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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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!