Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Splendid Spur by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

This was quick and easy read...which is why I got through it so briskly. You may know something of Quiller-Couch; he wrote "On The Art of Writing" (and "On The Art of Reading") under his own name. But his historical romances he often published simply as, "Q".

The Splendid Spur is set in the early years of the English Civil War. Jack Marvel is a student at Cambridge when he inherits from a murdered friend a mission to the King at Cornwall. On the way he ends up saving the dead man's sister, Delia Killigrew, from the same bloodthirsty ruffians that killed her brother, and then losing her again when both of them are captured by Parliamentary troops. Desperate to fulfill his mission, Jack manages to escape and even sees action at Stamford Heath. But who is trying to wipe out the Killigrew family, and why?

As you can tell, the book is written from the Royalist perspective. This necessarily results in a certain shallowness: any closer study of the period would show how terribly the King behaved, how sober and well-trained was the middle-class army of Parliament, and how their only crime was that of being distinctly middle-class. More than once the hero and heroine are captured by Parliamentarians, and I had to consider how fortunate they were. Had they been Puritans in the power of royalists, they might have expected outrageous treatment, as has been well-documented.

Although the book is shallow, it's rescued somewhat by the author's adoption of a very light and comical touch, as if he doesn't expect it to be taken seriously. Q isn't afraid to poke fun at his greenhorn hero, and parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny. In addition the message of the book is apt, deftly-handled, and not belaboured. Fleeing with Delia, Jack is saved once more by the noble self-sacrifice of a friend who, as she dies, tells him that he is a weak man after all. Delia agrees, and Jack fails to understand--just as he fails to understand the riddle of The Splendid Spur. What is it that makes the difference between a weak man and a strong man; between immaturity and maturity? The answer is responsibility and the same spirit in which another lover sang to his lady as he marched to the same wars--

I could not love thee, dear, so much
Lov'd I not Honour more

I wouldn't put it past Quiller-Couch to have written a whole novel illustrating those two lines! As befits a man who wrote on the Art of Writing, Q's prose is clear, elegant, and a pleasure to read; stylistically excellent. But a better writer would have made more of his subject-matter.

Gutenberg etext

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