Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt

On this day, October 31 1517, a German monk protesting the sale of indulgences nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenberg, a university town, sparking an astonishing hundred-year revitalisation of Christendom known today as the Reformation. October 31 has been celebrated ever since as Reformation Day by all those who remember the remarkable sacrifices and service rendered not just by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melancthon, and the others but also by thousands of common men and women across Europe who humbled their hearts before the clear word of God and, in many cases, lost their lives.

Today is Reformation Day, and tomorrow is the older festival of All Saints’, so today I want to commemorate the Reformation with a very interesting book by a very interesting author: The Harvest of Yesterday by Emily Sarah Holt.

Emily S, or E S Holt as she is sometimes known, might best be described as a female GA Henty. Like Henty, she wrote primarily detailed historical novels set around the Reformation and other important periods. The Harvest of Yesterday is the first of her books I’ve been able to read, as they are basically out of print today. I found this one at a book fair in New Zealand among the antique books: a battered but beautiful old hardback, the presentation plate at the front dates it to 1895, two years after it was published.

The Harvest of Yesterday is a fictionalised biography of Anne Brandon, Baroness Grey de Powys, eldest daughter of that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk who is remembered by all Tudor history buffs as the man who so romantically married Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary after her first husband, the aged King of France, had died. Anne was the Duke’s daughter by a previous wife, a woman whom he’d married at common law and then repudiated in order to marry a wealthy widow. A few years later, he got an annulment for the widow and remarried Anne’s mother, who died the following year. He then sent Anne to Flanders to be raised by the Archduchess Margaret of Savoy, one of the most powerful women of that period, with whom he was carrying on a flirtation. When the Duke married Queen Mary of France, she begged him to bring Anne back to live with them and later, when she was about twenty, Anne was married to the by all accounts rather horrible Lord Grey de Powys. They separated a few years later and were eventually divorced. Anne went to live in Bethnal Green, near London, and eked out a dull existence being continually insulted and passed-over by all who knew her.

Emily Holt draws a sympathetic picture of a prickly, much-suffering woman, resigned to a life of obscurity and dullness right in the middle of some of the most exciting years of the Reformation. As well as being the gentle story of a much-wronged woman whose own inability to hope is her worst enemy, this book is a fascinating look at the period, filled with painstaking detail and thoughtful analysis of the people and the times. As in a GA Henty novel, some passages read like a history book; others like a novel, although the novel is gentle domestic fiction instead of thrilling adventure.

One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about this book was the theology discussed within its pages. At one point, a character is having a conversation with Bishop Latimer, who counsels as follows—
“Madam, the least sin that can be done is high treason. The value thereof is not reckoned by the import of the thing done, but by the majesty of Him against whom it is done. All sin deserveth the pains of Hell.” 
I was surprised to see this articulated so clearly, with so little hedging, in a book written in the 1800s when reformed theology of this calibre was not at all in vogue. Shades of John Piper, and also of the evangelistic approach of Ray Comfort, in a book written in 1893? Incredible—yet also profoundly encouraging.

The book was also full of fascinating historical detail about the times of the Reformation. We seem to be living in a bit of a Tudor craze right now—everyone’s lapping up salacious biographies of scandalous Tudor lives like anything, but missing out on the point of the whole thing, which was one solid knot of political unrest, religious rediscovery, and almost a panic revolving around covenant succession. If it was an age when a man like Henry VIII could get drunk on the beauty of a woman like Anne Boleyn, it was also an age in which men like Latimer, Ridley, and Knox could get drunk on the beauty of God—it was an age of gigantic sins and gigantic obedience, often coming from the very same people.

Then, you just have to look at the family lives of these people to realise that something was going on deeper than mere lust. Covenant and succession are the two main themes. Henry VIII’s constant covenant-breaking in the desperate search for a successor was no aberration. Charles Brandon had at least five wives. Divorce, annulments, separations, and widowings were common. Succession—and there can be no succession without covenant—drove further dissolution. Emily Holt makes the cogent point that at this period, just a generation out from the Wars of the Roses, England had no guarantee that without an heir she would not fall back into a ghastly series of wars. An heir was the only way to ensure peace, everyone thought, and that may explain why Henry was able to divorce the popular Katherine without losing the allegiance of his people.

But, just as in the royal family, families all over England were obsessing over succession. Like Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Anne Brandon experienced the uncertainty of never knowing whether she was currently considered legitimate. Meanwhile parents like Anne’s half-sister Frances and her husband Henry Grey saw their children as a path to power. Sons and daughters were married off to wealthy aristocrats who otherwise were obviously terrible matches.

Out of all this a surprising trend emerged. After her husband Lord Powys died, Anne Brandon remarried—a humble squire, Randal Haworth. After Charles Brandon, her father, died, his young widow Katherine Willoughby married her gentleman-usher, Mr Richard Bertie. After Henry Grey lost his head, Frances Grey married her stableman, Adrian Stokes. And of course, Mary, Queen of France, had married Charles Brandon, who Margaret of Savoy had been told was beneath her. Throughout this period, women who had married for advantage went on to marry to please themselves.

As regards the central character, Anne Powys, herself, the book is endlessly informative and interesting. I certainly found myself wanting to know more about her. Emily Holt portrays her as prickly, unloveable, but with a great thirst for love and the story follows her attempts to find peace and hope in a hostile world.

I was interested to read the Wikipedia article on Anne Powys, but surprised to note its disapproving tone. The Wikipedia article states that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she had caused a scandal by living openly with Randal Haworth (which the book does not mention), and that she conspired with a judge of Chancery to defraud her brother-in-law Henry Grey. It’s possible that new historical research has brought new records to light as regards Anne’s relationship with Haworth but as far as the ‘conspiracy to defraud’ goes, Emily Holt addresses this in her Historical Appendix: at first, she says, she believed Anne to be a party to the fraud:
Thus at first I understood it and […] for some time I thought very badly of her. A few entries on the Rolls led me afterwards to question this view of the case; and the result of careful research and investigation was to prove it wholly untenable. […] Differing views may be taken of Beaumont’s fraud; but after weighing the evidence, I see little reason to doubt that Anne was either altogether ignorant of the fraudulent part of the transaction; or that she was deceived into supposing that something was being done to recover for her lands to which she believed she had a right. The punishment which fell upon Beaumont was not shared by her. 
 She further shows that Anne, already quite poor, was disadvantaged by the transaction and concludes that the reason Anne was left out of her father’s will was that she was being treated as illegitimate, “since it was only on that head that she could be so treated.”

Whatever the truth of these matters, the Historical Appendix also contains Anne’s will, a very moving testament to this woman’s true character and eventual (early-Protestant) faith:
“I, Anne Lady Powes, one of the daughters and coheirs of the high and mighty Prince Charles, late Duke of Suffolk, by the license, assent, and consent of my loving husband, Randall Havworth Esq., do make this my last will and testament, being in perfect mind and memory, in this manner and form following. First, I do bequeath my soul unto Almighty God, beseeching him of his holy glory to forgive me all my trespasses in this world by me done and committed against his Majesty. And I repent me and lament me therefore, and am hartily sorry from the bottom of my heart, trusting verily in thy promises, good Lord, to be one of the partakers of thy blessed presence in heaven, and to have a saved soul; most humbly beseeching thee, good Lord, for pity and mercy sake, to redress my tedious, long, and wonderful sutes, pains, sorrows, and troubles, and that they may be a part of penance for my sins, so that with my said pains, wrongs, and grievous troubles being patiently taken for thy name sake may be to the salvation of my soul, bought with thy precious blood. Amen. And all the whole world, both poor and rich, that ever I have offended, I ask forgiveness, and also forgive all creatures that ever offended me.” 
The Harvest of Yesterday is a wonderfully detailed picture, remarkably accurate, of Anne Powys and her world. I enjoyed it, especially the historical detail and the firm Reformed perspective, and I look forward to reading more of Emily Sarah Holt’s books in the future.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Yesterday I took a break from the other vintage novel I'm reading to breeze though an early shilling shocker--Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, published in 1909.

The Four Just Men exist for one purpose: to pass and execute sentence of death upon men whose crimes have not or cannot be addressed by the justice system. Brilliant, ruthless, and dedicated, they have never yet known defeat.

Now, they take on their biggest job yet. A Spanish revolutionary determined to topple a corrupt Spanish government has fled to England for sanctuary--but time is running out, for Sir Phillip Ramon, the English Foreign Secretary, is pushing an extradition bill through Parliament. The Four Just Men arrive in London and create a media sensation when they announce that unless Sir Phillip withdraws the Bill, he will be killed. As journalists and detectives throw themselves into a fever of activity, a cordon is put around Sir Phillip, and the Four Just Men make their sinister preparations, it seems impossible that the murderers can succeed. But as they overcome every other obstacle in their path, it seems impossible that they should fail...

This was a very odd book. The most obvious thing was that there was no distinct protagonist through whom to experience the whole story. There are the Four Just Men, of course, but they are hardly protagonists. There's Sir Phillip Ramon, a well-drawn but unlikeable character. There's the detective, Falmouth, but he's not in enough of the story.

The other obvious thing was the dubious morality of the plot. I don't consider the Four Just Men at all justified in their actions, of course. Quite apart from the justice of killing a Cabinet Minister, only the civil government has authority to execute evil-doers. Private individuals have no authority to kill except in self-defence. So the Four "Just" Men are revolutionaries, using revolutionary tactics, and (in this instance) with revolutionary aims.

Perhaps Edgar Wallace understood that the Four "Just" Men were the bad guys (although he does not deal with them either as protagonists or antagonists), and that is why there is no unifying protagonist for the confused and alarmed forces of law and order in London.

This was an interesting and unusual, but ultimately unsatisfying book. I recommend it to people who like to treat a mystery story as a solvable riddle--the book originally appeared without the final chapter which holds the solution, and a prize was offered to those who could give the right explanation. But I have never enjoyed reading puzzles, and with so little encouragement given to hope that the good guys won and the villains got caught, the book was difficult to care about.

Gutenberg etext

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Novels of Mary Stewart

As Mary Stewart’s novels are a little more recent and a little less substantial than the books I usually like to review on this blog, I haven’t mentioned them so far. But the time was bound to come sooner or later, and here goes.

I first stumbled across Mary Stewart while browsing the Goodreads shelf of Douglas Wilson, one of my favourite theologians. Like him or loathe him, you can’t deny that Wilson says what he says with flair; he is endlessly readable and endlessly quotable, which can be attributed to his excellent taste in reading, especially the influences of Wodehouse, Chesterton, and Lewis. And so because I knew that Wilson has excellent taste in reading, when I noticed a book on his shelf titled The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart, an author I’d never heard of before, I sallied happily out and secured a copy from the library.

When I read the book, however, it did not interest me enough to make me want to read more until, on holiday in Tasmania, Mrs Sonnemann nudged me gently in the direction of her copy of The Ivy Tree. I was hooked, and from then on, I have been reading Mary Stewart at the comfortable rate of two or three per year, hoping to stretch out the experience as long as possible.

Mary Stewart is a writer of romantic suspense, with an emphasis on the suspense. She does for the 1950s and 60s what other authors did for the medieval, or Renaissance, or Restoration, or Georgian periods: she transforms it into an artform. In Mary Stewart’s Europe, as in Stevenson’s or Scott’s Jacobite Scotland or Dumas’s seventeenth-century France, adventure is always just around the corner, though it wears silk frocks instead of farthingales and drives fast cars instead of a coach-and-four.

The formula goes like this. A sophisticated, pretty, and erudite woman takes a holiday or a job in some sumptuous, lovingly-depicted location—Provence, Corfu, the Alps. Before long, she finds herself swept off her feet by some frightfully dangerous mystery, usually along with some sophisticated, erudite man who is mixed up in it somehow, and finds herself in a suspenseful battle of wits for her own survival. Clothes, scenery, weather, food, and horses are lovingly described, though not to boredom, and many allusions are made to classic literature or music.

There’s plenty to love about Mary Stewart. I usually hate descriptive writing, but hers never gets tiring; she can sketch a scene so well you can see every detail, without it bogging down the story. The setting of the story—whatever glorious location it is—is always one of the main characters. Then there’s the air of sophisticated femininity that undergirds all the novels. I am always wary of sophistication, but it’s so much fun to read about girls who know how to dress, where to take a holiday, and what book to read when they get there. In addition, Mary Stewart heroines are no action heroines. They may sprint to their car after distracting the mysterious man who has been hunting them across the South of France; but their main weapons are wit and charm. If anyone needs to be thumped, they will get the mysterious man to do it. Mary Stewart understands (as many authors and screenwriters do not) that it is difficult for the average woman to successfully assault a man. Her heroines rarely, if ever, try it. Instead they rely on their wits, their knowledge of their opponent’s personality, and what skill they may have.

This creates suspense far more effectively than violence, which is better suited to a visual medium like film. And Mary Stewart builds suspense very effectively. This is difficult for anyone to do, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve groaned over a book, “John Buchan would have done it better!” Mary Stewart’s books are mainly about personalities, clues, missed shots in the dark woods, mystery, and misguidance rather than action, but because she’s such an excellent writer, the books quickly become—and stay—gripping.

But perhaps the thing I like best about Mary Stewart is that she writes about ordinary people rising to the occasion under extraordinary pressure. I just found this quote:
"[I] take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not 'heroic' in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right." 
 If there is one overriding, deep theme in Mary Stewart’s books, this would be it.

There are, of course, some things to dislike about Mary Stewart. When I read The Moon-spinners, I was repulsed by something under the surface glitter—a facility, a soullessness. Mary Stewart’s characters move through a world of wonder and enchantment—a cat curled beneath a tree becomes Nidhung at the roots of Yggdrasil—but these symbols are empty of meaning, and the wonder is essentially unknowable. Stewart’s books are not themselves postmodernist, but they lean in that direction.

There are also some morally objectionable things in her books. The books don’t usually get too crude in their language, but casual blasphemy is commonplace. As far as morals, while the heroines are personally well-behaved, in a couple of books they have husbands and make use of them; while it’s not uncommon for someone to be suspected of an affair. But the only book I’d suggest avoiding on this score would be Touch Not the Cat.

The Mary Stewart books I have read, in the order I have read them, are as follows:

The Moon-Spinners: Nicola Ferris goes on holiday in Crete, and stumbles across a young Englishman hiding in the hills and convinced that he’s in terrible danger.

The Ivy Tree: Mary Grey, visiting Northumberland, is amazed when an angry young man at first mistakes her for someone else, then insists that she impersonate her. Mary agrees, and is drawn into a tangled, brooding web surrounding the mysterious, long-dead Annabel , her family, and the man who loved her. But not all is what it seems. One of Mary Stewart’s most complex and intriguing novels.

Nine Coaches Waiting: Linda Martin travels to the Chateau Valmy, near Lac Leman, as governess to its nine-year-old heir. His uncle, a crippled yet oddly charming and dynamic man, dominates the Chateau and everyone in it but his equally dynamic son. As sinister happenings pile up, Linda is sure her pupil is in danger—and only she can save him. This is my favourite Mary Stewart novel of all, possibly on its own account—or possibly because it’s so obviously intended to be a mesh of Jane Eyre and Cinderella in the style of John Buchan.

Touch Not the Cat: Bryony Ashley inherits three things from her father: a crumbling manor, the family ‘gift’—a telepathic link she shares with a man whose identity she does not know, apart from the fact that she’s in love with him--and one last message: a warning.

This Rough Magic: Lucy Waring goes to Corfu to visit her sister, and is charmed by the locals and the dolphin playing in the cove below her house, to say nothing of the possibility of meeting her sister’s neighbours, the famous actor Sir Julian Gale and his son Max. But then a local boy is drowned, someone tries to kill the dolphin, and Lucy becomes sure that Max Gale is behind it. This one was particularly enjoyable.

Thunder on the Right: Jenny Silver goes on holiday in the Pyrenees, and decides to investigate why her cousin Gillian suddenly decided to join a convent there. When she visits, the nuns tell her that her cousin is dead—but not everything adds up, and Jenny decides to investigate. Mary Stewart thought this was her worst book, and although it’s serviceable and showed some interesting ideas, I agree that stylistically it’s not up to scratch.

Airs Above the Ground: Vanessa March, who believes that her husband is in Brussells working prosaically for Pan-European Chemicals, is surprised to see him in a newsreel reporting a fire at a circus in Austria, with his arm around a blonde. Together with the horse-mad youngster she’s asked to escort to Vienna, Vanessa sets out to discover just what Mr March might be up to—and uncovers a mystery involving a circus, smuggling, and a long-lost Lipizzaner horse from the famous Spanish School of Vienna. Definitely one of my favourites.

Madam, Will You Talk?: Charity Selborne takes a holiday in Provence, but her peace is shattered when she meets an engaging young boy with a terrible secret weighing on him, and soon finds herself being hunted by a murderer intent on covering his tracks. Mary Stewart’s first published novel loses points for the unconvincing romance, but gains them all back again because Charity Selborne, though just as ladylike as any of her other heroines, can drive a car like a racing-driver, and it is lots of fun.

Mary Stewart’s novels will likely be best enjoyed by women in their twenties or up. I’ve enjoyed them very much so far, and look forward to working through the rest of them gradually over the next few years.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Brethren by H Rider Haggard (original edition)

Seven or eight years ago I borrowed a book from some friends: Rider Haggard’s The Brethren, edited (though I didn’t realise it at the time) by Christian Liberty Press. It immediately became my favourite Haggard book, and you can read my review of that edition here. Unfortunately, when a friend of mine was persuaded by my review to read the original, her reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic than mine. I realised that there must be differences.

It has taken me all these years to get my own copy of this thrilling book, and I finally ordered the cheapest version I could find, a reprint from Aegypan Press. The quality of the book is so-so; the print is sometimes a little dim, though I was able to read it with no trouble.

This I have just finished reading. Although I was unable to compare it with the CLP edition, I assume that that one has had the archaic speech modernised. I also assume that the one or two things I disliked about the book this time had been removed from the CLP edition.

I have mixed feelings about this trend of publishing neatened-up versions of vintage novels. On the one hand, finding silly things in an otherwise brilliant novel is disappointing, like not knowing when you’re going to find a caterpillar in your otherwise sumptuous caesar salad. On the other hand, I dislike reading a book that’s been de-archaised for younger audiences, and I like to know what an author really thought. The caterpillars were probably an intrinsic part of his artistic vision.

That said, let’s get on with the review.

The Brethren, a smashing book, is set during the Second Crusade and the terrible fall of the Crusader kingdom of Outremer. Salah-eh-din, Sultan of Damascus, has a dream which convinces him to send his men to England to bring back Rosamund, the daughter of his sister who (according to Haggard!) eloped with an English knight. This maid, Saladin is sure, will somehow prevent a terrible disaster and give him a bloodless victory.

Godwin and Wulf, Rosamund’s twin cousins, manage to rescue her from the first kidnapping attempt. In the aftermath, they realise that they both love Rosamund desperately. Appalled by the thought that they might become rivals and enemies for Rosamund’s hand, the two decide to let her choose between them. And when Rosamund is successfully snatched from her home by Saladin’s men, both brethren follow to rescue her or die in the attempt. Acting upon their dead uncle’s instructions, the brethren determine to seek help from the ominous and wicked Old Man of the Mountain—even against the warnings of the widow Masouda, the mysterious and beautiful innkeeper of Beirut, who spies for the Assassins. With Masouda’s help, the brethren find Rosamund again and save her from the villainous traitor Lozelle. But Saladin’s arm is long, and soon the brother knights discover that until Rosamund has fulfilled the purpose for which he brought her to the Holy Land, he will never let her go.

Again, this was a fantastic read. Mixing history, legend, far-fetched invention, and gallons of melodrama (from a single combat on a parapetless bridge “three paces” wide, to those wonderful chapters in which one of our four heroes must lose his or her head, and the four of them go round and round trying to save each other by sacrificing him or herself) The Brethren has just about everything needed by epic and sensational stories of heroism and adventure in that epic and heroic place and time that was Outremer. Haggard’s characterization here is particularly enjoyable: Godwin, who is conscientious, wise, and honourable; Wulf, who is more rash and thoughtless but who rises into selflessness by the end; Rosamund, whose pluck and self-sacrifice carry her through many terrors; and Masouda, still my favourite Haggard character of all time, who is intrepid and resourceful and always has an escape plan up her sleeve.

Again, the most enjoyable theme of the book was that of self-sacrifice, which was woven into the gripping adventure of the story. Each of the four main characters is ready to lay down his or her life for the others throughout the book, but as the danger grows and the stakes rise higher, death becomes more and more certain. Just like last time, this was my favourite aspect of the book.

Another aspect of the book that I missed last time was the history. This book does a magnificent job of depicting the fall of Outremer, as the last segment of it deals with the disastrous battle of Hattin and the resulting siege of Jerusalem under Balian of Ibelin. Earlier this year I read Knight Crusader, which also dealt with Hattin, so it was interesting to compare the two (fictional) accounts of that battle. Both accounts are harrowing, depicting really bad tactical decisions, a terrible slaughter, and mass beheadings of Christian prisoners after the battle.

But now for the caterpillars in this scrumptious salad of a book. I have mentioned before the distressing proclivity of vintage-novel heroines to stab themselves at the drop of a hat, and although early on in this book Rosamund’s father forbids her, she seems to spend most of the book on the verge of doing so, and the nuns in Jerusalem during the siege discuss it at such length and to so little purpose that I became tired of the subject.

Worse, however, was the narrator’s general attitude towards the Christian-Muslim conflict, which vaguely niggled at me for the whole book until I reached this line:
"Judge not. No god whom men worship with a pure and single heart is wholly false. Many be the ladders that lead to heaven. Judge not, you Christian knight." 
Oh, Haggard, you should know better. Paul says, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” And Christ Himself said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

However, despite the way Haggard's views affect his depiction of the two sides in this war, he mostly allows the characters to act consistently with their respective religions.

Like all Christian authors since the 1170s when Saladin rose to prominence as a chivalrous and worthy foe of Christendom whom they considered it an honour to have fought, Haggard depicts the sultan as enlightened, honourable, and faithful to his word—possibly more so than the man actually deserved. The conflict between Saladin’s reputation and his deeds is shown in the slaughter of Templars and Hospitallers after Hattin—apparently many “secular” knights, in protest of the massacre, also claimed to belong to one of these orders and died alongside them. But most of all the disconnect is shown in the Rosamund plotline. Saladin insists on having her with him because, he believes, she will bring peace to the Holy Land and being enlightened and honourable he wants peace. However, as he spends the second half of the book besieging and slaughtering his way around Palestine, I can’t help pointing out that there was a very easy way for him to have peace, had he wanted it: he could have gone back to Damascus.

Re-reading The Brethren, this time in its unedited edition, was an alloyed pleasure, marred by the usual tiresomeness of the vintage heroine and occasional bad theology. That aside, this book still stands among my very favourite Rider Haggard novels and was great fun to read, especially now that I know a little more about Hattin and Outremer.

Gutenberg etext

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Boy Colonel and Brothers At Arms by John J Horn

I love vintage novels for many reasons. One is that you are more likely to find solid Christian worldview or at least acceptable Christian morals in them. Another is that there’s nothing a vintage novel does as well as what I like to call melodrama (because I’m not sure what the real word for it is). I suspect this is because melodrama can’t take place unless the author is sincere, in holding something to be sacred.

It’s for these two reasons that I’ve made an exception to my usual rule not to review contemporary books. John J Horn’s two adventure novels The Boy Colonel and Brothers at Arms have just been published by Vision Forum, and from the description I knew they would be thrilling tales of adventure in the style of Henty, Haggard, and Ballantyne, with exactly the kind of Christian worldview and unabashed drama that I love so much in vintage novels.

One of the big questions I had, however, was just how good these books would be as far as plot and writing style goes. The answer surprised me.

The Boy ColonelA Soldier Without a Name! 

The 42nd Mounted Infantry is a crack regiment with the unlikeliest colonel in the British Army. No one knows exactly how old he is, what his name is, or who his parents are. But, though he’s only a boy, “Nobody”—as everyone calls him—is his regiment’s secret weapon, a brilliant strategist whose men would follow him anywhere.

The story follows Nobody’s adventures during a fictional 1837 war in Siberia (possibly inspired by the real-life Crimean War), together with his best friend the boy lieutenant Edmund, their rag-tag band of loyal followers, the Times correspondent covering the war, and the young lady to whom Nobody unexpectedly becomes engaged. With his origins shrouded in secret, an implacable enemy trying to have him killed, and a wicked young lord trying to steal his betrothed, Nobody must face the challenge of living the manly Christian life, whether it’s in the snowy trenches of Siberia, the glittering ballrooms of London, or the enemy-infested Pacific seas!

By far the best aspect of this book was the themes; nothing profound or life-changing, but just good solid diet for boys—be brave, protect women, respect authority, find answers in the Bible. The characterisation could have used improvement, but shows real potential in the easygoing relationship between Nobody and Edmund, and the flawed but sympathetic Somerset and Hayes.

Perhaps the most flawed aspects of the book came in the writing style and plotting. The author had difficulty hitting the right notes, especially in quieter, more introspective scenes, while the handling of the themes was a little laboured. Meanwhile the plot was not very tightly woven, with many unrelated elements.

However, when there were big dramatic moments for the author to get his teeth into, both plotting and writing shone. Good writing style pulled off a number of the best moments in the book, especially an unexpected rescue early on. Nothing reconciled me to the lacklustre heroine like the way she dealt with her unwanted suitor at the climax, while during action scenes, the writing style took on the best pulpy boys’-own manner.

In the end, this book showed more potential than it achieved. It’s the kind of book I’d recommend mainly as reading fodder for the kind of children who’ll read anything and desperately need something edifying to keep them occupied. And then I went on to read the second book, and…

Brothers at ArmsTreasure & Treachery in the Amazon!

…it was brilliant.

Identical twins Lawrence and Chester Stoning have been brought up by an absent-minded father and socialite mother. Or rather, Lawrence has been brought up carefully (complete with an extensive, no-frills philosophical, historical, scientific, and medical education) while Chester has been left to follow his heart into an action-packed training in all the martial arts and ripping yarns of chivalry and adventure. Each brother disdains the other’s gifts, but when Chester runs away from home Lawrence dutifully follows to keep him safe. Before they know it, they’ve been hired to protect a Spanish merchant and his beautiful ward Pacarina, who guards a deadly secret locked in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. With terrible danger threatening from greedy treasure-hunters and warlike natives, will Lawrence and Chester look past their differences, work together, and get home alive?

This book was absolutely it. Reading it brought back the twelve-year-old zest of books read under the covers late at night.

One or two things struck a false note--which I mention only to demonstrate how minor they are. A couple of words were used in odd ways. I’m not sure Western novels existed in the 1830s. The Protestants-vs-Romanists thread of the plot clanged a little, but maybe I'm just used to a high grade of Roman Catholics. Still this was treated with a light hand and did not detract from my enjoyment of the story at all. Finally I was sorry the author missed a perfectly good chance to get back at that despicable little heathen, Edward Gibbon, by having the narrator heave his copy of The Decline and Fall into a bog, but I can forgive that because it probably got burned or pinched by bloodthirsty natives or something.

Otherwise, this book was just great. It was not merely a competent adventure story; it was an outstanding adventure story.

The characters were excellent. I loved how both the brothers of the title had their own strengths and weaknesses. At first I thought the author might be putting down one or other of the brothers—perhaps Lawrence, for being so bad at violence, or perhaps Chester, for liking knights and damsels better than Sober Non-Fiction. But both these elements were skillfully used to add strength and sympathy to the characters. I found it really unusual and piquant that Lawrence—our narrator—was so bad at warfare for the hero of an action-adventure story. Now of course there are plenty of books out there in the postmodern smog that murble on about how violence is wrong and you must never do it and hurrah for sensitive heroes whose delicate souls get tragically crushed by the patriarchal violence of traditional Western society, blech. But in this book—an action-adventure book, no less—the author effortlessly balances his brains-and-brawn heroes and themes, showing the good and the bad in both of them. I particularly appreciated an episode in which an impetuous use of violence has terrible consequences. When people died in this book—and the author successfully convinced me that a main character was dying at one point, which is very difficult to do to a seasoned reader like me!—it felt real, and much more serious than is usual in books of this stripe.

I also loved the smashing heroine. Capable, sensible, and brave, it’s easy to believe that Pacarina would be entrusted with a deadly secret. She seems like a real person who it’d be fun to know, a cut above most adventure-story heroines. Likewise, the villains and supporting characters were mostly three-dimensional and believable.

The plot was tightly-woven with meticulous foreshadowing and plenty of the firearms in which Mr Anton Chekhov specialised. I can’t think of any useless episodes or plot points. I was also able to figure out who the villains were, but only just before they tore off their whiskers, which shows good plotting.

The themes, of course, were impeccable: good, solid truths that gladden the heart, mainly revolving around what it means to be a Christian gentleman. The writing style showed immense improvement on The Boy Colonel, communicating its message with a deft touch that allowed the story to illustrate the themes. The melodrama was of the very finest quality, oozing desperate last stands and cliffhangers and terrible moral choices. Meanwhile the book was full of crackling dry wit which frequently had me laughing out loud. And numerous fun literary references, including a couple to my very favourite Shakespeare play.

To conclude, this book is a gem worthy to stand alongside Winning His Spurs, The Coral Island, The Black Arrow and The Last of the Mohicans—even to outshine some of them. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys those books, and I shall be following Mr Horn’s writing career with considerable interest.

I would like to thank Vision Forum for their generosity in sending me these books to review. The Men of Grit series is available on their website.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Home Ed Apologetics: Some FAQs

While visiting some friends who are planning to home educate (much to the shock of some of their relatives), I was asked to write up a list of frequently asked home education questions to help new home educators with the questions they’ll get. So I asked them to give me all their hardest questions, and this was the list we came up with. This article is, as far as I can remember it, the answers I gave them. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Beowulf (trans. Seamus Heaney)

In our family it's Mum who buys most of the books, so it was unusual when one day (I might have been twelve) a copy of Beowulf, translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, arrived in the mailbox addressed to Dad. Mine not to reason why: mine but to say, "I've heard of this!" and dive in to this most epic of stories about noisy neighbours.

Beowulf is the great epic poem of the Anglo-Saxons. Written just over a thousand years ago by an unknown English poet during the Saxon Christian era, it tells the story of Beowulf of the Geats (a Swedish people). King Hrothgar of the Danes has built a wonderful hall, Heorot, where song and laughter and generosity make it famous. But an outcast in the ungardened lands hears the joyful noises coming from Heorot and hates them:
Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.
The monster's name is Grendel, a descendant of the first murderer and outcast, Cain. One night when silence falls on Heorot and the warriors have all turned in, Grendel breaks in, kills thirty of them, and carries them off to his lair. For twelve years, Grendel carries on this feud, making King Hrothgar a byword for misfortune--until Beowulf, who's already distinguished himself as a long-distance swimmer and aquatic monster-slayer, arrives with a band of his men to deal with the problem.

At this first battle, Beowulf is able to tear off Grendel's arm and send him howling into the darkness. But that's not the end of it: warriors grow old and weak, but monsters do not.

Beowulf is a great story, showcasing the high literary skill of the Anglo-Saxons. In some ways it should feel familiar to all of us: hero fights monsters, nothing strange in that. Elements of it have sifted into our cultural awareness too from JRR Tolkien's works: his Middle-Earth was intentionally Anglo-Saxon in style and is sprinkled with alliterative verse, dragons enraged by the theft of a cup, and sister's-sons lifted straight from the milieu of Beowulf.

In other ways Beowulf seems very alien to us. To begin with, it's a poem, and one in a strange and archaic form, a poem that doesn't even rhyme, and certainly a poem that doesn't talk about daffodils or relate a cutesy moral sentiment. It depicts a culture in which poetry is the major artform of warriors, rather than the playground of floppy aesthetes. And yet beauty, especially poetic beauty, is a major concern in the lives of these hard-working battle-scarred people. The Beowulf poet uses the word scop to describe God's creative work, but also as a name for poets. Scop (pronounced shope) is still used in the English language today--that's where our word shape comes from. In Latin, of course, the word would be forma, "form, shape, beauty." So when the Anglo-Saxons talk about scop, they're talking about the creation of beauty, whether by God or by poets.

Meanwhile the poem is like all Anglo-Saxon poetry, extremely manly (which is one of the really delightful things about Anglo-Saxon poetry). The language is strong, simple, yet ornamented with wonderful metaphors--kennings. It's full of epic battles, severed arms, cracking bones, and crushed heads. It's beautiful, but not flowery. It's strong, but not blunt. It's vigorous, youthful, but dignified. And it's completely alien to our culture, which is aged in vice and vicious in youth.

Another of the ideas that seems alien to us in Beowulf is the importance of community, especially the importance of loyalty to government. It's true that we live in a statist society, but we have nothing like this: in Beowulf, the king isn't a god; he's a brother. He isn't a saviour, a benevolent overlord, a distant bureaucracy: he's a man you have to be willing to die in battle for, and his generous gifts are oaths of fidelity, not hand-outs. Reading the poem, you begin to wonder why everyone hasn't just given up on Heorot and Hrothgar. Every night for twelve years (even allowing room for poetic licence) Grendel comes and snacks down a handful of Hrothgar's men. Can you imagine that happening at, say, 10 Downing Street? The place would be evacuated by morning. Even if another Churchill were to insist on business as usual, can you imagine anyone turning up for work in the morning? And yet it never even crosses the Danes' minds to pop off and find someone with less troublesome neighbours to work for. Hrothgar is their king, and Heorot is their community, and they understand how important it is to stick together and not give Grendel what he wants simply because he's able to eat them alive.

In Anglo-Saxon communities, one's relationship to the king and one's brother warriors was literally this important. There's a famous Anglo-Saxon poem, The Wanderer, which tells the story of a man who has suffered literally the worst hardship a man could endure in that society: his king and the other thanes are dead, leaving him the only survivor, an outcast. The theme crops up strongly in Beowulf as well. Near the beginning, it's firmly established that Grendel is the ultimate outcast: he has no lord, no brother warriors and it's his hatred for the community of the mead-hall that drives him to persecute the Danes. As an enemy of fellowship itself, he represents the worst possible threat to Anglo-Saxon culture. Then near the sombre end of the poem, the character Wiglaf castigates his brother warriors for forsaking their king in a hopeless battle and predicts the woeful end of the people. Although by that time Grendel is long dead, he's managed to break the fellowship.

One final element of Beowulf is most likely to confuse and interest my readers: its worldview. The poet himself was clearly a Christian writing for a Christian audience, using plenteous Christian imagery, but depicting a people who were pagans. These lines follow almost immediately after the lines quoted above, and speak about the same people:
Sometimes at pagan shrones they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God.
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.
Douglas Wilson argues that this juxtaposition of Christian and pagan elements within the poem is intentional: the poet depicts the heroic, noble paganism of Hrothgar, Beowulf, and the others as way to make a powerful point about that paganism:
He acknowledges the high nobility that could be present in that culture, but then bluntly shows us that same nobility at the point of profound despair.
The effect is extremely potent. Instead of saying that nobility is possible without Christ, the poet shows that such nobility does not keep a people from being utterly and completely lost.
The Beowulf poet accomplishes this in various ways. To begin with, he faces a problem: he has to honour his fathers--he may even be a first or second-generation Christian--and he wants to pay tribute to the good things he has inherited from them, but he also believes that they were wrong in their paganism. So, to begin with, the world of Beowulf is a Christian world, inhabited by pagans who seem, in unguarded moments, to be aware of God's sovereignty. And this is, when you think about it, quite a sober and logical way for a Christian to think of the unconverted.

Beowulf is a picture of the best of that pagan culture with its bravery, its loyalty, and its heroism had to offer. Yet it depicts a world racked by an evil the characters don't know how to escape. Tribes war against each other, often with disastrous result: Beowulf's uncle Hygelac dies in a raid on the Frisians. Traitors and kin-slayers lurk even under the roof of Heorot. And the two "peace-weavers" we hear about--women given in marriage to an enemy tribe in order to cement a truce--both come to unhappy ends when the feuds flare up again.


But what good is fierce loyalty within tribes (marred by occasional treachery) when there's so much treachery betwen tribes? Grendel, the kin-slayer, is the worst enemy of this society, but he's not exactly an enemy on the outskirts. He represents not only the worst threat, but also the whole way of life of these people. At the end of the poem, the dragon that attacks the Geats does so because something has been stolen from him. Wilson says,
And what happens next is what always happens next. The dragon flies out in a rage—as every robbed tribe would do—and seeks his revenge. The dragon represents the fact that when another tribe sets sail to come against yours, there is no reasoning with it. This is just the way it is.
And so the Geats are left with a dead king, a heap of treasure, dishonoured warriors, and the Swedes coming to kill them all. And that's the depressing end of the poem.

But not the end of the story.

You see, we can date the action of the poem--owing to one character, Hygelac, and the raid against the Frisians being dated by Gregory of Tours to the year 520 AD. The poem ends sometime around 570, fifty years later. Just twenty years after this, starting in the 590s, the gospel is brought to the Anglo-Saxons and wide-scale conversion begins. Beowulf depicts a paganism that has done its best, and given up in despair; a paganism ready for some good news, and a warrior-king who can save.

Beowulf is a great poem, especially for reading aloud.

Gutenberg etext, trans. Francis Barton Grummere
Librivox recording

The Anglo-Saxon Evangel, article by Douglas Wilson

Seamus Heaney's translation of the poem is a modern classic, but we also have a translation by Frederick Rebsamen. I haven't read it right through, but I quite like what I've seen of it.

I'm indebted for this article to Ben Merkle's study guide on Beowulf contained in Veritas Press's Omnibus II book. I highly recommend it to students or parents wanting to study the poem in more depth.

A motion-capture movie allegedly based on Beowulf was made in 2007. I say "allegedly" because from what I hear, it's typical postmodernism: make everything admirable about a character simply lies invented to whitewash the less-than-inspiring truth. No thanks.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous literary detective. Many even know the name of his creator: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But very few indeed know that Conan Doyle wrote anything but painstakingly rational detective stories about a man in a deerstalker, with perhaps a side journey into The Lost World.

Discovering Conan Doyle's other works comes almost as a shock to the reader, a shock similar to that experienced by the hero of a musical comedy when the buttoned-up-old-maid heroine gets drunk and has her big song about all the wild things she dreams of doing.

The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard were written after Conan Doyle had become heartily sick of Sherlock Holmes and had pushed him off a cliff in the Alps in a death-clinch with archenemy and evil mastermind Professor Moriarty. He then sat down and invented a new character for a new series of short stories.

Brigadier Etienne Gerard is the bravest, the handsomest, the most gallant, charming, and resourceful officer in Napoleon's whole army! We know this, because he tells us so himself.
"Colonel Etienne Gerard," said he, "I have always heard that you are a very gallant and enterprising officer."
It was not for me to confirm such a report, and yet it would be folly to deny it, so I clinked my spurs together and saluted.
Wherever he goes, he leaves broken-hearted ladies and vanquished foes behind him, except for the ladies who occasionally double-cross him (but, ah, anyone could be deceived by such a lady without dishonour!) and the foes that now and then get the better of him (but only for the moment!).
I sat gnawing my fingers and tearing my hair, and even, I must confess, weeping from time to time as I thought of my Hussars of Conflans, and the deplorable condition in which they must find themselves when deprived of their colonel. [...] It went to my heart that they should be so bereaved.
Michael Chabon describes him this way: Gerard "has only one tragic flaw, though in his own eyes, of course, it is his glory and his single greatest advantage in life: He is a Frenchman."

And that, of course, is what is so hilariously delightful about the Brigadier. He is a Frenchman, written by an Englishman, fighting against Englishmen. The stories--which are, need I tell you, terriffic adventures full of  swashbuckling, secret missions, thrilling escapes and ladies in distress--come with lashings of satire. The Brigadier is just like any other Frenchman ever imagined by an Englishman, only much more so: impossibly conceited, excitable, and fanatically devoted to his Emperor. And the Englishmen he meets are just like any other Englishmen ever imagined by a Frenchman, only much more so. And much fun is had by all.

The adventures of this preposterous little Brigadier  were published in two volumes, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and The Adventures of Gerard, and have now been published together in one volume by Penguin titled The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard.  It is hard to pick a favourite among all the stories of adventure and braggadocio in these stories, but I think the most memorable is How the Brigadier Slew the Fox, which tells the story of a horrible crime--as far as the British are concerned:
But one officer of Massena's force had committed a crime which was unspeakable, unheard of, abominable; only to be alluded to with curses late in the evening, when a second bottle had loosened the tongues of men. The news of it was carried back to England, and country gentlemen who knew little of the details of the war grew crimson with passion when they heard of it, and yeomen of the shires raised freckled fists to Heaven and swore. And yet who should be the doer of this dreadful deed but our friend the Brigadier, Etienne Gerard, of the Hussars of Conflans, gay-riding, plume-tossing, debonair, the darling of the ladies and of the six brigades of light cavalry.
I could mention that these stories are informative when it comes to Napoleonic Europe or French-English relations, but that would hardly be the main reason to recommend them. They are, above anything else, comic gems. I recommend them to anyone needing diversion.

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard
Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

The Adventures of Gerard
Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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