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.

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.