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.

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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.