Book 8 in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is Escape from France, a fast-paced adventure set during the French Revolution. I first stumbled across Ronald Welch's stirring adventure stories for boys at our local library, which still owned a few of the old Oxford University Press hardbacks, and Escape from France was one of the books I read. At the time, I considered it an exciting story, but also less substantial than many of the other Carey Family books I'd read, especially my favourite, Captain of Dragoons.
So I was interested to see what I would think of it lo these many years later, as an adult.
We meet Richard Carey at Cambridge, a capable but arrogant young man who easily deals with all the challenges that come his way--whether it's academic study, a crooked bookmaker with a pugilistic bodyguard, or a ne'er-do-well cousin who must be rescued from his gambling debts. Meanwhile, however, political conditions are deteriorating across the channel in pre-revolutionary France. When the Careys' distant cousin the Marquis of Vernaye is arrested, Richard's father (the 7th Earl of Aubigny) and uncle (international hellraiser Sir Rupert Carey) commission Richard to cross the Channel to France and rescue the Marquis's family.
Richard laughs at Sir Rupert's wild stories and wilder advice. But once landed in France, he finds that the once most civilised nation on earth has become a more dangerous place than he imagined. To make matters worse, cousin Armand is determined not to escape until the Marquis of Vernaye can be rescued from the feared Abbaye Prison itself. In a France beset with spies, informants, adventurers, card sharks, and duellists, Richard begins to realise that Sir Rupert may not be as crazy as he thought...
This story reminded me very strongly of two other books, GA Henty's In the Reign of Terror and (of course) Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Indeed I'm sure there have to have been a lot of other books written about heroic Englishmen crossing the Channel to rescue French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Given that, it's tempting to ask what Escape from France adds to the conversation.
In some ways, I don't know that it tries to add much to the conversation about the French Revolution and as usual, Ronald Welch shies away from investigating too closely the ethical questions inherent in the period of history he's writing about. The Marquis of Vernaye is said to have been kind to his tenants, while other aristocrats and the ancien regime at large are shown to have been oppressive. One thing I liked was that there are sympathetic characters and villainous characters among both the aristocracy and among the republicans, and one main character is shown to be a moderate republican who remains loyal to his country despite the Terror--I felt there was a good representation of a few different perspectives.
Ronald Welch is worth reading for two main reasons. One is the depth and accuracy of his military history, and his best books (like Captain of Dragoons and Tank Commander) tend to focus on wars. I actually missed that focus in Escape from France, which seemed a little more romantic and less grounded in tone.
There's another main reason to read Ronald Welch, though, and that is his continual discussion of masculine maturity. Escape from France is about a young man who thinks himself competent, but has really lived a short and privileged life. It's only when he finds himself alone and on the run in France, without any of the advantages of being an Earl's son in England, that he begins to realise how much he has to be humble about.
Escape from France is an exciting, fast-paced adventure through revolutionary France. I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it, together with the rest of the Carey Family series, for children and young teens. The series has been out of print for many years, and is currently being reprinted in limited clothbound editions for Slightly Foxed, so get a copy while you still can!