is to put Rudolf Rassendyll there instead, pretending to be the real King! In disguise, our hero must outwit Michael and his six sinister henchmen, romance the real King's fiancee, escape multiple assassination attempts, and find a way to rescue the King from the sinister Castle Zenda!

Pardon the exclamation marks. They seemed necessary.

This book is wonderful. What with the danger, romance, intrigue, galloping through the moonlight, swimming moats, getting stabbed, and falling prey to the lovely Princess Flavia, our Rudolf manages to have a tolerably amusing time. It's an exhilarating adventure, practically perfect in every way. The characters simply ooze a dramatic sense of honour and duty:

Colonel Sapt: If that door is opened while we're away, you're not to be alive to tell about it.
Fritz von Tarlenheim: I need no schooling, Colonel.

And of course there's Rupert of Hentzau, Black Michael's right hand and chief backstabber. No other villain in the canon of Western Literature manages to be evil with this much shameless panache.

The book ends on a bittersweet note, with a sequel hook, of which more later. It may be imperfect, but whenever anyone says 'Vintage swashbuckler' this is the first book I think of: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope, adventure novel extraordinaire.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Welcome to Vintage Novels!

Hello, and welcome to my little blog. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Aussie, I was homeschooled, and I love old books. I love dramatic sword fights. I love mustache-twirling villains. I love melodrama and a bit of romance. And most of all, I love being able to read deliciously adventuresome books online, for free.

This blog is dedicated to all those bestsellers of yesterday--all those thrilling adventures, those implausible plots, those swashbuckling heroes and feisty heroines. Above all it is dedicated to the public domain. I intend mostly to concentrate on books available for free online; vintage novels tend otherwise only to be available for $120 from a small shop in Reykjavik. I don't want to be always singing the praises of books you can't get for love or money.

The lover of vintage novels has a few invaluable resources online. The first is, of course, Project Gutenberg, the largest repository of free public-domain ebooks in the world. Arthur's Classic Novels links to many Gutenberg-prepared novels, but provides a system that's easier on the eye, and provides some information on bestsellers per year.

Finally, allow me to introduce Librivox to you--a collection of free, public-domain ebooks which makes the reading of vintage books that little bit more feasible to those of you who can't stand reading off a computer screen! Their 'Prisoner of Zenda' is particularly good.

Do enjoy...


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