Cradock Nowell: a Tale of the New Forest (1866) – R. D. Blackmore

Richard Doddridge Blackmore (1825-1900) the ‘Last Victorian’ was recommended to me by a friend. Being a ‘West Country’ lad who absolutely adores the novels of Thomas Hardy, I was excited to discover another novelist whose work displayed a vivid sense of regional setting. After downloading his complete works on my Kindle and thumbing though the titles, I chose his lesser known Cradock Nowell: An Extremely Boring and Convoluted Tale of the New Forest (1866), as it was mainly based in Hampshire, an area I know well.

As with all books, it received mixed reviews. Here is one commentator’s view of the novel: ‘it is overlaid with mannerisms and affectation; the author is in love with inverted forms of phraseology, which are not English idioms; and he delights in far-fetched words and pedantic epithets.” I think this review was rather kind. For me it was without a shadow of a doubt the waffliest, disjointed and dullest book I have ever read (and that’s saying something from somebody who has a passion for obscure religious tracks and long forgotten historical novels). Even if the three-volume novel was condensed to one, I think it would have been too long.

Initially the story was engaging and I was intrigued enough to see it through the first volume. With the twins mixed up at birth, and an interesting whodunnit murder to boot (with all fingers pointing to the youngest son who was once the recognised heir), I though, wow, this is going to be a great read! But the novel constantly refers to irrelevant Greek and Latin texts and phrases, and endless obscure characters from the ‘Classics’, which perhaps, while amusing a few Oxford dons, certainly didn’t interest me. Let me tell you something … the Roman poet Ovid gives the Greek names of the 36 dogs that belonged to Actaeon, the unlucky hunter of Greek myth who was torn apart by his pack: among them were Tigris, Laelaps (Storm), Aello (Whirlwind), and Arcas (Bear). Pollux lists 15 dog names; another list is found in Columella. The longest list of suitable names for ancient Greek dogs—46 in all—was compiled by the dog whisperer Xenophon… ffs Descartes, what’s that got to do with your review???? Yeah… exactly. He sidetracks like that on every third page! But then ἀεὶ κολοιὸς παρὰ κολοιῷ ἱζάνει … as you all well know!

Anyway, I decided to continue with the second and third volumes just for the challenge, and to be fair, there were a few good scenes. A detailed shipwreck where the author clearly knew his shizzle about navigation (and a thing or two about the sea), and some interesting chapters on a remote island near Ceylon. For instance, Cradock’s attempts at survival while stranded for several months were highly entertaining. Having also lived in the tropics, the scenes with the poisonous snakes and reading how Cradock survived on fruit and tortoise meat while defending his ‘self proclaimed British island’ were amusing and very ‘Kiplingesque’ indeed.

Out of interest, towards the end of the novel the real culprit of Clayton’s murder is of course apprehended. Cradock is reunited with his father (now a shadow of his former self), everybody gets their just deserts (i.e. the traitorous distant family relations), and the novel thankfully ends. I definitely won’t be reading another Blackmore novel anytime soon… and it certainly comes as no surprise that other than his famous ‘Lorna Doone’ none of his books have remained in print.

Trail of the Serpent (1860) – M.E Braddon

The Trail of the Serpent (1860) was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s first published novel. It originally appeared as ‘Three Times Dead; or, The Secret of the Dead’ but due to low sales, it was condensed and republished as ‘The Trail of the Serpent’. It is widely considered to be one of the first British detective novels, but either way, it is certainly a sensational novel, packed with many of the familiar tropes like family secrets, murder, jealousy, blackmail, suspense and mistaken identities, with a wonderful escape from a lunatic asylum to boot. The story begins in Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy (sounds like my native Wiltshire), where we follow the evil foundling Jabez North who rises from school usher to millionaire banker. North devises a heinous plot to snare a wealthy heiress into murdering her ‘secret’ husband with poison, and then blackmails her into marrying him. We also follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of Daredevil Dick (aka Richard Marwood) who is accused of his uncle’s murder. He is detained in a mental asylum for 8 years, and in these chapters we perhaps find Braddon at her best with her comic portrayals of the other inmates. With none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Emperor of the German Ocean and Chelsea Waterworks for company, Richard struggles through his ordeal until the deaf detective Peters (who communicates through sign language) hatches a successful escape plan. Eventually the complex mystery is unraveled, and the sinister Jabez North is arrested after being traced to a ship (where he is hiding in a coffin believe it or not) on route to the New World.

This is only the second novel that I have read over the last two years that I would give a five star rating. The other being the supernatural masterpiece ‘The Shadow of Ashyldat’ (1863), by Mrs. Henry Wood.

The Secret of Wold Hall (1905) – Evelyn Everett-Green

Evelyn Everett-Green came from a Methodist family, and many of her early works were pious ‘improving’ books aimed at children, especially at young girls. She wrote over 350 novels in her life time, some two thirds of them using her own name, the others were published under several male pseudonyms. She found it rather difficult writing at home and she struggled with the dreary town winters. As a result she eventually upped-sticks and settled in Madeira with her friend Catherine Mainwaring Sladen.

The Secret of Wold Hall was first published in 1905. Now entirely forgotten, this novel is a real gem, and I highly recommend it to anybody who likes a good old fashioned mystery story. Everett-Green’s realism greatly appealed to me, and the reader is left spellbound by her beautifully written and fast paced narrative.

The novel opens with a ten year old girl who has fallen down a small precipice searching for edelweiss flowers. She is rescued by a sixteen year old boy called Marcus who promises to come back and marry her when he has made his fortune. The young Lady Marcia Defresne is touched by his offer, but explains that as she is an Earl’s daughter it is impossible for her to marry outside her social class. He carries the young girl back to her hotel where the Earl St. Barbe and his family are residing. In the commotion of their arrival, her ‘brown boy’ disappears and is not seen again.

The novel jumps forward ten years, and true to his word, the now rich Marcus (son of a man recently given a baronetcy) keeps his earlier promise. Lady Marcia’s family has now hit hard times, and Sir Robert (Marcus’s father), is able to save the ‘penniless peer’ from embarrassment, and secure Lady Marcia’s hand for his son.

As the novel unfolds, we learn that there is an old secret in Marcus’s life. It transpires a strange death took place at his bachelor pad (Wold Hall) and although he was cleared by the magistrates, the locals are still deeply divided about whether he is guilty or not of the murder.

After their marriage, Lady Marcia starts learning more about her husband’s past, and she is unable to form a positive opinion about him. Feeling she has made a terrible mistake, she hears harrowing stories from the locals, and is nearly convinced of her doom when she stumbles upon the old dalesman, Ebenezer Raleigh, and learns it was his son who was found dead in Wold Hall. His crazed ramblings frighten her, and cast a dark shadow over any hopes of marital bliss.

Without revealing too much of the plot or spoiling the mystery, I can say that the sinister and deluded Ebenezer, eventually seeks revenge on Marcus. He decides to blow up the local mine, whilst Marcus is down overseeing the workers. During this intense episode a mysterious man appears from the past, save’s Marcus’s life, and reveals what really happened that unfortunate night at Wold Hall.

There are also many interesting sub-plots in the novel. One cannot help admiring Sweetheart (a little orphaned girl) and her protector ‘Best Beloved’ (a mysterious and reclusive relative), two fascinating characters from Marcus’s past, who ultimately win Lady Marcia’s love and respect, and help her to overcome her marriage doubts. It seems everybody has skeletons in their closets in this book, but as the story unfolds, all is eventually explained with satisfaction, and our aristocratic pair finally fall hopelessly in love with each other. As if to compensate for all the darkness and suspense which prevails throughout the book, there are a number of exceedingly happy endings, including three love matches which ultimately reach fruition – amor vincit omnia!

The Cloven Foot (1879) – M.E. Braddon

This novel is a top-notch example from the school of ‘Sensational Novels’. It really is a neglected gem! Packed with murder, bigamy, treachery and heartache, there is enough for anybody who needs a little drama in their lives.

In the beginning, the novel follows two seemingly unrelated stories, and I nearly abandoned it after chapter VI. Be this as it may, the opening is intriguing. Jasper Treverton is on his death bed and has sent for his young cousin John Treverton to visit him. John arrives at the manor, meets with Jasper’s adopted daughter Laura Malcolm, and has his interview with the squire before the old man pops his clogs. During the reading of the will, Laura is left an annuity of 6000 a year, and John is left the estate… BUT … and there is of course a bizarre clause: he must marry, Miss Laura Malcolm, within a year of the squire’s death!

We then follow the the lives of the Chicots. Mademoiselle Le Chicot is an infamous London actress causing quite a stir in the theatres. Her husband Jack is much the opposite – trapped in his failed marriage, he is the insignificant partner, known exclusively in the fashionable world, as ‘the husband of La Chicot’.

We return to John Treverton and read how he frequently visits the Manor House to see Miss Malcolm. They genuinely seem to like each other, and their relationship blossoms. Laura has a best friend called Celia with whom she shares all her secrets. Celia’s father is the local clergyman, who also has a son – a good for nothing scamp and minor poet called Edward, who frequently idles his time away at the Manor House in the company of Laura and Celia. He is dreadfully jealous of Laura’s growing bond with John Treverton, and he struggles with his unrequited feelings.

Eventually John and Laura declare their love for each other and tie the knot. Old Jasper’s will is then realised, and John, after an intense spell of melancholy, mysteriously does a runner leaving Laura totally devastated, but in full legal possession of the manor and estate.

We are now back with the La Chicots, and the glamourous Zaire Chicot is given a priceless diamond necklace by a wealthy Jewish admirer. One evening whilst she is asleep she is strangled, and her necklace is stolen. Jack is suspected of her murder, and so he goes off in search of a constable (never to return), while the whole of the boarding house is left shocked by the brutal crime.

John returns to the manor and to Laura, his wife. He vaguely describes his situation to her (not mentioning the murder of course), and they decide to get remarried in a distant parish in Cornwall where nobody will recognise them. Laura is glad that they are now properly husband and wife, but she is troubled by the fraud – she is aware that neither the estate nor and money legally belong to them (as they are contrary to Jasper’s will). She suggests to John that they should forfeit their rights, and confess the deception to the two trustees (her own father and the faithful Treverton family solicitor).

Edward, Celia’s jealous brother, already knows John’s (aka Jack Chicot’s) dark past and heads to London for further evidence. He brings a young doctor who knew the Chicots’ intimately to visit the vicarage on pretense of them being old chums. The doctor then confirms Edward’s suspicions. Realising the noose is tightening around him, John confesses all to the trustees and Laura. He denies the murder of Zaire Chicot, although the evidence seems stacked against him, his solicitor and the vicar both firmly believe his story. The solicitor with uncanny acumen has a hunch that Zaire may have been in a previous marriage before her ‘marriage’ to John, and decides they must go to Auray, France to see if there is any evidence. Happily it does indeed turn out to be the case, so John and Laura’s first marriage was legitimate after all, and the estate is safe. Edward’s jealous passion now gets the better of him, and Scotland Yard are suddenly at the manor, arresting John and taking him to London for a trial.

In a nutshell, there is a superb trial, and with John’s clever defense lawyer, Mr. Leopold, and with his former landlady Mrs. Evitt’s long overdue confession of what she saw, Treverton is finally exonerated and returns to his wife and his estate a free man.  Of course Edward sensibly decides on a life in the colonies, and the novel concludes with a tip-toppingly, rippingly jolly ‘happily ever after’ style ending.

Having read many of Braddon’s other novels, I’m deeply surprised that The Cloven Foot hasn’t remained one of her more popular books. In my humble opinion it knocks the socks off of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), the two books which she is mainly remembered for writing.

My Reading List (2016)

After a long hiatus I’m back posting on this blog. My apologies for the delay in replying to comments, and indeed for not commenting on your posts!

I thought it might be a good way to start the year by posting a list of all the books I read in 2016.

My Reading List

As you can see, most of the books I read were rather obscure 19th Century novels!

1 Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood 1870
2 George Macdonald Thomas Wingfold, Curate 1876
3 Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson Left To Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald 1891
4 Joseph Crawhall The Village Curate: an Interesting Tale 1855
5 Francis Edward Paget The Vicar of Roost 1859
6 Francis Edward Paget The Curate of Cumberworth 1859
7 Mrs. Henry Wood The Shadow of Ashlydyat 1863
8 Sabine Baring-Gould The Broom-squire 1896
9 Mrs Henry Wood A Life’s Secrets 1862
10 Mrs Henry Wood Mrs. Halliburton’s Troubles 1862
11 Benjamin Disraeli The Young Duke 1831
12 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow 1874
13 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 2nd Series 1880
14 Hugh Walpole Mr Perrin and Mr Traill 1911
15 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 3rd Series 1885
16 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 4th Series 1885
17 Hugh Walpole The Sea Tower 1939
18 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 5th Series 1899
19 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 6th Series 1899
20 Stanley J. Weyman Ovington’s Bank 1880
21 William Harrison Ainsworth Rookwood 1834
22 William Harrison Ainsworth Old St. Pauls: A Tale of the Plague 1841
23 James Payn Lost Sir Massingberd 1864
24 William Harrison Ainsworth The Lancashire Witches 1848
25 William Harrison Ainsworth Guy Fawkes 1840
26 Maria Edgeworth Castle Rackrent 1800
27 Susannah Strickland Hugh Lattimer, or The School Boys’ Friendship 1828
28 Anne Marsh-Caldwell Tales of the Woods and Fields 1836

Tales of the Woods and Fields (1836)

One of my fantastic readers asked me recently whether all early 19th century novels had happy endings. I answered yes, as up until this latest book I had always believed this to be the case!

The Tales of the Woods and Fields is a harrowing society novel by Anne Marsh-Caldwell. It was first published in 1836 in three volumes. Volume the first, and the first thirty six pages of volume the second contain ‘A Country Vicarage’. The remaining two volumes are taken up with the long poem ‘A Tale of an Oak Tree’ and a further novel called ‘Love and Duty’. I have decided to review only the first tale: ‘A Country Vicarage’.

The novel opens with a series of letters discussing the beautiful but young and naive Louisa Evelyn, who has received an invitation to a fashionable ball. There is concern in the vicarage about whether it would be good for Louisa to go. Charles, the son of Mr. Evelyn’s oldest friend, is secretly in love with Louisa, and worries that if she mingles with high society it might have a detrimental effect on her.

Louisa attends the dance. On her arrival at Dangerfield, she is scrutinised by the French maid who finding nothing suitable in Louisa’s trunk, dresses her in something fashionable from her mistresses wardrobe. The hostess Mrs. Carlton then presents her to the dining room and she is escorted to her place at the table. The author highlights the shallow and critical attitude of British upper class society by revealing the thoughts and conversations of the guests, including a Duke, many of the gentry, some army officers, and countless single ladies. Louisa is initially admired for her beauty, but is soon politely mocked when it gets out that she is only the parson’s daughter. Sir Harry’s recollection of her dressed in ‘a blue pinafore with torn bonnet’ is spread around the table by several Lady Marys who ‘happening to be within hearing, looked, I am sorry to say, rather ill-naturedly pleased at this description’. Louisa feels alienated during the dinner, and she is unable to add anything to the fatuous conversation. This continues the following morning at breakfast and at the races, and Mr. Evelyn’s experiment ‘seemed in a fair way of succeeding’.

At the ball, Lord William Melville solicits an introduction to Louisa and here she has her first experiences of love. Louisa spends the next few days languishing for Melville. Eventually they meet again at a play in the following chapter. There follows a brutal coach accident and Lord Melville runs to the crash to aid Louisa who is shocked and faint but not really hurt. Melville then escorts Louisa and Mrs. Carlton to her house, and Louisa who now feels decidedly worse, is carried into the dwelling by his Lordship. The author alludes to many classical literary references (especially to Greek mythology and to Shakespeare), which makes it a little difficult and a disjointed read if one needs to ‘refresh’ ones knowledge of the Classics (lovelier than Juliet… softer than Miss Haller … innocent as Perdita… more tender than Ophelia… more fatal than that of Circe, etc).

Louisa spends a vast amount of time with Lord Melville at Dangerfield, and she falls hopelessly in love with him. It is a mutual affection, but the naïve Louisa expects too much. Eventually she is summoned back to the country vicarage by Mrs. Digby, and there begins a gradual decline in her health. By degrees it is noticed by her sister and the maid, and indeed by Charles. One day he catches her crying while nursing her sister’s baby in the garden and becomes aware she is clearly in love with someone. This is later confirmed by one of his chums in a letter, as it has become widespread knowledge in society that the lucky Louisa has caught the eye of the wealthy, titled and most eligible bachelor, Lord Melville. Charles is heartbroken by the news, but is determined to throw himself into his studies and help Louisa the best he can.

Mr. Phillips (Mary’s husband) returns after a long period of absence in Ireland. He notices Louisa’s strange affliction, which is verified by Charles later in the evening. Without giving Louisa’s secret away, he explains her situation. Phillips forms a plan to send Louisa away with his wife and children for a change of scene.

One day while out walking in the copse, Louisa is surprised to see Lord Melville, and instantly hugs him. Realising her impropriety she shrieks and runs back to the house. Charles who happened to be nearby, confront Melville, and there is a haughty exchange of words. Charles convinces Melville it is imperative that he doesn’t delay formalities with Mr. Evelyn, and that he declares his intentions honestly, for her sake.

The next morning Mr. Evelyn receives a letter from Lord Melville requesting permission to present himself at the vicarage. At this point in the novel Charles takes permanent leave from the house. Louisa and Lord Melville are married in less than a month after his first appearance at the vicarage, and it appears their early married life is one of complete bliss. He rents a pretty cottage ‘of gentility’ in Wales and they spend the winter enjoying each other’s company and activities. Things take a turn when Louisa becomes pregnant and she cannot partake in all their usual entertainments. The selfish Melville sees Louisa solely as a great and beautiful prize, won to gratify his own needs.

They move to Melville’s London residence, and Louisa meets the dowager and his sisters. The author gives her readers another unflattering and detailed portrayal of upper class attitudes. Melville leaves Louisa with the women and goes to his local club. Louisa feels isolated and out of place in the house. When she goes to bed the young sisters and the dowager head off to the opera and Louisa is left feeling desolate.

The next morning Louisa is ill and fatigued, and the whole family, including the marchioness, take breakfast in Louisa’s chambers as she reclines on a couch. There is an interesting discussion. The family plainly state that it is out of the question that Louisa attends church, but they propose she will naturally be well enough for an afternoon display in the carriage around the park. ‘We will be the admiration of the whole world!’ Louisa argues that if she isn’t well enough for church, she won’t be well enough for a drive. It appears her new family are only pious when they are on display. This contrasts with Louisa’s father and Charles, who live genuine pious lifestyles back at the vicarage.

It is a long day and the family spends hours parading in their new carriage and conversing with their set. In the evening, Louisa is subjected to a long and tiresome formal meal with more aristocratic strangers. Louisa retires at a late hour, and feeling depressed she starts to worry that her life will continue like this – separated from the person her unschooled heart loves, and left to mix with the aristocratic sets which she feels alienated from. As the months go by, Louisa realises the gulph is insurmountable. Lord Melville leads his own life, and Louisa is constantly in the company of his family, who practically live with her, and she has nobody from her own/old peer group to relate to. Her poor health trapped her in Melville’s family and their set: ‘the empty fleeting bubbles of mere fashionable life’.

After the birth of her daughter, Louisa realises she cannot even control the nursery. The family hires their ‘own’ people for that role. A further unsettling realisation hits Louisa when her husband asks her what she is doing this summer! It transpires he is going to Norway for an expedition and will not be returning until the following spring around April. Louisa is told to enjoy herself as much as she can and spare no expense ‘there is the world before you’. She realises that any dreams she harboured of them being a normal couple are well and truly dashed.

Lord Melville goes to Norway and Louisa and her in-laws go to Babington Castle in the Midlands for a season. She also spends time with her sister, and they holiday on the coast. Louisa arrives in Park Lane for her husband’s expected arrival the following April – but he arrives only four months later. During the long absence Louisa’s natural vigour and health is restored. On Melville’s return there is an initial revival of their early intimacy and socialising, and Louisa naively assumes they will final become close. As can be imagined, Lord Melville soon returns to amusing and entertaining himself, while his wife is neglected. Matters finally come to a head when Louisa hears her husband is having an affair with an Italian actress ‘who has all the exciting traits she herself fails to entice in Melville’. Melville now becomes short tempered and even impatient with his wife. The family and servants follow suit and Louisa begins to feel friendless and frustrated. Melville begins to despise his own infant daughter and has no patience with Louisa and her tears.

At the start of the volume II the infant Miss Melville comes down with a fever, but she is neglected by all the servants and nurses. She calls for her mama, but the rooms are so far away she cannot be heard. When Louisa finally becomes aware her child is sick the rest of the family think it is nonsense and an excuse for Louisa not to leave Brighton and attend a party in London where the Royals will be present. Melville needs Louisa to attend with him to prove their marriage is fine. He is anxious to clear his reputation and to prove to society he is not having an affair. Of course, Melville gets his way, and the very sick child along with the family set off for London. On route, the child becomes dangerously sick, but the nurse and the selfish Lord Melville insist she is fine. Louisa reaches breaking point, and realising the seriousness of her child’s illness, she hysterically orders the carriage to stop. She defies her husband and causes such a scene, that she cannot be ignored this time. They are released at the next inn and Melville with a mock bow drives off leaving the distressed mother and daughter behind. Medical advice is immediately sought, but it is too late. The child dies and Louisa’s harrowing shrieks pierce the inn. She is desperately agitated so the innkeeper calls a visiting clergyman upstairs for assistance. Louisa recognises him as her old friend Charles, and she drops to the floor in a fainting fit.

When she is revived, Charles comforts her with reassurances of God’s eternal love and protection. They pray together and Louisa is put to bed. Charles then sends the news to Lord Melville. Of course, Melville is envious of Charles and for the first time in his life, he feels genuine remorse for his behaviour. He orders his four horses to be harnessed and to be instantly dispatched to the inn. Meanwhile, Louisa takes a turn for the worse, and Charles is again summoned upstairs by the maid. He finds Louisa in the last stages of life. Her heart ‘was hurrying with the rapidity of a mill wheel’. He kneels down beside her to hear her confession – and here she expires.

In a nutshell: a perceptive novel packed with realism and frustration. The author Anne Caldwell Marsh offers a scathing critique of the emptiness of ‘fashionable’ society and its destructive influence on human lives.

K: Kha, Kha, The Duck Quacketh (18th Century Phonics)

How many thousands of teachers and parents are familiar with the Miskin phonics system we use today? Most mornings I dig out my laminated set II cards and begin an English lesson with ‘OY, OY, TOY FOR A BOY’ focusing on all the OY sounding words. If you thought this was a relatively new system (like I did) then you would be mistaken.

I was browsing though an online version of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1705), apparently the first children’s picture book, when I found a curious phonics guide tucked in amongst the other essential early 18th century primary school skills like ‘brewing beer!’ and ‘slaughtering animals!’ The chapter begins with a solemn discussion between a teacher and his student which is delivered in both English and Latin.

14196926853_2a0619ce0d_c

As my dear readers are obviously proficient in Latin I will give their discourse in English:

Teacher: ‘come boy, learn to be wise!’ Boy: ‘what does this mean to be wise?’. Teacher: ‘to understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly, all that are necessary’. Boy: ‘Who will teach me this?’ Teacher: ‘I, by God’s help’. Boy: ‘How?’ Teacher: ‘I will guide thee throw all. I will shew thee all. I will name thee all’. Boy: ‘See, here I am; lead me in the name of God’. Teacher: ‘Before all things, thou oughtest to learn the plain sounds, of which man’s speech confideth’:

phonics

I will definitely be trying out this 300 year old method tomorrow morning when we are doing our ‘K’ sounds: anas tetrinnit, Kha kha, the duck quaketh.