Friday, September 25, 2015

Captain of Dragoons by Ronald Welch

Today, I'm thrilled to review Captain of Dragoons by Ronald Welch, a favourite from an obscure but remarkably good series of historical adventure stories for children.

The Carey Family Series

The Carey Family series of twelve historical novels were originally published between 1954 and 1976. Written by Ronald Welch, a history teacher and WWII Tank Corps officer, each of the books follows the adventures of one of the members of a (fictional) noble family, the Careys of Llanstephan, at a pivotal moment of English history. Meticulously researched, fast-paced, adventurous and manly, these books were devoured by self and siblings when we discovered three of them at a local library. Alas, the library soon took them out of circulation, and when we looked around for more, we found they were scarcer than hen's teeth.

For years, the Carey Family series has been out of print. I'm able to review this book today because of an email I got a few weeks back from Slightly Foxed, a publisher of luxurious limited editions of forgotten classics. Last week, a parcel arrived with this lovely, lovely book in it: Captain of Dragoons in a rather spiffing clothbound hardback edition. Since 2013, Slightly Foxed has been reprinting the Carey series in limited editions of 2,000; all are currently available, except for the final three which are due next year.

Captain of Dragoons

I'd already read this book a couple of times in my youth, so it was a real thrill to open the cover and plunge again into the midst of a cavalry skirmish in a European valley near Limburg during Marlborough's campaigns against the French in 1703. Our hero for this instalment of the series, Captain Charles Carey, nephew and heir of the Earl of Aubigny, leads his men through unexpected twists and turns to a hard-fought victory, then fights a duel for the honour of his troop, then stumbles across a rendezvous between French spies and an officer of his own regiment, all within the first four chapters. The plot thickens when Charles discovers that someone is trying to get rid of him. Soon Charles himself is recruited as a spy to travel into the heart of France itself, to the court of the Jacobites at Saint-Germain and the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Will Charles survive this dangerous mission? Will his quick wits and fencing skill be enough to save him next time he runs across the legendary Jacobite spy Rupert Creighton? Will he find out which of the officers in his regiment is trying to kill him?

If you guessed from this precis that this book is a thrill a minute, you would not be mistaken. The writing style is taut, the girls are shunted firmly offstage (which is fine by me; a female character would unnecessarily complicate the fine tight plotting), the adventure never lags, and Welch draws on both military history and spy fiction to deliver a rather unabashedly manly boys' adventure story.

Some hiccups

I mean to spend most of this review saying how much I loved this book, but I should take a moment to mention a couple of things. First, this is not five-star prose. The well-trained eye will detect a few too many adverbs and a somewhat choppy rhythm. That said, it's not bad either, and Welch adopts a concise style similar to adult spy fiction of the same era.

I was also faintly disappointed that a few deeper questions were left unexplored. Charles's spy handlers warn him a couple of times that the era of gentlemanly warfare is passing away and that the new day of spies require more ruthlessness than he's used to; but the issue doesn't seem to echo through the rest of the book. There are also some fascinating questions of authority, liberty, and loyalty teased, especially as Charles finds himself deceiving and working against the same Stuart kings his (*looks up family tree*) grandfather Neil Carey supported during the Civil war in For the King. This too wasn't explored deeply in the story.

What I liked

So, one of the things I've come to appreciate about Welch is his eye for less-favoured elements of history. Knight Crusader, with its focus on the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, was truly the very first book that brought the two-hundred-year history of Latin Outremer to my previously somewhat oblivious mind. While Welch also focuses on more well-known historical periods (the English Civil War in For the King, or the French Revolution in Escape from France), he isn't afraid to bypass, for example, the '45 Jacobite uprising for something a bit less obvious, like...the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns and the Battle of Blenheim.

Captain of Dragoons is still the only book I've ever read on this war. As a result, I'm not sure I can comment with much authority on Welch's historical accuracy. However, I was impressed by the sheer level of detail Welch included; as an author myself, I know it takes meticulous research to flesh out a historical setting so thoroughly. The Marlborough campaign, the opposing French and Allied tactics, the nitty-gritty of dragoon warfare, and the Battle of Blenheim itself were all explained clearly and concisely, as if through the eye of a serious military historian. The sword-fighting scenes--all the Careys are aces with the blade--are vivid, gripping, and beautifully fleshed out in what seemed to me pretty authentic detail. Meanwhile, this time around, I was fascinated by the prominence given in the plot to spying--so much so, in fact, that we see our hero doing precious little actual dragooning. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that this war really did see a lot of spy activity.

I also really appreciated the character of Charles Carey. Charles is actually a pretty nonstandard character for a tale for young people. Lots of children's and YA fiction focuses on a young and inexperienced hero, whose path to maturity forms the substance of the plot. Charles, however, breezes onto the page a seasoned officer, a renowned swordsman, and a clear, decisive thinker, even in the thick of battle. Sure, there's a character arc for him--he learns to reign in his hot temper and plan more carefully for the future--but from the moment he appears, he's already fiercely competent in his chosen profession. I think that was a big part of the book's appeal for me when I was younger: Charles doesn't have to learn to be awesome, he just is already. So we can get right down to swashbuckling without having to waste time on preliminaries.

This choice also pays off with tremendous effect later on in the book, when Charles's dangerous life leads him to a significant setback. For a very brief and disturbing few pages, we see him absolutely shattered by this turn of events. It's a surprisingly powerful moment in the story, reinforcing a sense of gravity that still manages to underlie even such an adventuresome book. The horror of a friend's treachery. The pain and loss suffered by the Huguenots after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The pathetic dignity of the exiled Stuarts.

Concluded

In summary, obviously I've read deeper and more thoughtful historical novels than this one. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Captain of Dragoons stood up to a reread. I've read few children's books which manage to strike such a good balance between adventure and realism.

In case you didn't notice, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I'd consider the best of the four Carey books I've read so far. I don't know how long the Slightly Foxed limited editions will be available for, or whether we can hope for the Carey Family series to come back into print in the ordinary course of things, but I would recommend investing in copies, particularly if you're a parent looking for good quality historical fiction.

Find Captain of Dragoons and the rest of the Carey Family series at Slightly Foxed.

3 comments:

Jamie W. said...

In the previous book you mentioned: What, another Royalist? I sometimes wonder if the imbalance between Royalist and Puritan/Parliamentarian fictional heroes isn't partly because it happened to be Sir Walter Scott that invented the genre.

Sounds like a good series, though! Pity they aren't more come-at-able.

Suzannah said...

Yes, another Royalist! It's been years since I read the book, and I don't think Welch was the kind of author to discuss deep questions about the rights and wrongs of the Civil War in any detail, but it's possible that he chose to write from the Royalist perspective merely because that made the most sense given his protagonists (nobles). I'm curious to go back and reread FOR THE KING actually because in CAPTAIN OF DRAGOONS, a major supporting character tells Charles that his own grandfather fought for Cromwell, and that he suspects that the same reasons that led the Careys to support the Stuarts back then lead them to work against the Jacobites now. But like I mentioned, Welch really only teases questions like this, instead of delving into them.

I think there's been a big bias, especially during Victorian times, in favour of the Stuarts--seeing Charles I as a martyr, Mary Queen of Scots as a tragic romantic heroine (excuse me while I gag), and the Jacobite uprisings as pretty much the most romantic thing ever (OK, I have a weakness for the Jacobites). I don't think we can blame Scott alone for it, though he'd have had a big impact.

That said, one major author who was generally pro-Parliament was in fact Rosemary Sutcliff. Have you read her book SIMON? Or her book for adults THE RIDER OF THE WHITE HORSE (about Fairfax--no, I haven't yet read that one)? I'd also suspect that if RM Ballantyne ever wrote about the war, he'd have been solidly Parliamentary in his sympathies. Quite likely there are a few Puritan heroes around; they just were never as popular.

Jamie W. said...

I love The Rider of the White Horse! I managed to get a book club that I was in to do it last year. It is excellent.

Doesn't everyone have a weakness for the Jacobites? (Even some of the Covenanters, apparently... That was a curious alliance.) They deserved a better cause and a much better leader. They had really good music, though, which is my guilty pleasure. (Singing "Bonnie Dundee" out loud and then getting to the line "Then tremble, false Whigs, in the midst of your glee... Oh right, I'm a Whig." And there we come back to Scott again. He's inevitable.)

I wish someone would write a good novel about John Lilburne and his wife Bess. He was a hero of the Levellers, and she was an amazing woman: she bore and raised several children while helping support her husband when he was imprisoned for his beliefs. She even carried a petition to Parliament and helped privately organize influence on his behalf. I think she's a great historical example of a strong woman who actually found her vocation in her marriage. I wish that Rosemary Sutcliff had done a book about them as well.

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