The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu

It’s so difficult to write about a book like Genji. I’ve been reading it over the last six weeks & it’s been a wonderful experience. Written around 1000 at the Heian Court of Japan by an author whose name we don’t know (Murasaki is the name of one of the main characters & may have become a nickname of the author), this is the earliest novel to be widely read today in competing translations that all have their admirers.

The story is in two parts. Two thirds of the book tell the story of Genji, the son of the Emperor by one of his Intimates. Genji’s mother came from a nondescript family & her position at Court relied solely on the Emperor’s love for her. He favoured Genji above his legitimately born son but politics would not allow him to make Genji his heir. Instead, after the early death of Genji’s mother, the Emperor gave Genji the surname Minamoto which enables him, as a commoner, to have more freedom than a member of the Imperial family could have. Genji will be fabulously wealthy & also play an important role at Court, rising up the hierarchy to eventually be giving the honorary title of Retired Emperor. Genji is also devastatingly handsome, exuding a wonderful perfume, charming & skilled at the courtly arts of painting & poetry. As he grows up, his relationships with women will dominate the narrative.

Whoever chanced to lay eyes on Genji was smitten by him. After one glimpse of the radiance that attended him, men of every degree (for the crudest woodcutter may yet aspire to pause in his labors beneath a blossoming tree) wished to offer him a beloved daughter, while the least menial with a sister he thought worthy entertained the ambition to place her in Genji’s service. It was therefore all but impossible for a cultivated woman like Chūjō , one who had had occasion to receive poems from him and to bask in the warmth of his beauty, not to be drawn to him.She, too, must have regretted that he did not come more often.

Genji’s actions are not always noble or chivalrous but they reflect the dominant role of men in Japanese society. He marries a well-connected young woman, Aoi, a few years older than himself. The marriage is not particularly successful, Aoi resents the match to a younger, illegitimate son of the Emperor, but they have a son, Yūgiri, before Aoi dies. Genji, meanwhile, has fallen in love with his father’s young wife, Fujitsubo, & their affair results in the birth of a son who will eventually succeed to the throne, his origins kept secret. When Genji is just a young man, he spends an evening with his friends as they discuss the different kinds of women & the different kinds of love. In some ways, he spends the rest of the novel investigating these kinds of love. Eventually he will build a palace, his Rokujō estate, where he will install a lover in each of the four wings.

Genji’s most important & lasting relationship will be with Murasaki, Fujitsubo’s niece, who he meets when she is a child of twelve. He takes her into his house & brings her up, eventually seducing her. She becomes the mistress of the east wing at Rokujō and, although they have no children together, Murasaki brings up several other children, & their relationship is close & loving. After his father’s death, Genji is sent into exile as a result of the machinations of the new Emperor’s mother.
During this period of exile, he meets another of his loves, known as the lady from Akashi. She has a daughter & Genji brings them both to live at Rokujō when he returns in triumph.

Genji agrees to marry the favourite daughter of his half-brother the Emperor who wishes to retire from the world. This is a mistake as the girl is a very ordinary young woman with no talents to attract Genji. He feels obliged to go through with the marriage & is horrified when she is seduced by another man. The boy, Kaoru, is assumed to be Genji’s child & his mother is installed in yet another wing of Rokujō. At the same time, Murasaki’s health is failing & Genji spends all his time with her. Her death devastates him & although he often declares that he wishes to leave the world & become a monk, he doesn’t do this but dies soon after.

The last third of the novel takes place some years later & introduces a younger generation. Kaoru & his friend, Genji’s grandson, Niou. These chapters are much more of a piece, telling one tragic story. The two young men become rivals for the attentions of the daughters of a Prince who has retired from the world to live at Uji. The elder daughter, Ōigimi, is courted by Kaoru but he is also attracted to her sister, Naka no Kimi, who is eventually seduced by Niou. Niou installs Naka no Kimi in his palace where she is made unhappy by his philandering. Meanwhile, Kaoru, a serious young man, hesitates to pursue his suit & Ōigimi, distressed by her father’s death & her sister’s fate, starves herself to death. Kaoru is grief stricken but is intrigued when a young woman appears who is the unrecognised illegitimate daughter of the Uji Prince. This young woman, Ukifune’s, story is the most tragic of all as she is pursued by both Kaoru & Niou.

This is a very basic description of the plot which ranges far & wide over the 1100 pages of the book. The style of the narrative is allusive, with most characters referred to by their titles which keep changing. I found it confusing but decided to just keep reading & hope that I would remember who was who. I found that if I didn’t read it for a few days (usually because I was at work & couldn’t carry the book around with me), it took me a while to get back into the story again. There are hundreds of characters &, as well as the tragedy, many very funny scenes. The narrator also looks at Genji’s behaviour, especially his ready recourse to tears, with a satirical eye & by no means approves of his seductions & the pain he causes Murasaki.

Many ladies lived this way under his protection.He looked in on them all, fondly assuring each that despite his long silence he was always thinking of her. “My only care is the parting that no one evades. ‘I know not what life remains…'” he would say, and so on. He loved them all, each according to her station. At his rank he might deservedly have swelled with pride, and yet he seldom advertised himself, treating all instead with tact and kindness as place or degree required, so that just this much from him sustained many through the years.

The setting of the story, in Imperial Japan, is so different from anything I’ve ever read before, that I felt I was learning about the culture as well as reading an involving story. Everything about the period & the country was strange to me. The houses, the rituals, the pastimes. The courtly emphasis on poetry was fascinating. There are over 700 short poems in the text which illuminate behaviour & feelings. They also illuminate character as the ability to compose a suitable poem at any moment is a prized accomplishment. The detailed descriptions of clothes, furnishings, entertainments create this world that is involving yet so removed from the world outside the Court & the privileged classes. There’s little mention of politics or war; the pursuit of happiness & the entanglements of his relationships are all that matter to Genji & his circle.

I was also interested in the social rituals. Women’s lives were so circumscribed. Men could not approach a woman directly. He would not even see her but speak through intermediaries. If he was in the same room, she would be seated behind a curtain. There are many scenes where men peer through cracks in walls or take advantage of the wind blowing aside a curtain to catch a glimpse of a lady. Men had all the power as is seen in many of the stories in Genji. If a man forced his way into a woman’s presence, she was compromised. The men & women in the novel are never alone – solitude seems to be a foreign concept – yet determined young men are able to seduce or rape women almost at will as the servants count for less than nothing in this world of privilege. Even Kaoru, who is more sensitive than his wilful friend, Niou, is capable of causing pain through selfishness when Ōigimi is ill,

He sat near her as usual, and the wind blew the curtains about so much that her sister retired farther back into the room. When the disreputable-looking creatures went to hide from him in embarrassment, he moved closer still. “How do you feel?” he asked through his tears. “I have prayed for you in every way I know, but none of it has done any good, and you will not even let me hear your voice. It is so painful! I shall never forgive you for leaving me this way.”

I loved this final section of the book. At around 300pp it’s the length of a novel on its own & the narrative is more coherent with just one storyline. It’s full of interest & tragedy from the fate of the Uji sisters to the contrast between Kaoru & Niou.

Religion is also an important factor. Characters often long to leave the world & enter the religious life & many do so. The supernatural in the form of evil spirits & possession is ever-present & there are several exorcisms where the evil spirits speak to the monks who are trying to remove them. I also loved the descriptions of the countryside & the weather. The details of dress, the correct colours to wear for mourning or at different times of the year, were all fascinating. The book creates a complete world that it was a real delight to disappear into for hours at a time. I read the Penguin Deluxe edition translated by Royall Tyler & the notes & line drawings were a real help in visualising Genji’s world & understanding the allusions in the text. I can definitely imagine rereading Genji & next time I’ll try a different translation.

My only problem now is what to read next! I often feel this way after reading a long book that was as absorbing as this one. I’m still listening to The Romanovs & reading Leon Roch with the 19th century group but I need something else. I’ve been picking books up & putting them down for a few days now but nothing has really grabbed me. Maybe some short stories? Something completely different is called for although that won’t be difficult as there’s nothing else quite like The Tale of Genji.

Tales of Angria – Charlotte Brontë

Fans of the Brontë sisters often wish that Charlotte, Emily & Anne had lived long enough to write a few more novels. Charlotte made a tentative start on a novel after her marriage & Emily may have started a second novel (& Charlotte may or may not have destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death), but really, seven novels between them just isn’t enough for the devoted admirer. However, the three sisters & their brother Branwell did write a lot more. All through their childhoods, from the moment when their father brought home a box of toy soldiers, the Brontës turned the soldiers into characters in two long-running sagas. Emily & Anne created Gondal &, although they were still imagining Gondal into their adulthood, virtually nothing survives of these stories except some poetry. Branwell & Charlotte created Angria, an imaginary place which is a mixture of Africa & Yorkshire. A lot of the Angrian stories survive & I’ve been reading the last five novellas (or novelettes) that Charlotte wrote about Angria. These stories were written when Charlotte was in her early twenties, when she was at home at Haworth, on holidays from her teaching position at Roe Head School & after the end of her position as a governess, working for the Sidgwick family.

This Penguin Classics edition is beautifully edited by Heather Glen & includes copious notes explaining obscure political references & illuminating the relationships between the characters. Even so, I soon decided that I couldn’t get too caught up in who everyone was & their backstories, it was just too confusing. Even more confusing, characters often change their names between stories or are addressed as one name by one character & something else by another. This is natural in such a long-running story, all the nuances of which would have been appreciated by the original readers, the Brontës themselves. The main characters are Arthur Augustus Adrian, Duke of Zamorna, King of Angria. Zamorna is married to Mary Percy, daughter of his once great friend & now enemy, Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland. Northangerland is married to Lady Zenobia Ellrington, who was once in love with Zamorna but married Northangerland on the rebound. Our narrator is Charles Townshend, cynical man about town & aspiring writer. Townshend was once Lord Charles Wellesley, brother of Zamorna in his younger days when he was Marquis of Douro, son of the Duke of Wellington.

The five stories are

Mina Laury – Zamorna has returned from exile after the civil war & is now King. Northangerland has been sent into exile but, because of their family relationship, Zamorna & Mary still visit him. Mary has become jealous of Zamorna’s many love affairs & is now a shadow of the woman she once was. Zamorna’s first love, Mina Laury, shared his exile with him & is still his mistress, living in a remote country house. Lord Hartford, one of the Generals in Zamorna’s army, has long been in love with Mina & visits her to declare himself & ask her to marry him. Zamorna discovers this & challenges Hartford to a duel.

Stancliffe’s Hotel – Charles Townshend & his friend, Sir William Percy, see a beautiful young lady in church, Jane Moore, daughter of a prominent barrister. After seeing her out riding, Percy declares himself in love & they decide to visit her, claiming to be clients of her father (who they know to be out of town). Jane receives them politely but is obviously under no illusions as to who they are, thinking them counting house clerks on a joke. Zamorna’s continuing relationship with Northangerland is leading to political instability & a riot threatens to break out. Zamorna & his Duchess arrive & he quietens the rebels.

The Duke of Zamorna – Townshend begins by reliving events of the past. He remembers the younger days of Zamorna, then the Marquis of Douro; his friendship with Northangerland; Northangerland’s despair after the death of his first wife & his relationship with Louisa Vernon which resulted in the birth of his daughter, Caroline. Then, we’re back in the present day & Townshend’s friendship with Sir William Percy continues with a series of letters written by Percy about Angrian society occasions. This is really a series of sketches which move about in time but illuminate the pasts of some of the characters from the first two stories.

Henry Hastings – Sir William Percy is now working for the Government & has become more serious, undertaking undercover diplomatic missions. Townshend, on the other hand, is much the same. He tries to make conversation with a young woman on a coach journey. She is Elizabeth Hastings, who has been employed as a companion/governess to Jane Moore. Elizabeth’s brother, Henry, is an outlaw, a poet & a drunkard, who was once thought to have a promising military career until he shot his commanding officer. After years in exile, Henry has returned to Angria & Percy is on his trail. He traces him to a country house belonging to the Moore family where Elizabeth is staying alone as housekeeper.

Caroline Vernon – Caroline is the illegitimate daughter of Northangerland & the ward of Zamorna. Caroline is now a teenager, desperately bored living with her mother in the country & full of dreams of fashionable life. Northangerland decides to bring her out & she experiences society in Paris & Verdopolis, the capital of Angria. He is reluctant to introduce her to his own home or his wife & so she is sent back to her mother. Caroline is dissatisfied by her return to the country & runs away to find Zamorna, with whom she has become infatuated. Zamorna is true to his Byronic nature & seduces Caroline, proposing to set her up in the country as his mistress. Northangerland discovers what has happened & the two men have a violent argument which is where the story ends.

Soon after Charlotte wrote Caroline Vernon, she worked as a governess for a few months with the White family & then she & Emily went to Brussels. There’s no evidence that she wrote any more Angrian stories or anything else (although there’s a fragment of a novel set in Yorkshire) until 1846, when, after the failure of their book of poetry, Charlotte tried to publish her novel, The Professor, along with Anne’s Agnes Grey & Emily’s Wuthering Heights.

The last two stories in this collection – Henry Hastings & Caroline Vernon – are longer & more coherent narratives. I enjoyed all the stories but especially those two. Throughout the stories, Charlotte’s distinctive voice can be heard,. She often addresses the Reader, as she does most famously in Jane Eyre. Her descriptions of place, particularly wintry landscape, & her scene setting are as good as anything in the novels.

The wind increased, the sky darkened, and the bleached whirl of a snow-storm began to fill the air. Dashing at a rapid rate through the tempest, an open travelling carriage swept up the road. … It contained two gentlemen, one a man of between thirty or forty, having about him a good deal of the air of a nobleman, shawled to the eyes, and buttoned up in at least three surtouts, with a waterproof white beaver hat, an immense mackintosh cape, and beaver gloves. His countenance bore a half-rueful, half-jesting expression. He seemed endeavouring to bear all things as smoothly as he could, but still the cold east wind and driving snow evidently put his philosophy very much to the test. Mina Laury.

Sometimes when she was alone in the evenings, walking through her handsome drawing-room by twilight, she would think of home and long for home, till she cried passionately at the conviction that she should see it no more. So wild was her longing that when she looked out on the dusky sky, between the curtains of her bay-window, fancy seemed to trace on the horizon the blue outline of the moors, just as seen from the parlour at Colne-moss. The evening star hung above the brow of Boulshill, the farm fields stretched away between. … Again, the step of Henry himself would seem to tread in the passage, and she would distinctly hear his gun deposited in the house corner. All was a dream. Henry was changed; she was changed; those times were departed forever. She had been her brother’s and her father’s favourite; she had lost one and forsaken the other. At these moments, her heart would yearn towards the old lonely man in Angria till it almost broke. But pride is a thing not easily subdued. She would not return to him. Henry Hastings.

Heather Glen’s Introduction is very interesting in discussing the origins of the stories. Unlike other critics, she doesn’t see them as a form of “trance-writing”. She sees them as a response to the fiction that the Brontës were reading in the 1830s – the fashionable silver-fork novels, the Newgate novels about criminals & prisons & Gothic novels. There was also a vogue for short tales & sketches in the periodicals & newspapers of the time so the form of these stories may have been deliberate. Charlotte may not have wanted to write full-length novels although she also lacked the time to write longer narratives when she was teaching. Glen points out that Charlotte was in her twenties, the same age as Dickens was when he published Pickwick Papers. These Angrian stories satirise many of the conventions of the fiction of the day & there’s an exuberance in the telling of stories for her siblings who would understand the allusions to the popular books they had read. As in all her work, Charlotte’s own wide reading, especially of poetry & the Bible, is referenced everywhere. Charlotte was also in a conversation with Branwell in these stories, taking over one of his characters (Henry Hastings) for her own & turning him into a commentary on Branwell’s own dissolute habits. She even resurrected a character (Mary Percy) that Branwell had killed off in one of his stories.

I loved reading these tales of Angria. I think that anyone who craves more Brontë stories should give these a try & this edition is an excellent place to start.

Pimpernel and Rosemary – Baroness Orczy

I knew that Baroness Orczy had written a lot of sequels to her most famous book, The Scarlet Pimpernel. What I didn’t realise, until I started looking at a list of books published in 1924, was that she had written a modern-day version of the Pimpernel that was published in the magic year. I had somehow always thought of the Baroness as an Edwardian writer who wrote historical fiction & mysteries featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard or The Old Man in the Corner. She lived a very long life (1865-1947) & her final Pimpernel novel was published in 1940.

Pimpernel and Rosemary features Peter Blakeney, great-great-grandson of the famous Sir Percy (in fact, he’s the image of the famous Romney portrait of Sir Percy). Peter is a famous cricketer, was awarded a VC during the Great War &, as the book opens, is devastated by the news that the girl he loves, Rosemary Fowkes, is engaged to his friend, Jasper, Lord Tarkington. Rosemary is a respected journalist, beautiful & sought after.

She was one of those women on whom Nature seemed to have showered ever one of her most precious gifts. There are few words that could adequately express the peculiar character of her beauty. She was tall and her figure was superb; had hair the colour of horse-chestnuts when first they fall out of their prickly green cases, and her skin was as delicately transparent as eggshell china; but Rosemary’s charm did not lie in the colour of her hair or the quality of her skin.  It lay in something more indefinable. Perhaps it was in her eyes. Surely, surely it was in her eyes. People were wont to say they were “haunting”, like the eyes of a pixie or a fairy.

Peter & Rosemary have been friends since childhood & she has spent time with the family of Peter’s aristocratic Hungarian mother who live in Transylvania. Rosemary is in love with Peter but he had never quite committed himself to her so, disappointed by Peter’s elusiveness, she agrees to marry Jasper, even though she’s not in love with him. Jasper agrees that Rosemary should continue her career after their marriage, and, when she is challenged to visit Transylvania by the military Governor, General Naniescu, & see what conditions are really like, Rosemary agrees. A series of anonymous articles has recently appeared in the European Press & Rosemary is intrigued. She plans to write a series of candid articles about post-war conditions for the Hungarian minority & Naniescu assures her that she will not be censored. Jasper convinces her to marry him before the trip so that he can accompany her.

Hungary has been devastated by the Great War. The country was carved up after the Armistice & Roumania has occupied the part of the country where the Imreys have their estate. The Hungarian aristocracy are persecuted by the new Communist regime & the Hungarians are virtually second class citizens in what used to be their country. General Naniescu has free rein to do what he wishes, far away from any central government control. Peter’s aunt, Elza, Countess Imrey, has invited Rosemary to stay with her family at their estate, during her visit. Elza’s son, Philip, & his young cousin, Anna, resent the military occupation of their homeland & are determined to let the outside world know what life is really like in post-war Hungary. Philip has written the inflammatory articles that Rosemary has read & Anna has smuggled out of the country. They are playing a dangerous game as the authorities are not amused & Naniescu is determined to prosecute the author.

Rosemary discovers what Philip & Anna have been doing but is sworn to secrecy. However, it soon becomes obvious that her trip to Hungary was all part of a plan by General Naniescu. He arrests Philip & Anna, they are imprisoned & charged with treason. Naniescu presents Rosemary with an ultimatum. She is to write a series of articles praising the new regime or else Philip & Anna will be tried by a military tribunal & almost certainly sentenced to death. If she agrees, they will be released & allowed to leave the Romanian occupied territory & live in Hungary. Rosemary is torn between her love for the Imreys & her integrity as a journalist. She also realises that by saving two people, she will be condemning thousands of other Hungarians as her reputation as a journalist is such that her opinion of the new regime will influence policy makers in Europe & convince them that all is well & to leave Hungary alone.

At the same time, Rosemary is becoming concerned about her marriage. Jasper is almost cringingly devoted to her & anticipates her every need although at times the intensity of his passion for her is frightening. She can’t stop thinking about Peter, who also visits Hungary, ostensibly to arrange a cricket match, but Jasper tells Rosemary of rumours that Peter is working for the new Romanian regime. Rosemary is desperate to help the Imreys but it seems that all her efforts are in vain as the mysterious spy, known only as Number Ten, appears to be manipulating both the Imreys & Naniescu for reasons of his own. Unsure who to trust, Rosemary must discover the truth, no matter how personally devastating it may be.

As you can tell by the quote above, Baroness Orczy doesn’t go in for under-statement. I’ve never read prose as purple as this. All the men are handsome, dashing, devoted unless they’re Romanian, in which case they’re devious, evil & probably unshaven. The women are beautiful, dignified & stoic in the face of disaster. The Baroness is definitely on the side of the aristos, the lower orders are either devotedly loyal & ready to die for their masters or scoundrels & blackguards. All the way through the book I was marking particularly florid declarations like this one, when Peter farewells Rosemary on her engagement,

Jasper is my friend, and I would not harbour one disloyal thought against him. But you being the wife of an enemy or of my best friend is beside the point. I cannot shut you out of my life, strive how I may. Never. While I am as I am and you the exquisite creature you are, so long as we are both alive, you will remain a part of my life. Whenever I catch a glimpse of you, whenever I hear the sound of your voice, my soul will thrill and long for you. Not with one thought will I be disloyal to Jasper, for in my life you will be as an exquisite spirit, an idea greater or less than woman. Just you. If you are happy I shall know it. If you grieve, Heaven help the man or woman who caused your tears. I have been a fool; yet I regret nothing. Sorrow at your hands is sweeter than any happiness on earth.

I thought Pimpernel and Rosemary (cover picture from here) was a complete romp. I enjoyed the Hungarian setting. Baroness Orczy was Hungarian & used her knowledge of the country to good effect in her beautiful descriptions of the countryside & the Imreys’ estate of Kis-Imre. The slightly faded old-world charm of the Imreys’ life with its privilege & its arrogance is implicitly compared with that of the aristocrats before the French Revolution who were rescued by the original Scarlet Pimpernel. The updating of the story to the early 1920s is made explicit in the illustration on the cover above where Peter is overshadowed by his illustrious ancestor Sir Percy. I’m not sure that I could read all ten of the sequels to the original novel, actually I’m positive I couldn’t! There were also two prequels about ancestors of Sir Percy (The Laughing Cavalier & The First Sir Percy) as well as Pimpernel and Rosemary. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be a novel that was the basis for Pimpernel Smith, a 1941 movie starring Leslie Howard (who played Sir Percy in the 1934 movie with Merle Oberon as Marguerite) as a WWII era Pimpernel. The movie was based on an original story by A G Macdonell who wrote the novel England, Their England. Baroness Orczy isn’t even credited.

I also have to confess that I relaxed my book-buying ban for the 1924 Club by buying the eBook collection of four Pimpernel novels for 73 cents. I just couldn’t resist the idea of an updated Pimpernel novel set in Hungary. My excuse was that Simon set the challenge of finding obscure novels written in 1924 & I thought I should take up that challenge after reading the better-known John Buchan novel earlier in the week.

The Three Hostages – John Buchan

I really enjoy John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers so it was great to realise that the fourth novel, The Three Hostages, was published in 1924 so I could read it as part of Simon & Karen’s 1924 Club. Even better, I had the book on the shelf & as an eBook so I wasn’t tempted to buy a copy.

Richard Hannay is settled at Fosse, his home in the Cotswolds. The War is long over, he’s married to Mary & they have a son, Peter John. Hannay wants nothing more than to spend his days fishing & working on his estate. He’s vegetating with a vengeance.

… the place wanted a lot of looking to, for it had run wild during the War, and the woods had to be thinned, gates and fences repaired, new drains laid, a ram put in to supplement the wells, a heap of thatching to be done, and the garden borders brought back to cultivation. I had got through the worst of it, and as I came out of the Home Wood to the lower lawns and saw the old stone gables that the monks had built, I felt that I was anchored at last in the pleasantest kind of harbour.

So he’s less than happy when he’s contacted by his old boss, Macgillivray, who wants his help in solving a mystery involving an international crime syndicate. Macgillivray’s men are about to round up the members of the syndicate but, as extra insurance, they’ve taken three hostages. Adela Victor, daughter of a rich banker; Lord Mercot, heir to the Duke of  Alcester & David Warcliff, the eight year old son of soldier & administrator Sir Arthur. On the face of it, there seems to be no connection between the three cases & Hannay is reluctant to become involved. His conscience begins to bother him, particularly about young David after a visit from Sir Arthur & eventually he agrees to help. The only clue he has is a piece of doggerel, six lines of verse about the fields of Eden & a blind spinner, sent to the fathers of each of the hostages. The lines trigger the recollection of a conversation, half-remembered by Hannay’s friend, local doctor Tom Greenslade, & this sets him off on the trail of a criminal mastermind who is too subtle to use physical violence but instead steals the souls of his victims through hypnosis.

Hannay’s trail leads him from the dining clubs of London to a seedy dance hall, the fjords of Norway & eventually the Highlands of Scotland. He’s under pressure to locate the hostages before midsummer when Macgillivray will tighten the net & swoop on the gang. The hostages must be released at the same time as the gang is arrested or they will certainly be killed. Along the way, Hannay meets up with his former colleagues, Sandy Arbuthnot & Archie Roylance. I was also glad to see that Mary has a pivotal role to play. She was such an integral part of the adventure in the previous Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, & I was a little perturbed when she seemed to have dwindled into a wife & mother in this book while Hannay went off adventuring. I needn’t have worried as Mary’s abilities & intelligence are crucial in the unravelling of the plot & the discovery of the hostages. The mastermind of the conspiracy is truly frightening with his ability to subordinate the will of others & his total single-mindedness is well-hidden under a facade of urbane charm. As Sandy tells Hannay,

There’s such a thing, remember, as spiriting away a man’s recollection of his past, and starting him out as a waif in a new world. I’ve heard in the East of such performances, and of course it means that the memory-less being is at the mercy of the man who has stolen his memory.”

John Buchan is so good at writing a tight, fast-moving thriller but what I enjoy almost as much as the plot (& there is a fantastic twist near the end that I didn’t see coming) is his sense of place. His descriptions of Scotland are always gorgeous but Hannay’s home in the Cotswolds & the trip to Norway are just as evocative. I especially enjoyed the peace of Fosse as the still centre of all the chaos around the chase. It becomes a metaphor for England’s place in a world still recovering from the Great War & reluctant to become involved in the world’s woes. Hannay is so very noble, his stiff upper lip barely trembles except when he thinks of young David Warcliff or thinks his family is in danger. There are a few distasteful references to race & eugenics (the shape of the villain’s head is seen as a sign of his degeneracy) but such references are of their time & if you read books published in the early 20th century, you have to accept, or at least learn to discount, the attitudes of the time. I loved The Three Hostages as an atmospheric thriller & I’m so pleased that the 1924 Club inspired me to read it.

John Buchan’s sister, Anna, wrote under the name O Douglas. She also published a book in 1924, Pink Sugar, & I reviewed it several years ago here.

She – H Rider Haggard

… I do not believe that either of us would really have left Ayesha even if some superior power had suddenly offered to convey us from these gloomy caves and set us down in Cambridge. We could no more have left her than a moth can leave the light that destroys it. We were like confirmed opium-eaters: in our moments of reason we well knew the deadly nature of our pursuit, but we certainly were not prepared to abandon its terrible delights.

She is the story of a quest, an adventure that began over two thousand years before the story begins. The story is told, in the form of a long manuscript, written by Ludwig Horace Holly, Cambridge scholar, & left in the care of an unnamed Editor. Holly, a man in his 40s & considered ugly by everyone, especially women, tells of the death of his friend Vincey twenty years before. When he knew he was dying, Vincey left Holly the guardianship of his five year old son, Leo, & a chest containing documents relating to an ancient family story. In a letter accompanying the chest, Vincey sets out his instructions for Leo’s education, including learning Arabic & Greek, & instructs Holly to give Leo the trunk on his 25th birthday so that he can decide whether he wishes to take up the quest. Vincey claims to be the descendant of an Egyptian priest of Isis, a Greek called Kallikrates, & only his ill health prevented him from continuing on his journey to find the forgotten land his ancestor discovered.

That same night, Vincey dies. Holly becomes Leo’s guardian, employs a young man, Job, to help him look after the boy & sets about fulfilling Vincey’s instructions with regard to Leo’s education. Leo grows up top be extraordinarily handsome, intelligent & kind. Holly grows to love Leo as a son &, on his 25th birthday, tells him of the chest & of his father’s last instructions. In the chest, they find documents, papyri & a scarab, all telling an amazing story of Kallikrates & his love for a beautiful Egyptian princess, Amenartas. There is a forgotten land in the heart of Africa & a magnificent Queen, a white woman, “who is a magician having a knowledge of all things, and a life and loveliness that does not die” who rules over them. Many of Leo’s ancestors tried to find this land & failed. Leo is determined to try himself & Holly & Job go with him.

Holly, Leo & Job set out for Africa. They have many adventures, including the sinking of the dhow they hire to take them up river. Fortunately, they were towing their own boat, with all their belongings already stowed on it & they escape drowning, along with just one of the African crew members, Mahomed. They find the rock, shaped like the head of an African, mentioned in the manuscript &, soon after, are approached by a group of tribesmen, speaking an Arabic dialect. The leader of the men, an old man called Billali, tells them that he has been commanded by his Queen, She-who-must-be-obeyed, to bring the strangers to her. She seems to know everything that happens within her lands & the three white men are well-treated on their journey.

The women of the tribe are in a privileged position, deciding for themselves who they will live with. Men are reduced to the position of vassals. A young woman, Ustane, embraces Leo & when he returns her embrace, he has become her lover. Unfortunately, Mahomed, being black, comes to a terrible end as the tribesmen, the Amahagger, decide that he’s fair game after he rejects a woman’s advances as She did not mention a black man in her commands. The battle that ensues leaves Leo badly wounded although Billali returns to prevent the deaths of the three men. The journey through forests & swamps finally ends in the cup of a volcanic plain where they discover the lost civilization described in the legend.

Holly is summoned to meet She & is presented with a tall woman, veiled in gauze. She is all-powerful, served only by mutes who cannot reveal anything & revered by the Amahagger over whom she has the power of life & death. Over the course of many conversations, She reveals her name, Ayesha, tells him of her powers & reveals that she has discovered the secret of eternal life. She has lived for over two thousand years, waiting for the love of her life to return to her. The story in the manuscript was true. Ayesha fell in love with Kallikrates & killed him in rage when he preferred Amenartas. She immediately regretted her actions & has waited, ever since, for his reincarnated self to return to her. Ayesha recognizes Leo as her lover, cures him of his wounds & proposes to keep him with her, giving him the gift of eternal life. Ayesha has also unveiled herself to Holly & he falls in love with her, as any man must. He wonders what Leo’s reaction will be when he sees Ayesha’s incredible beauty.

She is a story of adventure that Haggard wrote in the aftermath of the great success of King Solomon’s Mines. He wrote it quickly, drawing again on his knowledge of Africa but this time, the story is much darker. I read King Solomon’s Mines about five years ago & enjoyed it very much but I don’t remember it being as gruesome & violent as She. There are some truly horrible scenes of violence (the favoured punishment of the Amahagger is hot-potting & it has nothing to do with a savoury stew) & the embalmed bodies of the ancestors are used as flaming torches during an entertainment. Holly & his companions are housed in caves once used as the burial places of the Amahagger & there are murals on the walls showing the embalming process. It’s not for the squeamish.

There are also some very exciting scenes. At one point, Ayesha is leading Leo & Holly to the source of eternal life in a series of caves. They have to cross a chasm to a rock on the other side that sways in the howling wind on a thin plank. Even though I knew that Holly, at least, must survive as he’s writing the story, I almost shut my eyes, as if I could see what was happening. That could have something to do with my fear of heights, but still! The journey back through the caves is even more perilous.

Holly is a very sympathetic narrator. He reminded me a little of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson. Noble, decent, loyal & so very English, in the way of Victorian heroes. His solitary life is changed by Leo’s arrival & his determination to carry out his friend’s instructions leads him into great peril. He impresses Ayesha with his determination not to be cowed by her (he refuses to enter her presence crawling on his hands & knees) & they have many long conversations about the history of her people. I admit, some of these conversations were too long for me. Ayesha’s slightly archaic speech may have been intended to reflect the Arabic dialect she spoke but these long passages slowed down the action. I suppose long expositions of history & customs are necessary in any novel about new worlds or dystopia but I was longing for some action, even though it might have made me feel slightly ill. The story of the quest & the adventures that attend it is very exciting, however, & make She well worth reading. If only I could have got Charles Aznavour (love the cheesy album covers) & Horace Rumpole (about 5 minutes in to this episode) out of my head while I was reading…

An Old Captivity – Nevil Shute

This is such an unusual book, a mixture of exploration of the far north, the minutiae of flying a seaplane & a possible reincarnation experience reaching back to the Vikings & the time of the Icelandic sagas.

An Old Captivity (cover picture from here) is the story of an archaeological expedition to Greenland. Pilot Donald Ross has spent time flying seaplanes in the far north of Canada. When he returns to England, he is offered a job flying a seaplane on a survey commissioned by Oxford don, Professor Lockwood. Lockwood’s industrialist brother finances the expedition & Ross, once approved by the Lockwoods, is given carte blanche to order a plane & organize everything they’ll need. He sees this job as a great opportunity, a stepping stone to more lucrative work. Professor Lockwood’s prickly daughter Alix, is not so impressed with Ross. She suspects him of inflating the cost of the expedition & taking advantage of her unworldly father’s enthusiasm for surveying the remote location. Ross is equally unimpressed with Alix & is disconcerted when Lockwood announces that his daughter will be accompanying them on the trip. A photographer, Jameson, will meet them at Greenland but, until then, Ross has to do all the work involved with flying & maintaining the plane.

The Lockwoods soon realise just how much work Ross has to do & regret that they hadn’t insisted on an engineer taking Alix’s place. The testy relationship between Ross & Alix gradually thaws as she begins to appreciate Ross’s abilities & begins to help him as much as she can. After adventures including an unexpected night at a native settlement, they reach the town from which they’ll set off on the survey to discover that Jameson has a broken leg & can’t make the trip. Ross & Alix quickly learn to operate the camera & take the survey photographs.

Ross is a conscientious & methodical man. His constant worry about the work he has to do & the responsibility of the plane interfere with his sleep. He’s given a bottle of sleeping tablets by a chemist in Reykjavik & he soon finds he can’t sleep comfortably without them. On reaching the settlement in Greenland, they make camp at a location where earlier settlements had long since vanished. Their native workmen refuse to sleep at the camp & move to another place a mile away. All they will say is that they’re afraid to sleep where the old people once lived. The survey work goes well, the weather is in their favour & Ross & Alix become closer as Ross realizes that he’s fallen in love.

One night, Ross falls asleep after taking three sleeping tablets & falls into a coma that lasts 36 hours. Spooked by the tales of the old people, the Lockwoods manage to move Ross to the other camp &, gradually, he regains consciousness. He tells an amazing story about a dream he’d had while he was unconscious, a dream where he was a young Scotsman, Haki, taken as a slave by Viking raiders. He becomes a member of Leif Erickson’s expedition to Greenland & then on to Vinland, the almost mythical settlement on the coast of North America. The dream is so vivid that Ross is constantly thinking of it. In the dream, he’s accompanied by a young girl, Hekia, whom he equates with Alix. On the final leg of their journey home, they cross the Atlantic to Canada & then, down the coast of Massachusetts towards New York. Ross is suddenly convinced that he’s found the place the Vikings called Wondersward &, when they land to have a look, he recognizes everything, including a place that was special to Haki & Hekia. Alix begins to wonder whether Ross’s experience was just a dream or something more uncanny.

The story begins with one of Shute’s framing stories, a device he often used. Ross is on a stranded train in Europe & tells his story to a fellow traveller, a psychologist. Shute must have forgotten how he began the story because we never return to the stranded train & the viewpoint of the story isn’t just Ross’s which it should be if he’s telling his story as he experienced it. However, that didn’t bother me too much. I enjoyed the story very much – the early scenes in Oxford with Ross & Alix irritating each other while Lockwood is completely focussed on his research without any idea of what such a trip entails. I love novels set in the 1930s, with all the assumptions about class & privilege. Alix Lockwood looks down on Ross & her middle class assumptions about him & his abilities were typical of the period. It certainly sets up the combative relationship between Alix & Ross very well & contrasts with the slow dawning of respect that she feels for him when she realises how naive she & her father had been. I also loved Donald’s Aunt Janet, who had brought him up on her meagre earnings as a teacher. As always, Nevil Shute writes about the work of pilots & engineers with authority. Sometimes, I admit, the endless detail about fitting out a seaplane, filling the engine, changing the plugs, became a little mind-numbing, but the story was fascinating.

The scenes in the north reminded me a little of Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, a terrific ghost story that I listened to on audio read by Jeremy Northam. A young man is left as the only member of a scientific expedition to a remote station where something horrible happened in the past, something so dreadful that it left an enduring impression on the landscape & the atmosphere of the place. It was a story that left me with such a feeling of dread, I don’t think I could have read (or listened) to it at night.  I listened to An Old Captivity on audio too, read by Cameron Stewart. He did a good job narrating the story & his male voices were fine but Alix’s voice was dreadful. Still, the lure of the story kept me listening & I’m keen to go on reading more of Nevil Shute’s novels.

The Usurper – Judith Gautier

This novel has it all. Set in 17th century Japan, it’s a story of intrigue & betrayal at the highest levels of society. It’s adventurous, heart-stopping & has a poignant love triangle as well as a romantic quest at its centre. The Usurper (cover picture from here) was written by Judith Gautier, daughter of the poet & writer Théophile Gautier. She wrote several novels using her expertise as a scholar of China & Japan. I had never heard of Judith or this novel until it was suggested for my 19th century bookgroup. Yet another fascinating book that would have passed me by if not for the wide reading of the members of the group.

The Mikado, more god than emperor, reigns over Japan but the actual rulers of the country are the Shoguns. One of these, Fide-Yori, is a young man whose duties have been carried out by Hieyas, an ambitious older man who is called the Regent although he does hold the title of Shogun. Hieyas is content for Fide-Yori to spend his time hunting with his friends, including his closest companion Iwakura, Prince of Nagato. Hieyas is Nagato’s enemy & tries to kill him several times, however, his plans are unsuccessful. When Nagato appears at a Council meeting with a letter from the Mikado requesting that Hieyas step aside, Hieyas realises that he has no choice & steps down. Nagato counsels the Shogun to sign Hieyas’ death warrant as he will certainly not do the honourable thing & commit suicide but Hieyas escapes to his own estate & the opportunity is lost.

Nagato is in love with the Kisaki, wife to the Mikado, who lives a life of seclusion & ritual. The Kisaki returns Nagato’s love but realises that their relationship is doomed. One of the Kisaki’s ladies, Katkoura, is in love with Nagato but he is indifferent to her. On a Court picnic at her Summer residence where the Kisaki & her courtiers write & recite poetry, Nagato realises that the Kisaki loves him & Fatkoura realises it too.

Hieyas decides that he is no longer willing to forgo the title of Shogun. It’s a hereditary title & he wants to bequeath it to his son. He attempts to murder Fide-Yori but his plot is discovered by a young woman, Omiti, who warns the Shogun & Nagato averts the crisis. The Shogun is entranced by Omiti & is determined to make her his wife. However, she has disappeared. Hieyas instructs his son to spread discontent among the other nobles while he fortifies his stronghold with his supporters & plans his next attack. Nagato & the Shogun, Fide-Yori, gather their forces & plan their strategy. A young man, Sado, who bears a resemblance to Nagato, creates a diversion while Nagato gathers a fleet of fishermen to carry out an audacious strike at the heart of Hieyas’ forces.

The Kisaki has commanded Nagato to marry Fatkoura. He is reluctant but realises that there is no future for his relationship with the Kisaki. His attentions to Fatkoura before he fell in love with the Kisaki have given rise to gossip & the only honourable way to silence the talk is to marry the young woman. Fatkoura travels to Nagato’s home & is kindly received by his father. However, Hieyas’ forces attack the castle & Fatkoura is abducted by the Prince of Tosa, one of Hieyas’ allies. Tosa falls in love with Fatkoura & hopes she will marry him but she is contemptuous even though her feelings for Nagato swing from love to jealous hatred. Tosa’s forces defeat an army led by Sado masquerading as Nagato. Sado is captured & brought to Tosa’s fortress. He is not allowed to honourably commit suicide & is beheaded. His head is taken to Hieyas as a trophy. Fatkoura has discovered that the captive is not Nagato but her attempts to rescue him are foiled by Tosa who forces her to watch the execution.

Fatkoura’s imprisonment becomes stricter as she continues to resist Tosa’s advances. A crisis is reached when Nagato’s army lays siege to Tosa’s palace.The victory of Fide-Yori is celebrated with a gala theatrical performance but there are disgruntled murmurings among the working people at the  extravagance of the aristocrats, especially Fide-Yori’s vain, thoughtless mother, & another rebellion is only narrowly averted. Fide-Yori has become disheartened by his fruitless quest to find Omiti & has neglected his official duties & care of his subjects. The final battle between the forces of Hieyas & Fide-Yori will decide the future of Japan.

This is such an exciting story although I must admit that I was finding the story quite slow going until Hieyas’ rebellion begins. The scenes at Court & at the Kisaki’s summer residence are beautifully described but so formal & stylized that I was feeling impatient although the formally polite language & ritual very effectively highlighted just how impolite & murderous the protagonists were really feeling. The central love triangle is beautifully done. I really felt the Kisaki’s misery at her circumscribed life. Every move she made was watched & her every utterance scrutinized for meaning. It reminded me of the stories about Crown Princess Masako, who married the Crown Prince in 1993. The isolation of the Imperial family is highlighted by a scene where the Mikado, an enormously fat young man, moans about his loneliness & boredom. Because the Mikado is treated as a god rather than a human being, he is at liberty to do anything or nothing & usually does nothing. His relationship with his wife, the Kisaki, is formal & distant; they seem to live completely separate lives. His servants are not even allowed to suggest meals to the Emperor so he has 33 different meals prepared every day in 33 rooms & walks from one room to the next until he finds something he fancies.

Nagato is a resourceful hero. His scheme to scupper Hieyas’ navy is bold & carried out with courage. He is also completely loyal to the Shogun Fide-Yori & inspires loyalty in his followers. The tragedy of Nagato’s impossible love for the Kisaki is the great sorrow of his life which never leaves him & he also feels some guilt for Fatkoura’s fate.

There are elements of fairy story in The Usurper, particularly in the quest of Fide-Yori to find Omiti. There are also echoes of the Arthurian legends in the story of Nagato, Fatkoura & the Kisaki. I wondered if those elements were in the original story or whether Gautier added them. There are some beautiful set pieces in the book – the picnic at the summer residence & a later visit to the theatre. However, I also felt that Gautier had crammed in every bit of research she had done. I found it all fascinating because I know very little about Japanese culture but it did slow the novel down.

Mary Gaunt : independent colonial woman – Bronwen Hickman

Just over a year ago I read Kirkham’s Find by Mary Gaunt, a book that had sat on my shelves for a very long time before I finally got around to reading it. I loved it & it was one of my Top 10 books last year. So, I was very pleased to discover that a biography of Mary Gaunt was about to be released. She led a very adventurous & unexpected life & I’m so glad I had the chance to find out more about her.

The character of Phoebe Marsden in Kirkham’s Find owes quite a lot to her creator. Mary grew up in country Victoria, the daughter of William Gaunt, an Englishman who came out to try his luck in Victoria in the 1850s, & Elizabeth Palmer, an excellent horsewoman who had rather aristocratic views on the right way to live one’s life. The Gaunts married in 1860 & Mary was born on the goldfields at Indigo in 1861 where her father was working as a Warden. He was employed by the Government to keep the peace & was later able to study law & became a solicitor.

Mary grew up as part of a large family & was one of the first women eligible to enrol at Melbourne University. Unfortunately her academic career only lasted one year as she found the course unsuitable & failed her exams. However, she was already writing & had some early success with stories & reviews published in the Melbourne newspapers. Soon she was writing novels to be serialised in the newspapers & planning a trip to England. Most Australian authors were published in England in the late 19th century & Mary set off with a letter of introduction from the Editor of The Australasian & a determination to forge a career for herself. At first, everything she wrote was returned. There seemed to be no market for Australian stories. Then, Mary retold a story she heard from her brother Guy, who was in the merchant navy. It was the exciting story of a trip by torpedo boat across the Atlantic. She signed it M Gaunt, hoping to be taken for a man, & the story was accepted & published in The English Illustrated Magazine. Mary kept writing, found an agent & returned to Australia having made a start on her career.

On a visit to friends in Warrnambool, Mary met Dr Hubert Miller. The original attraction may have been his beehives (she was keen to learn beekeeping) but Hubert pursued Mary & they were married in 1894. The Millers were very happy, although Hubert’s mother lived with them & she disliked Mary, disapproving of everything she did. Mary refused to quarrel with her mother-in-law & spent a lot of time biting her tongue to keep the peace. Unfortunately only five years after they were married, Hubert’s health failed. His behaviour grew erratic, then frightening as his mental health declined. He ended his life in an asylum, suffering from the effects of tertiary syphilis.

Mary had continued writing during her marriage but, after the sadness of Hubert’s last months & his death, Mary wanted a fresh start. She was left with very little as Hubert had been unable to work for some time & she gave what was left to Hubert’s mother. In 1901 Mary decided to leave Australia & return to London where she hoped to continue her career. Life in London in those early days was very hard.

Oh, the hopes of the aspirant for literary fame, and oh, the dreariness and the weariness of life for a woman poor and unknown in London! I lodged in two rooms in a dull and stony street. I had no one to speak to from morning to night, and I wrote and wrote and wrote stories that all came back to me… they were poor stuff, but how could anyone do good work who was sick and miserable, cold and lonely, with all the life crushed out of her by the grey skies and the drizzling rain?

Although that first year in London was probably the lowest point in Mary’s life, she was about to embark on the most exciting part of her career. Mary always longed to travel & she was always ready for adventure. She had always wanted to see Africa, after reading about it as a child & her fascination with China began when she saw the Chinese miners on the goldfields of Ballarat when she was young. She began by collaborating with a young doctor, Thomas Tonkin, on a series of adventure novels set in Africa, on the Guinea Coast. Tonkin had been on a missionary expedition to Guinea & Mary could supply the plot. The stories were reasonably successful but only made Mary more determined to see the world herself.

Mary eventually financed the trip to Africa by writing a mystery serial for the Chicago Daily News. It was the beginning of years of adventure as Mary traveled to Africa & China, writing articles & stories based on her adventures to pay her way. She was a traveller rather than an explorer, staying with Colonial officials on her journeys rather than hacking her way through the jungle in a tweed skirt. However, she was unafraid by obstacles or dangers & reveled in new sights & meeting new people.

Mary was never a conventional woman & I love this story of her traveling by train near Brighton with two ladies who are determined to snub her attempts at conversation. After seeing a convoy of elephants & camels from a circus by the side of the road, the ladies are determined to ignore both the animals & Mary.

Those two ladies were a credit to the English nation. They bore themselves with the utmost propriety. What they thought of me I can only dimly guess, but they never even raised their eyes from their papers. Of course the train rushed on, the camels and elephants were left behind, and there was nothing to show that they had ever been there. Then I regret to state that I lay back and laughed til I cried, and whenever I felt a little better the sight of those two studious women solemnly reading their papers set me off again. When I got out at Hassocks they … literally drew their skirts around them so that they should not touch mine and be contaminated as I passed.

Mary spent the last years of her life in Europe, never returning to Australia. At the age of sixty she made a trip to Jamaica, writing a book about her experiences which upset the expatriate community. For the last twenty years of her life, she lived in Bordighera, an Italian town very near the French border on the Riviera. There was a small community of expatriate Britons living there, including several writers, & Mary continued working on her stories using a lifetime of travel & experiences to furnish plot & incident. In June 1940 as Germany invaded France, the small British community in Bordighera was moved across the French border to Vence, a walled village in the mountains not far from Nice. There she lived until her death in January 1942.

Mary Gaunt lived a remarkable life for a woman of her time. She had a sense of adventure & a determination to live an independent life & she was able to realise her dreams. I loved reading about Mary’s life & I can only hope that some of her novels may be reprinted one of these days. A few of her novels & collections of stories are available from Project Gutenberg but I would love to see an Australian publisher like Text Publishing add Mary Gaunt to their wonderful Australian Classics list.

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer

I’ve always known that Georgette Heyer wrote historical novels as opposed to her historical & Regency romances. She wrote several novels about real historical figures – William the Conqueror, John, Duke of Bedford – and this one, Royal Escape, about Charles II & his flight into exile after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. I also knew that Heyer’s research for her novels was prodigious & extensive. I was still surprised when I read the relevant chapter in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles, after reading the novel, just how accurate she was. Names, places, incidents, all taken direct from the historical record & recreated as very exciting fiction. I listened to Royal Escape on audio, read by Cornelius Garrett who did an excellent job. Garrett is one of my favourite narrators. I remember his reading of Anne Perry’s WWI series some years ago. I loved it so much that I would wait for the library to get the audio book rather than read the stories myself.

Royal Escape begins in the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester. The Civil War is all but over. Charles I has been executed two years earlier & his son, now King Charles II, has made an attempt, with the help of the Scots, to regain his throne from the Parliament forces. Unfortunately Charles’s experiences among the Presbyterian Scots did not endear him to them & his potential English supporters disapproved of a Scots army invading England. At Worcester, the Scots failed to rally & the Royalists were defeated. Charles is now a marked man & must try to get to France where there are many Royalist exiles & he will find support at the court of Louis XIV.

Charles decides to travel with just one companion, his great friend, Lord Wilmot. Harry is an older man (& father to the Restoration poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester which I didn’t realise until after I’d finished the book), absolutely devoted to Charles but almost comically unfit for the disguises & stratagems of a fugitive. The only concession he will make to a disguise is to ride with a hawk on his wrist as though he were just out for a day’s hunting & he insists on his manservant accompanying him. Charles, on the other hand, a young man of only 20, is far more easygoing & is prepared to wear rough clothing, cut his hair, have walnut juice rubbed on his face, be lead about the countryside by the poorest of his subjects & obey their directions meekly & with a good grace.

The tale of Charles’s flight is such a good story, with so many near misses, comical incidents & instances of great bravery & loyalty that it seems like a fairytale. It was one of Charles’s favourite stories when he came to the throne & he apparently bored his courtiers by telling it so often. Charles certainly never forgot the many people who helped him & it’s remarkable that he was never betrayed when it’s estimated that more than 60 people knew of his whereabouts during the six weeks he was on the run. By good luck, he found himself among the Catholic families of the West Country & was impressed by their loyalty & faith, especially after the rude, harsh religion of the Scots Covenanters. It’s been speculated that his later inclination towards Catholicism may have had more to do with this experience than with his French mother’s teaching.

He famously spent a day hiding in an oak tree, hid in priest’s holes in country houses & impersonated a servant (quite badly) when traveling with Jane Lane & her sister. He rode through troops of Parliamentary soldiers & ate in servant halls, often drinking a toast to his own health without his companions knowing who he was. Charles was touched by the loyalty shown him & repaid it with good humour & an awareness of the risks taken by the Penderels, Lanes, Giffards, Wyndhams & Gunters in aiding him. Eventually the King boarded a ship at Shoreham & made his escape to France.

Royal Escape is a story of great charm. Charles himself is a very sympathetic character, although his wicked sense of humour almost betrays him several times. Harry Wilmot provides the comic relief but his obvious love for Charles redeems him from being just a figure of fun. Cromwell & his New Model Army may have won the war but they had a long way to go in winning the hearts & minds of the English people. Charles, with his easy charm & sincere gratitude for the help he received, did more for the Royalist cause on his flight than he could have known.The legends that grew up about his escape kept the memory of the Stuarts alive over the long nine years before the Restoration.

Anglophilebooks.comAnglophile Books not only has a copy of the book but also the audio book (on cassette) of Royal Escape.

Moby-Dick or The Whale – Herman Melville

How can I possibly write about Moby-Dick? It’s such a famous story but also one of those classics that I’ve always been daunted by. I’ve had a copy on my tbr shelves for several years now. Then, I bought another copy, this beautiful Penguin Deluxe Classics edition. I’d heard how difficult the book was, how elusive the language, how monumental the digressions. Finally, I borrowed the audio book from our e-library. Listening to William Hootkins’ wonderful reading of Moby-Dick made me fall in love with the story & for the last six weeks, I’ve been listening to one of the most exciting, engaging & funny books I’ve ever read.

The story is well-known. Ishmael, a young man tired of working on merchant vessels, decides to give whaling a try. Arriving on Nantucket Island, he meets harpooneer Queequeg, a tattooed Pacific Islander, the son of a High Chief, with cannibal tendencies who worships an idol called Yojo. They are taken on by the owners of the Pequod, & are not deterred even when they are warned about the odd behaviour of the captain of the vessel, Ahab. They don’t see much of Ahab during the fitting out of the Pequod but they meet the other mates, Starbuck, Stubb & Flask, & the rest of the crew, men from all over the world. It’s not until they’re at sea that the captain emerges from his cabin.

Captain Ahab has his own reasons for undertaking the voyage to the whale hunting grounds & it has nothing to do with procuring precious whale oil for the boat’s owners. Ahab has lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, & has sworn revenge. His obsession with Moby-Dick has become madness & he incites the crew’s greed by nailing a gold doubloon to the mast with the promise that the man who kills Moby-Dick will have the coin as his prize. The Pequod sails from Nantucket to South America, round the Cape of Good Hope to South-East Asia & Japan. Whales are chased, caught & slaughtered but Ahab’s only question to the other boats they encounter is “Hast thou seen the white whale?” Nothing else matters but his revenge & they sail towards the encounter with Moby-Dick that is the climax of Ishmael’s story.

No mere retelling of the plot can give an idea of the flavour of this book. The language is heightened, convoluted, Biblical in cadence. Here’s Captain Ahab telling the crew about Moby-Dick,

“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”

Ishmael’s narration is intimate & confiding. The long passages about the history of the whale & the whaling trade, the detailed descriptions of hunting, harpooning & catching whales are exciting if also a bit mind-numbing at times. When Ishmael describes the sperm whale’s head, he takes several chapters to do it as well as describing every variety of whale & disputing the stories told of whales by every historical writer from the Bible & Aristotle to Beale & Bennett. But then, there are the tales of other ships that Ishmael tells along the way & the many funny incidents such as Ishmael’s first meeting with Queequeg when he is terrified of sharing a room with a cannibal but ends up sitting up in bed with him confiding their life stories to each other as the best of friends. Or Stubb’s determination to have a steak from the first whale they catch & making old Fleece the cook preach to the sharks scavenging on the gigantic corpse of the whale as it floats by the side of the ship because his steak was badly cooked & tough.

There are also some reflective moments of great beauty as when the Pequod comes across a pod of whales protecting the females & their calves,

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at then time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

William Hootkins’ narration won an Audie award in 2006 & it’s a wonderful performance. He contrasts Ishmael’s lightheartedness at the beginning of the story with the more serious passages describing whales & explaining every aspect of the whale hunt. Ahab’s mad mutterings build to a crescendo as he becomes more obsessed with his hunt for the white whale & his monomania puts everyone’s lives at risk. I usually listen to audio books in the car on the way to & from work but I was listening to this one when I was ironing, cooking & any other time I could find. It was the perfect way to get in to this mythic story & I’m so glad that I finally read it.