Two College Friends (1871) – F. W. Loring

Frederick W. Loring is a long forgotten American author about as obscure as they come. His novel ‘Two College Friends’ (published in 1871) narrates a beautiful story of romantic friendship between two young men and an elderly professor.

Lost for over a century, Loring’s novel was only rediscovered in 1996 by the historian Douglas Shand-Tucci who republished it in the anthology:  The Romantic Friendship Reader: Love Stories between Men in Victorian America (Northeastern University Press, 2003). Loring was himself only a young man when he met his own untimely death at the age of 21. He was tragically killed by a band of Apaches while travelling to Arizona.

After reading a copy of Loring’s novel online, I was greatly impressed with its frank portrayal of love between the two young men, especially from a book published during the ‘Victorian’ period, an era particularly known for its prudence. What was even more surprising was the sympathetic Professor who ardently loved the two friends before they volunteered for the Civil War. Loring paints an exceptionally warm and daring picture of an older homosexual man – rare even in modern gay literature.

The novel revolves around two central characters called Ned and Tom. Ned is an orphan of the impetuous and insecure type, while Tom is serene and very handsome. It appears everybody in the novel is aware of Tom’s beauty, even the battle weary republican General Stonewall Jackson bizarrely comments on his good looks later in the book.

Ned is very much in love with Tom, and of course, Tom is devoted to Ned. The old professor is in love with them both and he has their photo on his desk. His most prized possession. A long time ago the professor had fallen in love with a young woman, but after being rejected, he resigned himself to a bachelor lifestyle and to teaching with its dull routine. The young woman in question was Tom’s mother, and after discovering this the professor takes a keen and queer interest in both boys.

While at Harvard the American Civil War begins and Ned enlists as an officer.  The professor persuades Tom’s mother to let him sign up too, so the boys can stay together. Their experiences are recalled intermittently in Ned’s journal entries. In one sentimental scene we read how Tom nurses Ned through a terrible fever and stays with him during his leave period. Although he is homesick and hasn’t seen his mother for over a year, he remains at the hospital to care for his beloved friend.

Later in the novel there is a campaign to destroy an enemy bridge and Ned and his men are captured by the formidable general, Stonewell Jackson. After a long discussion Jackson finds he respects and admires Ned’s straightforward, frank attitude.  He allows Ned (on his honour not to escape) to stay the night with his sick friend by the water’s edge. As Ned is bathing Tom to ease his temperature, his guard comments: ‘you care for him as you would a gal, don’t you?’ He continues ‘well, he’s poutier than any gal I ever see anywhar’. The guard explains how Ned had given him fruit and Jelly at the hospital even though he was from the enemy camp. The guard wants to return the favour and allows Ned to escape down the river with his sick friend on the boat. Ned takes Tom to safety and returns honourably to the camp the following day to report to the General. Ned explains to General Jackson how Tom is his world. The General admires the fact he returned to face his fate. However Ned is briefed he will be shot at sunrise. They shake hands and Ned is led to a quiet room with writing material to put his affairs in order. He writes a beautiful heart-wrenching letter to the professor and says his farewells. In the morning he is executed, and the novel forward many years to its conclusion. The professor never recovers from Ned’s untimely death and becomes an angry, distant and ruthless pedant. Tom marries and his wife names their first born son after Tom’s soulmate.

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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!

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.

Hugh Latimer, or The School Boys’ Friendship (1828)

I’ve wanted to read this extremely rare novel by Susannah Strickland for years, so you can imagine my excitement when I recently discovered a readable grainy microfiche version. I have to confess it’s the first time I’ve ever read a book this way, but it was well worth the effort.

The novel revolves around a 12 year old boy called Hugh Latimer who attends a foundation school as a scholarship boy. He is the son of a widowed shopkeeper and gee doesn’t he get some abuse from his aristocratic peers. The children taunt him with insults like ‘beggar’s brat,’ but Latimer struggles on bravely through his school days with the help of his best friend Montrose. As the book progresses the boys develop a deep and lasting friendship and they learn much from their uncles and school master, Mr. Manby. From the very start, when Hugh asks to be taken from the school, his uncle asks ‘what would you rather be a gentleman or a shopkeeper?’ when Hugh replies the former, his uncle retorts ‘well don’t let them take that advantage from you’. The novel is also rich in biblical lessons, especially those found in the the book of St. Matthew, and one is given a real insight into early 19th century mentality. The author Mrs. Strickland develops several themes in her writing which she feels strongly about; in particular, she exposes and tackles class and racial prejudices which were both problematic during this period. In one scene the boys are walking arm in arm and happen to meet a black youth who enters the school with a basket of cakes on his head. Being a book of its time we encounter a vexing racist attack. The author lectures the reader on the evils of idleness and highlights this as the reason for the assault. Our hero Montrose then appears on the scene and threatens to thrash the boys for their inhumanity. When they leave we hear him addressing the youth ‘so where do you live, Blackey?’ He is clearly a thoughtful boy, but he has much to learn! Anyway, after the youth refuses their financial assistance, Montrose decides they should all visit his uncle. The Colonel then repays old ‘Blackey’ and after a long fruitful lecture he joins their hands and solemnly declares they must remain friends for life.

Later in the story with the introduction of Sinclair, the novel turns its focus to class prejudice. The pompous Sinclair with his upper class ancestry causes great mischief to Latimer’s friendship with Montrose. Having seen this unfold, Mr. Manby invites Hugh to his residence for tea. Hugh confesses he is heartbroken after being forsaken by Montrose and here Mr. Manby reveals his own humble origins as a foundation boy. He recalls being bullied by a youth called Carey, who spared few opportunities in humiliating him in front of his peers. One summer’s morning while out walking his dog he noticed somebody struggling in the water. It was Carey, and feeling nothing but indignation he decided to stand by and watch him drown. It was only after his dog jumped in the water and swam towards the boy that he came to his senses and dragged Carey onto the riverbank. Manby continues by explaining how they wept in each other’s arms, forgave the past and how Carey died peacefully in God grace, washed free of all his sins [naturally Carey’s death is full of pious reflections and comforting promises of everlasting life].

In the latter part of the novel Montrose invites Latimer to his uncle’s for the holidays. Of course Latimer initially hesitates after hearing that Sinclair and his siblings will also be there. Latimer arrives at the Colonel’s house and a week passes without any news from the brats. The boys and the Colonel spend their happy days in the pursuit of knowledge and science. When the arrogant Sinclair finally arrives he sees Latimer playing chess with his sister and declares he is no suitable playfellow for his sibling. The next morning Sinclair ignores Latimer’s salutations, and Montrose launches into an angry rant in defense of his friend. The Sinclair brothers leave the room and the Colonel tries to patch things up. The week passes in haughty politeness but with no sense of any warmness developing. Later, during a group drama where the parts are divided according to personality, the Sinclair sisters remark that ‘Latimer’ should naturally be the servant. The wounded boy retaliates: ‘what of it. My father was once a proud servant who died fighting for his country’.

While Montrose is downstairs chatting with chums from school, Latimer hears one of the girls shrieking as her dress catches fire. She is completely engulfed in flames so he raps her in a blanket and manages to singe off his eyelids so severally he cannot see for days. Next there follows a mawkish and unrealistic scene where the Sinclair’s fall at Latimer’s feet weeping and forgetting their old prejudices, thank him for saving their sister’s life. A few days later when the party departs (with Hugh still bedridden) he is given ‘handsome gifts’ for the services he rendered to the girl. The Colonel then sits with Latimer and points out a sword hanging on the wall. When he asks the boy to guess who that sword belonged to, Hugh, answered ‘to a hero?’ to which the Colonel replies, ‘yes, it was your fathers’. An ecstatic Hugh then asks the Colonel how he knew his father.  The Colonel explains how he was not dissimilar to the haughty Sinclair in his youth and had treated Latimer’s father (who was his commanding officer) with much contempt because of his humble origins. After repeatedly trying to antagonise him he eventually struck him in the face. The noble officer reminded him that he could be sentenced to death for his affront, but concluded how he was grateful there were no witnesses, as the matter could now end in a truce. As a sign of new found respect they exchanged their swords.

In the process of time the two boys become top of their school. The famous Lord Peterborough is passing through the area and requests to see the establishment. Latimer as the head scholar delivers an excellent speech in Latin, and after making some enquiries Lord Peterborough learns he is the son of the brave soldier who had thrice saved his life. To return the favour Hugh is awarded a pair of colours by the peer and a 50 pound annual pension for his mother and lame uncle. And here the novel concludes with the following beautiful paragraph:

‘The two young friends entered the army together; they served in the same regiment, fought in the same battles, and bled the same cause. Montrose, after many gallant actions, was made Lord Grahame; and his friend Latimer, rising by degrees to the height of his profession, received the badge of knighthood from the hand of his sovereign’.

For me, this book was both charming and silly at the same time. Often the scenes were overly mawkish, and the boys’ relationship was too mushy. Nevertheless, if one can see past this, and have the patience to wade through the religious moralising and shallow characters, I think it is well worth a read, even if only to appreciate the forward thinking ideas of the author.

Left to Themselves (1891)

Left to Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald (1891)

By Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson

Known to scholars as the author of the first openly American gay novel, Edward Irenaeus Stevenson remains a largely forgotten and neglected writer. Over a decade before the publication of his ground breaking literary milestone, he published Left to Themselves a fascinating young adult novel, which in my humble opinion is a gem that deserves a revival. Stevenson writes with gusto as we follow the adventures of two boys, who united in romantic friendship, overcome the most incredible obstacles. It’s really hard to believe that such an enthralling novel with a shipwreck, an attempted kidnap, an equinoctial tempest and a relentless predator could have remained out of print for over a hundred years! It was reissued only earlier this year by the excellent Valancourt Books.

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Summary

Patrick Sip, a seasoned tramp, is grumbling about life, after his fifth escape from the workhouse. He is asking himself what people find so attractive about nature when he can’t even get a morsel to eat except berries in season. He sees the twelve year old, well-to-do, Gerald Saxton, who is fishing and decides to harass him for his hamper. The startled boy sprints towards a farmhouse and the chase is only cut short by the intervention of an older boy, Philip Touchstone.

Philip and Gerald bond instantly on their wagon journey to the Ossokosee Hotel. Gerald notices how Philip becomes red in the face when he talks about his father. At the lodge they overhear General Sawtelle discussing Philip’s deceased father, and Philip decides it’s only fair that Gerald should hear the truth before they become firmer friends. It transpires that Mr. Touchstone was involved in the infamous Suburban Trust Company robbery for which he was later sent to prison. After his release he died of consumption. His wife also died, and Philip was left an orphan. The chapter concludes with a closer intimacy between the two boys, with Gerald declaring he doesn’t believe what people say about Philip’s father.

The following day Mr. Marcy and Gerald go to the river to watch the annual regatta. Gerald is excited and hopes to see Philip rowing for the Ossokosees crew. The Ossokosees have been beaten three consecutive times by the Victors, so many have turned up for the race. The race is beautifully narrated by the author and we see a glorious victory for the Ossokosee Club. At the end of the chapter we are told Philip and Gerald go to sleep, ‘Gerald with one hand under his yellow head, and the other just touching Philip’s arm’.

Mr. Marcy receives a letter from Gerald’s father requesting his presence in Nova Scotia. Philip is asked to escort Gerald on the long trip, and the boys are delighted with the idea. On their train journey to New York they fail to notice a strange man listening to their conversation. He reads the letter that Gerald has carelessly dropped and disappears. Minutes later the train arrives at the next station and the supposed ‘Mr. Hilliard’ greets the boys with some alarming news. His apartment has apparently been involved in a fire, and he suggests the boys come to the Windsor hotel for the night. Of course, Philip is suspicious, but Gerald thinks it will be fun! Thankfully, the train experiences engine troubles and stops for repairs. The passengers decide to stretch their legs until they are summoned back by the whistle. During the interval, ‘Mr. Hilliard’ sees to some business, and the boys explore an abandoned cellar. Suddenly, they hear the whistle, but they arrive too late and the train departs without them! Finding themselves in a quandary, they catch the adjacent freight train, and alight somewhere in up-town New York. They find Mr. Hilliard’s apartment and ask the butler where he is. Curiously, Hilliard is upstairs on the second floor, and it appears there was no fire! The boys are astonished when they meet the real Mr. Hilliard, and conclude the other must have been an imposter!

The next day Mr. Hilliard takes the boys to the Old Province steamer and they sail for Halifax. It’s a rough passage and the seasick Gerald retires to his cabin. Philip removes to the dining room where he notices the imposter ‘Hilliard’ sitting with a gentleman in the corner. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Gerald needs some ice for a headache. Philip locks Gerald in his room and goes looking for a porter. He meets the imposter and agrees to a private meeting. Philip learns that Belmont (the imposter) intends to kidnap Gerald. He has informed the captain and the authorities that Gerald is ‘his’ boy, and he plans to leave the ship at Martha’s Vineyard in the morning. Philip is outraged by this audacious story. Belmont says he will also accuse Philip of kidnap if he tries to interfere. After a prolonged battle of wills, Belmont says he will call the Captain and Mr. Arrowsmith, the mate, so they can decide who is bluffing. Suddenly, there is a terrifying explosion and Philip and Belmont are thrust together. After much commotion, the captain announces that the explosion (in the hold) has broken a hole in the bow and the steamer is sinking! In the ensuing chaos the boys are safely stowed with the secondmate in a little raft and pushed out to sea. Belmont attempts to board the same boat, but is stopped due to lack of room. During the journey they hear a distinct bell and realise they must be close to land. A lady on board then loses her balance and her baby is tossed into the water. In a desperate frenzy she upsets the entire raft, and everybody including the cargo gets cast into the sea! The only remaining passenger is Gerald ‘stopped by the gunwale’, and Philip who is holding on for his life. Eventually, Philip climbs back on board, but the excitement has been too much for Gerald and he swoons in Philips arms. The next day the newspapers publish the sinking of the steamer and both Philip and Gerald are reported drowned. However, the boys are quite alive, and after several days at sea they finally wake to a bright blue sky and see land in the distance. They then dock in a small cove and make their way towards a farmhouse.

Philip leaves Gerald resting while he heads to the farm. The doors and windows are wide open, but nobody is at home when he arrives. He decides to collect Gerald and take the liberty of resting for a while. Philip prepares some food and notices Gerald is feverish and listless. He puts him to bed, and heads to the area where they left their boat. The vessel is gone and after hours of talking gently to Gerald, they fall asleep, until the return of Mr. and Mrs. Probasco. The boys tell their story to the astonished couple, while Mrs. Probasco nurses Gerald. Philip and Mr. Probasco then devise a plan to sail over to the town on the following morning to dispatch letters and telegrams. Unfortunately, the next morning they wake to an equinoctial tempest, and it’s impossible to attempt a crossing. Cooped up in the house for several days they observe the storm, and during the course of one evening, the Probascos reveal the history of the shady Mr. Jennison, their current landlord. Mrs. Probasco explains how he once came to the house with a bunch of dubious characters who were later embroiled in the Suburban Trust Company robbery. As Philip muses whether it is prudent to question her further about his description, Mrs. Probasco tells the boys she has a photograph of him somewhere upstairs. Philip has some reservations and discreetly prompts Mrs. Probasco not to continue the discussion until Gerald is safely asleep. Later in the evening he is shown the photo, and instantly recognises the imposter, aka Belmont, who had caused them so much trouble on the steamer. Philip tells the Probasco family the whole story and explains how Gerald and he must leave the island as soon as it is conveniently possible, as a further encounter with Jennison could be disastrous! The weather clears a little, but due to his Rheumatism, Mr. Probasco is unable to take the boys over the water. A local fisherman is then engaged to ferry them to Chantico, and from there they take a stagecoach to Knoxport.

When they arrive at the hotel they notice Gerald’s father and Mr. Marcy have already checked out. Philip tries to send a telegram, but the lines are frustratingly down due to another huge storm. Mr. Banger (the manager) suggests they inform the papers about their miraculous survival, but Philip is concerned it may alert Jennison prematurely. In the end Philip agrees to the publicity and Banger tells a journalist about their incredible story. The following day there is still no news from Marcy or Gerald’s father and the boys start to worry. Indeed, Mr. Banger also begins to doubt the boys’ story. Retiring to bed Philip hears Jennison’s voice in the lobby. He extracts some information from the proprietor before leaving on his horse.

Philip and Gerald decide that if there’s no news by the end of the day, they will make their own way back to Ossokosee. While Philip is out, the despondent Gerald encounters the persistent Mr. Hilliard-Belmont-Jennison. The imposter attempts to persuade Gerald to leave with him under the ruse of being sent by his father. At that moment Philip arrives and there is a heated altercation. A group of detectives then turn up at the hotel and arrest Jennison (actually known as Billy) for forgery in Boston. The party is further interrupted by the arrival of both Mr. Saxon and Mr. Marcy. Overcome with emotion they relay their story to the dumbfounded men. It transpires that Jennison had been seeking revenge for an earlier failed investment. As they are concluding their adventures, a policeman reappears and tells Philip that Jennison wants to see him at the courthouse. Jennison gives Philip the evidence to exonerate his father from the infamous bank robbery. It appears that Sixsmith the bank janitor had been bent on revenge and causing Mr. Touchstone grief. Philip reads Sixsmith’s deathbed confession and returns to the hotel. He sits with Mr. Marcy and they talk about his interview down at the Courthouse.

In the final chapter the author ties up the loose ends. Saxon, Gerald, Philip and Marcy now live together in the Osokosee Hotel, and Mr. Saxon considers Philip his second son. Later, the two boys (financed by Saxon) go off to college together. The novel concludes with the following observation: ‘But- if one yields to the temptation to be among the prophets, and closes his eyes, there come, chiefly, pleasant thoughts of how good are friendship and love and loyal service between man and man in this rugged world of ours; and how probable it is that such things here have not their ending, since they have not their perfecting here, perfect as friendship and the service sometimes seems. Therewith the inditer of this chronicle sees Philip and Gerald walking forward, calmly and joyfully, and in an unlessened affection and clearer mutual understanding – into their endless lives’.