Sunday, February 27, 2011

Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner

I love those little paperback Puffin Classics as they were being printed a few years ago, with the colourful spines and that reassuring “Complete and Unabridged” printed on the cover. I have come across so many good books—Heidi, and Rupert of Hentzau, and others—as Puffin Classics that when I come across one I have never heard of before, I will buy and read it with confidence.
Such was Moonfleet. I had never heard of it before. I had never seen it before. I had no idea what it was about. But as I found, it is another excellent adventure story from a hundred-odd years ago, well-written and exciting.
It tells the story of orphaned John Trenchard, who at fifteen year old finds himself tumbling into a mystery. He lives in the little seaside village of Moonfleet, which trades in fish and the finest French brandy—the latter to the deep chagrin of His Majesty's Excise-men. When a midnight jaunt in search of the local ghost's famous ill-gotten treasure keeps him out all night, John's aunt refuses to receive him back and he is taken in by Elzevir Block, whose own son was killed in a brandy-and-redcoats-related accident.
John soon joins Elzevir in the family brandy import business, but when one cargo runs into trouble leaving John and Elzevir with the blood of a local attorney on their hands, the pair have to flee.
Moonfleet could best be described as a cross between Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. It's a fast-paced first-person narrative with smugglers, danger, shipwreck, young love, hidden treasure, ghosts, regret, and the getting of wisdom. It also has two specific advantages in being a vintage novel: first, it is written by a Christian man with due reverence for the clergy, for Providence, and for virtue. Second, it is well-written, in the matchless Victorian prose that has degenerated irretrievably since the time of Austen, Stevenson, Buchan, Lewis, Chesterton, Haggard, and Tolkien. I am thrilled to have found it, and although I am a little old to really enjoy it as it deserves, one day it will be brought out for the enjoyment of my own youngsters, and they'll like it even more than I do.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Chase by Louisa May Alcott

Like every other bookish young girl, I dutifully read Alcott's other works, Little Women and Good Wives and Little Men and Eight Cousins and a few others, and enjoyed them quite a lot. However, as I began to get older, I began to see things I didn't like about Alcott. An article in an old copy of Chalcedon Magazine alerted me to Alcott's Transcendentalist strain of Unitarianism, and once I'd seen that I began to see other things. Alcott's characters often have absent fathers, and their religion is a feminised version of the real thing—a protofeminist herself, Alcott paints a picture of religion in which women are the spiritual teachers and examples to be set on pedestals; when her male characters become more pious, they often also become less manly.
I also lost a lot of my regard for Alcott when reading Eight Cousins, when she inveighs against GA Henty-style stories for boys. Oh, sure, you need discernment reading Henty—as much as you need reading Elsie Dinsmore, and probably less than you need reading Rafael Sabatini. But to say that boys shouldn't read Henty-style stories, in favour of the kind of story the author obviously prefers and is writing—romantic stories about idealised women—seems both hypocritical and cruel.
All of this is not to say that one shouldn't read Alcott. It is to say that one shouldn't read her books uncritically.
In the same chapter that Alcott discusses Henty-style stories, she also dismisses sensational pulp fiction. Any of my gentle readers who know Chesterton's defence of pulp-style fiction will be unsympathetic. Whatever your stance on sensational stories of blood and thunder, you'll be interested that Alcott wrote a lot of highly sensational fiction herself, for a female market.
These books aren't as good as her classics, but they are way more fun. A moral about the dangers of unwise love is a lot more interesting than a moral about the dangers of tobacco or billiards or whiskey—and a whole lot more important.
Of these books—I've read a number—the best is probably The Chase. Excuse me, I'll give the original title: A Long Fatal Love Chase.
It tells the extremely melodramatic story of a girl named Rosamond, who lives in gothic splendour with her old grandfather, and begins the novel rather ominously with the words,
I tell you I cannot bear it! I shall do something desperate if this life is not changed soon. It gets worse and worse, and I often feel as if I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

Rosamond's wish for freedom renders her an easy target for Phillip Tempest, a mysterious and handsome stranger who comes to visit her grandfather. When Tempest spirits her away aboard his yacht and asks her to marry him, Rosamond thinks all her dreams have come true. All too soon, however, Tempest's past begins to catch up with him, and Rosamond cannot but learn the terrible truth of her happiness. Devastated, she flees from his house—only to find that she has become his obsession; an obsession only death will break...
(Roll on the timpani, please...tha-a-a-at's right).
This is in some ways an unusual book. The cover says it's “daring”, but to be honest Rosamond's harsh awakening and long penance hammers home the moral—don't run off with mysterious, handsome strangers—with never a whiff of impropriety on the author's part. A really bad book would show 'true' (read: stupid unholy) 'love' conquering all, and Tempest rewarded for his obsession with Rosamond's love and forgiveness. This book avoids that.
But I can't recommend it for the immature or those seeking great literature. It's one of those “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” books that Christians seem to love writing, in which the main characters indulge in the most wild and gaudy vices leading up to their sensational redemption and happy ending. The life of vice depicted in the first half, or three-quarters, of the book is far more interesting than the character's actions after redemption. Maximum angst and thrills are milked out of the main character's tortured struggle between alluring evil and inexorable good.
The Chase falls roughly into this category, and while I don't believe it's a poisonous or even a terribly bad book (mediocre is the word), it makes me think. Where is the line between showing a character's conflict between good and evil—even alluring evil—and voyeurism? How can you avoid glamourising evil when writing about the slow dissatisfaction and redemption of a vice-ridden main character?
The moral of The Chase—don't marry a pig in a poke, even if the poke's incredibly good-looking—is not terribly groundbreaking. The reason The Chase exists is because Alcott wanted to make some money out of an old-fashioned potboiler. And if her other books—Little Women, for instance—are anything to go by, then the way to make quick money back then was through cheap thrills.
Books are food for the imagination, for the heart and the will. Some books are like dining in the most expensive Paris restaurant you can imagine—some are like a cleansing diet—some are good plain everyday food—some are deadly poison—some are sugary treats—some are like popcorn. The Chase is the literary equivalent of a fish and chips dinner—strictly speaking, fish and potato are good for you, but this stuff has been deep-fried, and though it makes a nice treat it shouldn't be confused with real food.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse, the greatest comic writer in the English language bar none, is always very funny. But some of his books soar above the others--comic masterpieces which never grow old.

One of these is Leave it to Psmith, which I think is his best book; but the admitted pinnacle of his whole career is the series of books kicked off with Right Ho Jeeves, which tells of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster's frantic attempts to make sure Miss Madeleine Bassett, that droopy, goopy female, remains safely affianced to Gussie Fink-Nottle, the celebrated newt-studier.

The Code of the Woosters comes second in this epic. It has been some time since the events narrated in Right Ho, Jeeves. And like in Right Ho, Jeeves, the looming trouble on Bertie's horizon is first signified by a telegram.

Serious rift Madeleine and self. Come at once Totleigh Towers. Gussie.

Bertie's first impulse is to run for the Himalayas. Totleigh Towers is the very lair of the beast. It is the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett, a hanging judge who once fined Bertie for ten pounds for stealing a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night—and stealing a policeman's helmet on Boat Race Night is positively de rigeur. It is moreover the home of Madeleine Bassett, who has the wholly mistaken notion that Bertie is madly in love with her, and who has vowed to marry him “and make him happy” should her engagement with Gussie ever fall through; of Roderick Spode, an amateur dictator (his organisation is known as the Black Shorts), who has loved Madeleine since she was so high and is determined to crush any man who makes her unhappy into a fine paste; of the rising young curate, a beefy old school-fellow of Bertie's known as the Rev Harold “Stinker” Pinker; and last but oh-so-very-much-not-least, young Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, whose mad schemes to revenge herself on a local policeman may well prevent her fiance Stinker from ever becoming a vicar.

With all this in mind, Bertie is inclined to oil off and let the rift in Love's lute fix itself. But then his Aunt Dahlia takes charge. Her husband Tom and Sir Watkyn Bassett are rival collectors of old silver, and Sir Watkyn has just nipped in and bought an antique silver cow-creamer (it's a cream-jug that looks like a cow) which Tom was in the final stages of negotiations to buy. Aunt Dahlia regards Sir Watkyn as little better than a thief, and now she orders the hapless Bertie to go to Totleigh Towers and pinch it back...

With Sir Watkyn and the formidable Spode already under the impression that Bertie is a criminal of the blackest dye, Madeleine and Gussie on the rocks with the threat of an engagement to the former hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles, Stiffy's insistence that Bertie be the stooge in a variety of halfwit operations, and with the cow-creamer changing hands between the different players in this mind-boggling game of wits, you could forgive even Bertie's peerless valet Jeeves for not quite knowing what to do next.

The Code of the Woosters is Wodehouse at the very peak of his abilities. I laughed till I cried the first time I read it, and despite having read it a dozen times since, it has never ceased to amuse. From Stiffy's Aberdeen terrier Angus, who “looks like a Scottish elder rebuking sin from the pulpit”, to the cryptic pronunciation, “I know all about Eulalie” which reduces Spode from a ravening beast to gentle, cooing compliance, this book is unforgettable. Read it, enjoy it, and marvel at Wodehouse's skill.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Magnificent Bardelys by Rafael Sabatini

Ah, Sabatini. Writer of trashy vintage swashbucklers that have somehow become classics.
You don't go to a Sabatini novel for three-dimensional villains or deep insights into the human condition. You go for two things, and two things only: One, swashbuckling adventure. Two, implausibly antagonistic romance.
In some ways, The Magnificent Bardelys is the only Rafael Sabatini novel ever written. All the others are shadows of it. If one ever got to the place where Plato keeps all his archetypes (see also: Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion) the Platonic archetype Sabatini novel would be The Magnificent Bardelys. All his other works would have been absorbed back into it. Never before have villains been so despicable. Never before have two lovers put each other through so much.
To be sure, The Magnificent Bardelys is not Sabatini's best novel. That would probably be Captain Blood. And The Sea-Hawk is also rather quintessential as far as Sabatini novels go. But if you asked which of Sabatini's novels I hold the tenderest regard for, it would be this one.
Attend, therefore! The Marquis of Bardelys has it all. He's wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. He's best friends with King Louis XIII (of Three Musketeers fame). He's young, good-looking, high-born, and a magnificent swordsman. He can't move without tripping over the beautiful women, young and old, at his feet.
He has one enemy: the Count de Chatellerault, who is consumed with jealousy for his position and wealth. When the Count returns from Languedoc complaining bitterly of the cold reception given him by the lovely and chaste heiress Roxalanne de Lavedan, the Marquis can't help teasing him about it. No man, says the Count, not even the magnificent Bardelys, can touch that cold heart. The Marquis rather thinks he can—and stung by envy and anger, the Count proposes a wager. The Marquis must conquer the heiress of Lavedon within three months...or lose his entire fortune.
Believing that the heart does not beat that will not fall to his charms, and reluctant to appear cowardly before his friends, the Marquis accepts the wager and sets out for Languedoc. Unfortunately, rebellion is brewing in the southern provinces and before he knows, Bardelys is caught in a tangled web of spies, intrigue, stolen identities, and love. He expected to make Roxalanne de Lavedan love him; he did not expect to lose his heart to her at their very first meeting.
What was that little saying of Shakespeare's about the path of true love being tortuously convoluted? He must have been thinking something along the lines of the story in this book. The Marquis loves Roxalanne. He is not who she thinks he is. She has fundamental objections to his behaviour. There is a lot of melodrama. Melodrama happens, when the woman of your dreams tries to have you killed.
I slept ill when at last I sought my bed, and through the night I nursed my bitter grief, huddling to me the corpse of the love she had borne me as a mother may the corpse of her first-born.

You would not believe the vicissitudes that befall this luckless pair--terrible misunderstanding follows upon terrible misunderstanding, and the whole is punctuated with duels, uprisings, beheadings at dawn, betrayals, and passionate declarations of everlasting hatred. It's hilariously over-the-top fun from beginning to end.
I generally read this kind of book in mid-semester, when my brains have been addled by the hard study of law. I found it very soothing indeed, although of little real substance.

Gutenberg etext

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

This was the first of Elizabeth Goudge's books for grown-ups that I've read. Previously I'd read Smoky-House and The Little White Horse, and thanks to Mrs Sonnemann's kind loan I've now been able to read The Rosemary Tree.
The story revolves around some of the inhabitants of a small West Country town. The vicar of Belmaray, John Wentworth, is a man nearly crippled by a sense of his own failure. An intensely conscientious man, he persists in his duty to his flock despite this, spurred on by a love for his people's souls that surmounts his natural timidity of themselves. His wife Daphne, who was once an actress with a smart set in London, is dogged by discontent; their children are miserable in the local private school, Oaklands. His old nanny, who originally came to live with them to keep house, is now crippled by arthritis and in constant pain.
John is also by right the local squire, though his great-aunt Miss Maria Wentworth is the only one still living in the family's ancient home Belmaray. Maria has lived at and loved Belmaray all her life; now that she's getting old and losing everything else she loves, she wonders how she will bear to part with Belmaray itself when the Wentworth family's finances force them to sell.
At Oaklands, the two schoolteachers, pretty young Mary O'Hara and ugly, embittered old Miss Giles both struggle against the poisonous and slovenly atmosphere induced by the school's self-centred headmistress, Mrs Belling.
And finally, there's the mysterious man who wanders, penniless and hungry, into town one day. Michael Stone, newly released from prison, is running away from the ghosts in his past, but it's going to take more than running away to get rid of them.
You would be correct in thinking this is not a cheerful set-up. Sadness—gentle and a little hopeful—rises out of this book like a scent. Add in the deeply introspective passages, the slow and detailed character development, and detailed descriptions of the world of the story, and you have one of those books that I normally avoid. I have a weakness for explosions. Or fencing duels—I'm not picky. I could tell at once that there would be no explosions in The Rosemary Tree, and I feared at first that there would not be much else to grasp my attention either.
Dear reader, I stayed up late every night for a week absolutely gripped by this book. I didn't rush through it—it's far too good for that—but I read it every spare moment. Following are some of my few observations about this extremely rich and satisfying story:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Poem: Christian Confidence by Dùghall Buchanan

It's been a while since we've had a Friday Poem, and I was suddenly wondering why I've never posted this one! It's a wonderful hymn originally written in Scots Gaelic. I was introduced to it on the CD Soul Shelter by my friend (and regular Vintage Novels reader) Christina (nee) Sonnemann.

In the liner notes for her CD, Christina introduces the song briefly:

6. Highland Hymn
Traditional Scottish melody/ Dùghall Buchanan (1716-176-?)
A Highland poet and a self-educated preacher (known as "the John Bunyan of the Highlands"), Buchanan assisted in translating the New Testament into Scottish Gaelic. The unique beauty of Buchanan's poetry is considered to be untranslatable into English. This may be the first recording of this hymn, originally Earbs' a Chriosduidh (Christian Confidence). In 1888 the hymn was set to 'an ancient Gaelic air' in Songs and Hymns of the Scottish Highlands.

Christian Confidence
by Dùghall Buchanan

Lord, if Thou plantest me in Christ,
In bloom shall burst my withered tree.
Weighed down to earth its boughs shall be
With graces as with fruits unpriced.

Oh, grant an earnest of Thy love,
Which shall me from life's terrors save,
And all the horrors of the grave.
And raise my thoughts to heaven above.

Then let the billows rise in pride.
Let thunders through the heavens roar,
Come earthquakes, plagues, and famines sore.
Dispensing death on every side ;

Be Thou the God of my poor soul,
Their friendship I shall then enjoy ;
No sea can drown, nor plague destroy.
Nor fire burn, but with Thy control.

While Thou hast power in Thine arm,
From every ill I am secure,
And as my God can ne'er be poor,
Want cannot cause my soul alarm.

My hope, desire, and fear for aye
Shall in my God concentred dwell,
For heaven and earth and lowest hell
Shall my Almighty King obey.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of the West by O Henry

O Henry wrote nothing but short stories.
This amazes me. To write a short story you need to pick something just the right length, an anecdote almost, capable of being spun out into a story. There needs to be quick hook, and then another quick twist at the end. Characters need to be made sympathetic in an instant, and the plot cannot unfold slowly over the course of years. The idea of trying to write a really good short story makes me dissolve in horror.
O Henry's short stories are not of uniform quality. Everyone's heard about his most famous short story, The Gift of the Magi, which is one of those simple, sentimental, achingly romantic ideas that will catapult you into the literary stratosphere and keep you there long after people have stopped reading you for fun. Some of his stories lack that brilliance, but they are all simple and sentimental.
The Heart of the West is entirely comprised of stories set in the American West, and may have been partially based on tales—tall or true—which O Henry heard during his wanderings in Texas and Mexico.
There are nineteen short stories in this collection, some more and some less memorable. Romance among the cattle-royalty is a recurring feature, as are the adventures in love and scraps of the humbler cow-punching classes. All of them could be told as quick anecdotes over a campfire; maybe some of them were once. O Henry has polished them up to a high shine, peopled them with vivid characters, and wrung from them every drop of humour or pathos.
As for the humour, “Telemachus, Friend” is the droll tale of a man whose staunch loyalty to his best friend prevents him courting their mutual crush without said best friend present, while “Cupid a la Carte”, narrated in hilariously grandiose style, tells the story of a man's battle to overcome his sweetheart's peculiar aversion to the eating habit. For sentimentality, try “Christmas by Injunction,” “A Chaparral Prince”, which plays on your heartstrings so obviously as to provoke indifference to the plight of its bathetic child heroine, or “The Reformation of Calliope”, which more pleasantly tells how a very bad man tried to put on his best front for his mama.
My favourites are “An Afternoon Miracle” and “The Princess and the Puma.” The former has the strong, silent lawman fighting the villainous outlaw for the safety of an exotic beauty, but not all is as it appears, and I love how O Henry brings unique, slightly subversive characters out of these familiar archetypes. The latter tells of an abortive attempt by a cowboy to impress the daughter of a local cattle-king, the twist of which I found completely hilarious.
The most memorable stories from this collection are both a bit different from the rest. “The Sphinx Apple” is the one story that does not seem pat or easy; here the last few paragraphs put a dead end to the fanciful flights of the rest of the story, and silences all the characters with delicate irony. “The Caballero's Way” is grand-opera tragedy, complete with love, betrayal, and revenge.
You might say that O Henry is formulaic, but I'd rather put it this way: He knows his job, and he does it well. These stories don't seek to overturn tables or smash barriers; they neither storm the Bastille nor nail up their ninety-five theses. But they are all written with wit, love, and that little bit of wisdom that makes you love the vagaries of humanity...even the most sentimental ones.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rowntree's Proofreading Online

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And I will return you to your regularly-scheduled book-reviews shortly. Thank you all!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beau Sabreur by PC Wren

Everyone knows about Beau Geste, the most famous English novel about the French Foreign Legion. If you've read it, you remember: those opening scenes, the fort manned by silent and motionless men, the fire, the jewel, the mystery. What happened at Fort Zinderneuf? Two of the men who disappeared into the desert, never to be heard of again--the scrapegrace Americans Hank and Buddy--were his own men, but Major Henri de Beaujolais of the Spahis, that dashing officer, rarely permits himself the luxury of curiosity. The Americans are dead, that must be it...

Beau Sabreur, the sequel to Beau Geste, is the Major's story. How he travelled to join the Legion; how he lived a life of adventure and danger and excitement; how he travelled in disguise as a spy; how he dueled and battled in the pursuit of his stern Duty to France. This is a melodramatic romance, I might as well let you know at once, and so (naturally) this love of Duty calls forth a corresponding scorn of the wiles of women in the gallant Major's heart. Only a fool would give his heart to a woman; the wise man stands free, and is not enslaved by a glance or led about by feminine whims.

You can already see where this story is going, can't you? The Major meets--and is captivated by--Miss Mary Hankinson Vanbrugh, an American lady travelling, somewhat unwisely, in the desert as the guest of the commandant of the French-held town of Zaguig. All too soon Zaguig becomes a formerly French-held town; in a bloody uprising, its inhabitants rid themselves of their shackles. De Beaujolais is torn three ways--between his Duty, which calls him away at once bearing important news to his superiors; his brother-soldiers, who are left to perish defending the citadel; and his natural inclination to rescue Miss Vanbrugh, fling Duty to the winds, and whirl her away to the Saharan equivalent of Gretna Green.

Meanwhile, there have among the Arab tribes risen to prominence two mysterious men who have welded those splintered tribes into a force to be reckoned with. Though he has saved life, love, and honour intact from the ruin of Zaguig, the trial of Major Henri de Beaujolais's love and honour has only just begun...

This is a really hard book to classify. Oh, it's not a good book; it lacks all the brilliance of Beau Geste and most of that book's good points, while capitalising heavily on its weak points. In fact I found it slightly infuriating.

From the summary so far, you will be forgiven for supposing that it's complete bosh from beginning to end--silly romantic stuff, over which young ladies like myself might be supposed to drop silent tears. It might as well, you say, have been written by Rosie M Banks.

Well, not quite.

Halfway through this gelatinous plot, the book abruptly changes gears and commences to laugh at itself. We hear a different side of the story. We are thrown to the care of different characters. Instead of slush, we are treated to comedy that is nearly as tiresome. It wraps up with a plot twist--or maybe more of a slight hiccup--that does not amaze, since we guessed it on page 37 when it was first foreshadowed.

This mid-story change of gear is not entirely unfortunate. There's quite a lot in the second half that is a good deal funnier and more interesting than the first. And it's nice to know that PC Wren could laugh at his own melodrama. But the problem with deflating that romantic bubble, so carefully overblown in part 1, is that the book then explodes with a faint pop, leaving only a quickly-dispersed mist behind. An anticlimax, in fact. It is as though you were watching a play, and halfway through, found yourself looking into the green-room and the wings.

Beau Sabreur is memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Read it only if you really, really want to know what happened to the characters from Beau Geste...

Gutenberg Australia etext


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