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.

A Country Gentleman and His Family (1886) – Margaret Oliphant

As tame as the title sounds, this novel by Margaret Oliphant is anything but a light ‘picnic in the park’ type Victorian book. It’s a dark, psychological novel with domestic themes, following the fortunes of two families: a widowed mother and her three grown children, and a widow and her young son. As is common with Mrs. Oliphant’s writing, the novel can seem quite prosy in places, but her keen observations, and her wonderful plot twists, inspire one to see what lies ahead for the interesting and well developed characters.

The story opens with the death of the old country gentleman. After her husband’s death Mrs. Warrender becomes restless and overwhelmed by her mixed emotions i.e. the joy of emancipation and the guilt of not feeling as sorrowful as she ought to during her mourning. Oliphant tackles this sensitive topic with great skill, and I was even side-tracked by my own thoughts and feelings on the subject of bereavement.

Hereafter, the novel essentially follows the lives of the three Warrender siblings: moralistic Minnie, who marries a snobbish clergyman from an old noble family, so an appropriate match really; the naïve Chatty, who is so sweet and innocent I want to marry her myself, and the hugely unlikable and egotistical Theo, who suffers from what can only be described as a borderline personality disorder. Selfish, strict and exacting, Theo Warrender is literally a brute in every sense of the word. Overcome by his jealousy and uncontrollable anger, he systematically bullies a sickly 9 year old boy, his ‘competition’ for Lady Markland’s love. I mean really? Jealous of a child who is close to his mother. Be warned … this novel becomes quite disturbing. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Lady Markland is eventually ordered to choose between her own son and her deranged lover.

Things are equally tough for our lovely Miss Millie, the third Warrender sibling. Her love affair with Daredevil Dick Cavendish is also fraught with scandal and trouble. Without spoiling the story, we learn that Dick Cavendish has a dark history, and there are some very serious obstacles (just impediments) in the way of their marriage… but does everything turn out well for Minnie and Dick? Well that would be telling!

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