The Peterloo Massacre and its Bicentenary on 16 August 2019

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On 16  August 2019, it will be the bicentenary of the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

In this dismal episode in British history, the part time militia of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry charged  a peaceful crowd of 60,000. This gathering was in fact  a large part of the then population of Lancashire,  many of whom were impoverished cotton workers  who had come to St Peter’s Field to hear reformers, led by the notorious Henry Hunt, talk on the issue of parliamentary reform. Through this means,they hoped to improve their living conditions.

Such were the vagaries and injustices of the electoral system  in Britain at the time, that not only were the majority of the working population  not allowed to vote , but there was not even an MP in Manchester.

On seeing such a massive crowd gathering, the local magistrates, watching from a nearby building, panicked. The normal procedure for dispersing a supposedly disorderly crowd was to have the Riot Act read, and if they crowd had not dispersed in an hour, to send in troops.

Professional mounted troops would move slowly into a crowd, using their horses and the flats of their swords to part them. However, on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the local militias charged into the crowd, using the sabres to cut down men, woman and children alike. Women holding babies were sabred, and the horrors of the day were vividly  reported by the before then unsympathetic journalist from The Times, who was standing on the platform as the massacre began, and who was mistaken for a radical and arrested.

It may astonish people to read that the official death toll was only 15, with about 700 people who either were reported as injured. However, it has to be remembered that many of those injured, however severely, would not have dared to report it. After the massacre the victims, and not the aggressors, were treated as criminals, and feared discrimination by their employers.  Lord Livepool’s government supported the local magistrate’s foolhardly decision to send in the inexperienced (and possibly drunken) local militias.We only have the figures of those injured from the numbers of those incapacited who applied for funds for relief from a charitable fund set up by sympathizers.

No doubt many of those injured subsequently died as a result  of their injuries some weeks or even months later. In those days of primitive medical care and lack of welfare provison, a serious injury was often a death sentence, and for a wage earner in the family to be incapacitated equalled the threat of starvation for a family. Many handloom weavers and spinners at this time were living in a state of semi starvation already.

One of those who later died of injuries received on the day was 21 year old  John  Lees, a spinner and Waterloo veteran from Oldham, whose father had disapproved of his attending the meeting, and who did not at first realise the serious nature of his son’s  injuries. When John Lees died on 7 September, his father demanded an inquest. The jury was  ready to return a verdict of wilful murder against the militia, when the coroner took advantage of a legal loophole to dissolve the whole proceedings.

Subsequently, the repressive Six Acts were rushed through parliament, which effectively muzzled radical newspapers, political meetings, marching and any form of dissent.

Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the other radical leaders were arrested for treason. This capital offence was latter commuted to a a lesser one, and they served prison sentences of severaql yesrs.

This was the outrage which inspired the poet Shelley to write his famous  ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (so subversive that it wasn’t in fact published until 1831, a couple of years after his own death).

‘Rise like lions after slumber;

Rise in unvanquishable number,

Cast your chains to earth like dew,

Which in your sleep hath fallen on  you,

Ye are many;  they are few.’

It is a grim enough episode in British history. However, I felt that I ought to write a story based about the Peterloo Massacre.  I didn’t actually know at the time when I began work on my novel, that there is in fact an epic feature film coming out about it, and I thought that the occasion of the bi-centenary should not slip by without someone writing of the appalling suffering of the Lancashire cotton workers at this time, and particularly, the injustices meted out on that day.

With luck there will now be many articles, books, blog posts and television posts over the next year on the bi-centenary of this shameful episode, which shows the neglected dark side of Regency history and the repressive nature of the state.

 

 

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Stonehenge as a Backdrop for Novels

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Just before Whitsun I went to see Stonehenge, staying a couple of miles away in Amesbury.  Oddly, although I have always lived towards the west of the UK, I had never got round to visiting.

It was wonderful weather when we went. I had not expected there to be much atmosphere, given that if you go at a normal hour you are fair way from the stones. Oddly enough, despite the crowds and distance, I could still pick up on one, which I felt must be very intense, both at the rising and setting of the sun. The site is surrounded by grazing, staring sheep, and we saw two leverets dashing across the grass, a sight that made me very happy, hares being so scarce these days. The visitor centre was not as incongruous in the landscape as I had feared.Stonehenge_visitors_centre

I also thought how wonderful the surrounding Wiltshire countryside was. In a truly parochial way, I have always assumed that countryside of Buckinghamshire and Denbighshire as the most beautiful in the UK; Now I thought that the rounded hills of Wiltshire easily rivalled them. I have read that the chalky hills in the surrounding countryside meant that in the Neolithic era, when the whole of the UK was forested, this area was less so, and it was perhaps for this reason that it was used as a site for the monument.

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It seems to have been a hill fort besides, and there are pits that were thought to have held great totem like structures  dating perhaps from 8,000 BC, long before Stonehenge itself was built in 2500 BC in the early Bronze Age. Oddly enough, it was not until the nineteenth century that the great age of the structure was understood. It was blithely dismissed as having been built in the Iron Age, shortly before the Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages, the problem that has always haunted researchers – however those great stones were transported from perhaps as far away as Pembrokeshire in South Wales— was explained by Merlin’s magic.

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Various theories have been advanced over the centuries as to its original use. Some have thought it a giant astronomical computer, some a religious site, and it is, of course, of great religious significance to Druids for the festival of the summer solstice.

Privately owned after the crown ceased to own the lands, it was once in the possession of the various landowning families, and in fact auctioned by Knight, Frank and Rutley Estate Agents, in Salisbury on 21 September 1915 as ‘Stonehenge with about 30  acres…of adjoining downland’.

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After the National Trust acquired the monolith and the surrounding countryside, it was freely open to the public until 1977, when the need to protect the site led the organisation to erect the surrounding fence. Old sketches and photographs illustrate how much the site had fallen into decay before the restoration work began.

It seems typical of we British, somehow, that for so many centuries we should have neglected this marvel of antiquity on our doorstep, while overawed by the ruined of Ancient Greece.

It  will certainly surprise no-one to read that after visiting Stonehenge and Wiltshire, I have decided to locate the concluding part of the work I am drafting at the moment in Wiltshire, with the final scene played out near Stonehenge – which has long been surrounded by myths about time.

In this, I am just about as unoriginal as I could be, of course. Countless novels have been centred about Stonehenge, particularly historical fantasies, while others have used the monolith as a dramatic backdrop to pivotal scenes or their grand finale, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of D’Ubervilles’ onwards.

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Interestingly, it was in Peter Ackroyd’s  brilliantly evocative  tale of horror, human sacrifice, and time defying synchronicities,‘Hawksmoor’  –  which only mentions a trip to Stonehenge in passing – that I found the most riveting description.  The antagonist, and in fact satanist Nicholas Dyer, an architect commissioned to build  London churches following the 1666 Great Fire of London, goes with Sir Christopher Wren to see the monolith:

The latter part of the journey from the entrance to Wiltshire was very rough and abounded with Jolts…and so it was with much relief that we left the Coach at Salisbury and hired two Horses for the road across the Avon to the Plain and Stone-henge. When we came to the edge of this sacred Place, we tethered our Horses to the Posts provided, and then, with the Sunne directly above us, walked over the short grass which continually cropt by the flocks of Sheep) seemed to spring us forward to the great Stones.  I stood back a little as Sir Chris. walked on, and I considered the Edifice with steadinesse; there was nothing here to break the Angles of Sight,  and as I gazed I opened my Mouth to cry out but my Cry was silent. I was struck by an exstatic Reverie in which all the surface of this place seemed to me Stone, and I became Stone as I joined the Earth which flew on like a Stone through the Firnament. And thus I stood till the Kaw of a Crow roused me; and yet even the call of the black Bird was an Occasion for Terrour, since it was not of this Time. I know not how long a Period I had traversed in my Mind, but Sir Chris. was still within my Sight when my eyes were cleared of Mist…

Then the Rain fell in great Drops, and we sheltered beneath the lintel of one great Stone as it turned from gray to blew and green with the Moisture. And when I leaned my Back against that Stone I felt in the Fabrick the Labour and Agonie of those who had erected it…’

That description of Stonehenge as it must have been in the eighteenth century would be pretty hard to beat.

 

 

 

 

 

Some Popular Victorian Reading: ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance ‘ by Harrison Ainsworth.

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These last few days, I have been reading Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘Jack Sheppard.’  I knew little about this writer before, save that he wrote sensationalist literature at about the same time as Charles Dickens, including a novel called ‘Rookswood’ which reputedly featured a highly glamorised version of Dick Turpin.

It seems that he was at one time massively popular with the Victorian reading public for his ‘neck and axe’ adventure novels. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was his third novel, and ran concurrently in serialised form in one of the Victorian literary magazines, ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’, with Charles Dickens’ ‘ ‘Oliver Twist’.  It seemed that there was a controversy between the two men over the subject of ‘Newgate Novels’. Though Dickens left the magazine as a result, he was the eventual victor, for while the public greedily devoured Ainsworth’s melodramatic blood-and-thunder novels, he was despised by critics, and never came to equal Dicken’s stature as a writer. His fame barely outlasted his lifetime. These days he is largely forgotten.

One critic even wrote of him: ‘ Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’  I think this criticism is undeservedly harsh, though of course, this was written around 1875, before Charles Garvice’s romantic melodramas showed critics what successful bad writing truly is.

I can see from the half of the novel that I have read so far that Ainsworth’s prose is often turgid, and he has a passion for the lurid and melodramatic. However, in an age when novels moved along at a snail’s pace, his tales are comparatively eventful and fast moving: I found it difficult as a modern reader not to find this a great relief. His stories are gripping and the action is vividly portrayed.  While Thackeray and Dickens wished to stimalate thought, and often, indignation in the reader, Ainsworth is obviously less out to point a moral than to give the reader an exciting tale.

Not only that, but if Ainsworth’s prose is turgid, his research immediately struck me as impressive. I know how exacting and time consuming research can be, even with the internet to hand. Ainsworth knew all about the topography of  London, the sort of buildings extant in 1703 in  The Mint, the ‘rookery’ where Jack Sheppard was born, and the architecture of the first London Bridge. He could depict the dress and manners of all classes of society in that era, and also, bring to life the famous (or infamous) characters who featured in Jack Sheppard’s tragic history; for instance, the dreaded informer and thief catcher Jonathon Wilde, and the ruffianly Bueskin.

This industrious research is not a quality one associates these days with a poor to mediocre author, and it is intriguing that while Harrison Ainsworth acquired a name as a purveyor of sensationalist tales that tickled popular taste in the Victorian era, Dickens – whose writing also has very strong senstationalist themes – is seen as the writer of a grander form of literature, the ‘social protest novel’.

Well, I promise I won’t rant here about the lurid popular view of the French Revolution, all rolling heads and snapping guillotines, that began with Dickens.

Certainly,  it is true that Dickens was the writer of the Victorian age who set to work to expose social injustice, who attacked hypocrisy and who had a wonderful sense of the ludicrous.

Still, Dicken’s writing also comes with a great supply of  faults – for instance, the infamous sentimentality and male and female leads so dull I wonder that he could bear to  write about them at all.

And I have to say that if you compare Ainsworth’s style with that of various other generally far more respected writers – and the earlier Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney immediately comes to mind – this novel at least comes out as a good deal less lurid and improbable.

Of course, the tragically short life of the anti-hero  of the story, the eponymous Jack Sheppard, in itself reads like something made up by a writer of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’.  A renegade London apprentice carpenter turned thief, he soon became famous – or infamous, depending on the point of view – for his escapes from prison.

His career was short but brief, for he made an enemy of the hated thief taker and informer Jonathan Wild, who schemed to destroy anyone who would not work for him.

At last chained to the stone flooring of his cell, the young man managed to escape again, but was captured when blind drunk.  In gaol in chains and a secure inner cell, he was painted by the king’s painter James Thornhill. The gaolers charged high society figures four shillings a time to view him. There were petitions for leniancy from various well known figures, but these were rejected.

Stealing a sum valued at above five shillings in those days meant a death sentence.  Jack Sheppard was offered a reduced sentence if he informed on his associates, but refused, and huge, admiring crowds turned out to follow the procession to Tyburn on 15 November 1724.

He had planned to cut himself down from the gallows with a penknife, but unluckily the guard found it.   Failing that, he had hoped to be revived following his official death by the gruesome process of hanging by a short drop, and perhaps that is why the crowd did not surge forward to give him a quick death by swinging on his legs, or perhaps the platform was too well guarded for this to be possible. His slow death is not mentioned in the novel, but is in other accounts, and makes a grim end to a likable villain. However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not people who are being hanged are conscious after about twenty seconds, as they usually die of strangling (cutting off the blood to the brain) rather than oxygen strvation (cutting off blood to the lungs) although the body still makes spasmodic movements until brain death, so hopefully he did not suffer as much as the crowd imagined.

To our own age, to hang a man of of such obvious talents and wit at the age of 22 seems an absurd waste.

Harrison Ainsworth, writing 120  years after Jack Sheppard’s death, was hardly the first to recount the dramatic story of his life. Within weeks of his hanging a pantomime was performed about him, and he influenced the depiction of Macheath in  John Gay’s ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ and other dramas.

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I knew well enough that the eighteenth century was a brutal and violent age, but even so, the amount of beatings that this anti-hero endures in the course of one day at the grand old age of twelve is astounding. He is beaten for idling by the master carpenter to whom he is apprenticed, knocked down by the master’s stepson Thames for saying he wants a kiss from that master’s daughter, then slapped in the face by the girl herself (whom he is inclined to worship, as he does Thames himself), slapped much harder by the master’s wife, who resents his being in the house at all, and finally beaten by the constables in Wild’s pay. However, he is still apparently not too stiff to be able to break free from custody.

Such treatment would surely be enough to make a rebel out of anyone, even in an age when thrashings were the general form of chastisment, and in the story it is the slap in the face from his master’s wife which finally tips the balance and makes Jack decide on a life of crime.

Whether this depiction of so much corporal punishment in a day is a matter of sloppy editing on Ainsworth’s part, or was put in by him to indicate the harshness of life among the London poor, it certainly makes the latter point vividly.

Here are a couple of  typical samples of Ainsworth’s writing in ‘Jack Sheppard’, showing both his excellent background information and his lively style.

Here is Jack making his first prison break:

‘As Jack concluded his ditty, the door flew open with a crash, and Thames sprang through the aperture. This manoeuvre was so suddenly executed that it took Abraham completely by surprise. He was standing at the moment close to the hatch, with his ear at the keyhole, and received a severe blow in the face. He staggered back a few paces; and, before he could recover himself, Thames tripped up his heels, and, placing the point of the spike at his throat, threatened to stab him if he attempted to stir, or cry out. Nor had Jack been idle all this time. Clearing the recess the instant after his companion, he flew to the door of the he flew to the door of the inner room, and, locking it, took out the key. The policy of this step was immediately apparent. Alarmed by the noise of the scuffle, Quilt and Sharples rushed to the assistance of their comrade. But they were too late. The entrance was barred against them; and they had the additional mortification of hearing Sheppard’s loud laughter at their discomfiture. “I told you the prison wasn’t built that could hold me,” cried Jack.’

And here is a depiction of his mother’s house:

‘The room in which this interview took place had a sordid and miserable look. Rotten, and covered with a thick coat of dirt, the boards of the floor presented a very insecure footing; the bare walls were scored all over with grotesque designs, the chief of which represented the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were hieroglyphic characters, executed in red chalk and charcoal. The ceiling had, in many places, given way; the laths had been removed; and, where any plaster remained, it was either mapped and blistered with damps, or festooned withdusty cobwebs. Over an old crazy bedstead was thrown a squalid, patchwork counterpane…’

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Whatever the criticisms that the critics may have levelled at Ainsworth, he tells an engaging story, and I am puzzled that this book has disappeared so completely from view. In that, of course, it shares the fate of another robber novel,  Christian Auguste Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798).

 

The Peterloo Affair: A Tale of the St. Peter’s Field Massacre Now Out on Amazon

thumbnailI am happy to say that my latest ‘The Peterloo Affair’,  is now out oon Amazon.com here

and Amazon.co.uk  here

I wrote this tale primarily as a love story – in fact, it can be categorised as a romance – largely because I thought that with the grim background story, some pleasant diversion and a bit of humour was really needed.

I hope readers like Joan Wright  and Seàn McGilroy as much as they – generally – liked Sophie de Courcy and Émile Dubois, Natalie NIcholson and Alex Sager, Isabella Murray and Reynaud Ravensdale and Clarinda Greendale and Harley Venn.

Their love story is set against a background of poverty and injustice, and some of the background research I had to do for this was pretty distressing. Sometimes, the injustice of the treatment of victims, the dishonesty of the cover up, made me outraged.  But, the working people of the UK won the right to vote and to protest in the end., and the story ends on a note of optimism. I also enjoyed putting touches of humour in it.

Here’s an extract:

There was a jeering laugh from behind them. Seán McGilroy, himself stood at the edge of the plot, glowering at Timothy. His blue eyes were flashing, and with his arrogant stance, and his black ringlets, Joan thought he looked like as fierce as a picture of a pirate she had seen in a chap book, minus the cutlass, of course.

“I heard that, Yorke. It seems to me, you and I need a little talk. Doesn’t do to dispute before t’lasses, and all that, so if you’d care to come along.” He nodded to the lane by the distant plots abutting the meadow. Then he turned a warm smile on Joan. “I hope you’ll wait on me, Miss Joan.”

Timothy looked ready to explode. “They say eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, and least of all a ne’er do well. You’re for a mill[1], McGilroy, but I don’t hold with such loutish ways.”

“I’m only for a brawl if you’re up for it.” McGilroy’s looked so fierce Joan skipped in between them.

“Don’t go into it now. Do as folks say, and wait on it for a day. You’re both acting daft, and like to harm each other. That’s no good now, when we must all stand together.”

McGilroy said, “What I’ve got to say can’t be heard by any but Yorke himself, till I find out the truth of it.”

Timothy’s face was too highly coloured for his face to redden, but he scowled and breathed hard. “You’ve heard some mean gossip from those who hold it against our family that we’re not in rags and starving, and who make up wild stories out of envy. And I’ll say outright in front of Joan: I see you’ve an eye for her, among others. A girl like Joan is too good for a roving good-for-nothing who’s got a name as a light o’ love besides to come and trifle with. How your Ridley cousins behave is their parents’ affair.”

Now McGilroy’s dark face was flushed with anger and it showed as it didn’t on Timothy’s. “Some of the tattle you’ve been hearkening to is in the right of it. I have lived wild and reckless, and got myself into a deal of trouble and all, and never could settle since coming back from the wars. Maybe I could change if I found something to keep me rooted, but I’m not talking on that before you, or aught else that matters.”

An aloof bit of Joan’s mind noted his use of ‘rooted’ as wholly fitting, when they were standing in a vegetable patch, and she had earth on her hands and teasing grit under her nails.

“You’re an insolent ruffian.” On the other side of Joan, Timothy Yorke drew back from McGilroy, as from a filthy dog ready to spring on him.

Joan broke in. “I don’t like lads scrapping over who is to talk to me like dogs over a bone, just as if I’ve no ideas of my own.”

She put on a haughty air, and again this was like one of Nancy’s books, though those heroines did it in grand drawing rooms. “If either of you has owt to say to me, you can say it another time.”

McGilroy smiled at her, as if delighted. “You’re in the right of it, Miss Joan. Let me do the digging for you.” He took the wobbly spade from her grasp with a gentle twitch.

Timothy looked ready to burst with fury. “Yes, you’re in the right there, Joan, and if this fellow leaves quietly, so shall I.”

McGilroy didn’t take kindly to being called, ‘that fellow’. He clenched his fists, his eyes glinting. Joan saw no way of stopping a fight, and from what she’d heard of McGilroy going in for fighting at fairs and so, Timothy must certainly lose. She didn’t want him hurt, trying though he was.

Suddenly, Tmothy’s younger brother, Jem, was with them. A weedy youth of maybe sixteen, he seemed as ill at ease in the world as Timothy was sure of his rights in it. His nervous look scanned Timothy to Seán McGilroy, to Joan and back again. “You’re wanted at home.”

Something about his nervous look seemed to decide Timothy at once. “I’m coming.” Ignoring McGilroy, he turned to Joan. “If you’re done here, walk along of us.”

“I’ve found nothing yet,” Joan said indignantly. What does he think I wanted in the vegetable plot—him?

Timothy stood staring, but his young brother jerked out, more insistently, “Mam needs you.” Timothy had no choice but to go with the boy. Then, as they turned onto the footpath, he said loudly, “It’s fitting that Irish fellow is set to scrabble after potatoes as eager as a terrier after rats. That’s all they live on, after all, and they bed down with their pigs.”

McGilroy shouted after him, “Rats, eh? I could talk about rats, I’m thinking, such as your tale bearing friends.”

Timothy jerked, as if hit by a pebble, but he walked on with his brother. Joan heard them muttering to each other as they moved off, and now she thought she caught distant sounds of raised voices. Some dispute was going on nearby, with a number of people at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Peterloo Massacre and its Bicentenary on 16 August 2019

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On 16  August 2019, it will be the bicentenary of the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

In this dismal episode in British history, the part time militia of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry charged  a peaceful crowd of 60,000. This gathering was in fact  a large part of the then population of Lancashire,  many of whom were impoverished cotton workers  who had come to St Peter’s Field to hear reformers, led by the notorious Henry Hunt, talk on the issue of parliamentary reform. Through this means,they hoped to improve their living conditions.

Such were the vagaries and injustices of the electoral system  in Britain at the time, that not only were the majority of the working population  not allowed to vote , but there was not even an MP in Manchester.

On seeing such a massive crowd gathering, the local magistrates, watching from a nearby building, panicked. The normal procedure for dispersing a supposedly disorderly crowd was to have the Riot Act read, and if they crowd had not dispersed in an hour, to send in troops.

Professional mounted troops would move slowly into a crowd, using their horses and the flats of their swords to part them. However, on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the local militias charged into the crowd, using the sabres to cut down men, woman and children alike. Women holding babies were sabred, and the horrors of the day were vividly  reported by the before then unsympathetic journalist from The Times, who was standing on the platform as the massacre began, and who was mistaken for a radical and arrested.

It may astonish people to read that the official death toll was only 15, with about 700 people who either were reported as injured. However, it has to be remembered that many of those injured, however severely, would not have dared to report it. After the massacre the victims, and not the aggressors, were treated as criminals, and feared discrimination by their employers.  Lord Livepool’s government supported the local magistrate’s foolhardly decision to send in the inexperienced (and possibly drunken) local militias.We only have the figures of those injured from the numbers of those incapacited who applied for funds for relief from a charitable fund set up by sympathizers.

No doubt many of those injured subsequently died as a result  of their injuries some weeks or even months later. In those days of primitive medical care and lack of welfare provison, a serious injury was often a death sentence, and for a wage earner in the family to be incapacitated equalled the threat of starvation for a family. Many handloom weavers and spinners at this time were living in a state of semi starvation already.

One of those who later died of injuries received on the day was 21 year old  John  Lees, a spinner and Waterloo veteran from Oldham, whose father had disapproved of his attending the meeting, and who did not at first realise the serious nature of his son’s  injuries. When John Lees died on 7 September, his father demanded an inquest. The jury was  ready to return a verdict of wilful murder against the militia, when the coroner took advantage of a legal loophole to dissolve the whole proceedings.

Subsequently, the repressive Six Acts were rushed through parliament, which effectively muzzled radical newspapers, political meetings, marching and any form of dissent.

Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the other radical leaders were arrested for treason. This capital offence was latter commuted to a a lesser one, and they served prison sentences of severaql yesrs.

This was the outrage which inspired the poet Shelley to write his famous  ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (so subversive that it wasn’t in fact published until 1831, a couple of years after his own death).

‘Rise like lions after slumber;

Rise in unvanquishable number,

Cast your chains to earth like dew,

Which in your sleep hath fallen on  you,

Ye are many;  they are few.’

It is a grim enough episode in British history. However, I felt that I ought to write a story based about the Peterloo Massacre.  I didn’t actually know at the time when I began work on my novel, that there is in fact an epic feature film coming out about it, and I thought that the occasion of the bi-centenary should not slip by without someone writing of the appalling suffering of the Lancashire cotton workers at this time, and particularly, the injustices meted out on that day.

With luck there will now be many articles, books, blog posts and television posts over the next year on the bi-centenary of this shameful episode, which shows the neglected dark side of Regency history, and the repressive nature of the state.

 

 

 

Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

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Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.

 

 

Historical Fiction: Celebrated Writers whose Names are Syonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part I: Mary Renault and the Bronze Age.

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A horrible fight…

There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread  fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.

One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.

Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to  South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.

Renault  tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).

In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy.  Although Renault was influenced  by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted  their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.

In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments:  ‘It is perhaps odd that  Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero.  The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’

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‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.

This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find  that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.

While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series.  It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she  sympathized with Theseus  (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.

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I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.

Renault  tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult.  Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.

This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’  in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.

In this series, only masculine woman  (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy.  There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.

To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women,  such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother.  I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.

The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’  particularly, the reader is assumed  to b e quite happy in cheering  Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While  its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs;  Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).

In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.

However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.

Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that  period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a  problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.

Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.

I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.

However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration  for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.

On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel  ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.

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Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel,  ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.

Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.

Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I  have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.

Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was  based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then.  Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.

The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.

Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.

But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.

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Where Worlds Meet Out on Amazon

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Sophie looks alarmed; and with good reason; Emile has just led her into his own world outside time – and he doesn’t seem quite himself…

At last, ‘Where Worlds Meet’ is out on Amazon.com

here

And on Amazon.co.uk on

here

the prequel, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ is here free  on Amazon  and on Smashwords here

You can also get ‘Ravensdale’, which also belongs to the same series, free on Smashwords here   and if you care to point out to Amazon that they should price match, they may make that free too:

On this cover, Sophie does look alarmed, in contrast to Émile’s swaggering and savage demeanour, and she has good reason, as he has just introduced her to his own sphere outside time, and doesn’t seem quite himself…

I did love writing this.

Well, I always love most of the writing part, but I particularly enjoyed  drawing back from the dead the half undead Kenrick and Arthur and describing the grotesque absurdities of his monster men. Also, I loved  writing about Émile Dubois and his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale working together as a team, and Reynaud’s Amazonian true love, his ex-comrade-in-arms Isabella,  as a foil to the spiritual Sophie.

When writing ‘Ravensdale’, about the adventures of Reynaud and his meeting with Isabella as a highwayman (that career seems a popular one in that family)  I was tempted to bring in Émile for them to live as outlaws together, but complications to do with Émile’s needing to be over in France at that time made it impossible.

One of the things I really enjoyed about writing this latest, was that one of the main driving points of the plot is a love affair between two characters from the servant class – Kenrick’s man Arthur, and the sultry Éloise, maid to Sophie (and once her rival for Émile’s attentions). In contradistinction to the traditions of so much historical gothic, it was interesting making the actions of a servant have strong consequences for good or evil.

There is a wicked siren in this – would it be  spoof Gothic without – the late Ceridwen Kenrick’s  own cousin (cousin’s abound in this), whose humanity has been compromised by both Ceridwen and Kenrick. She has her secret reasons for joining in Kenrick’s schemes; for Kenrick has still failed to find reunion with his beloved first wife, and as before, will stop at nothing to achieve his aims.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the practical but Tarot consulting Agnes – one of my favourite characters – back at their now home at Dubois Court in Buckinghamshire for this. I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with competing assertive characters, and for that same reason, I had to give only a walk-on role to Mr Kit in this, and to keep Mrs Kit and Émile and Sophie’s adopted waif  Katarina offstage.

I suppose I am fairly typical in being very fond of my own characters, even such specimens as Kenrick.

What made me reflect on this was reading an excellent Indie novella, ‘The Carrot Man’ by Theo A Gerken which is unusual in having as its theme a sordid, petty struggle between two wholly inadmirable characters that has no serious consequences for anyone.

That is, of course, just about the opposite for the blurb for most books.

Perhaps that was what the author had in mind.  Certainly,  it works brilliantly: here  is the link to my review:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2219824577

The author thought I was a bit too hard on the protagonist, and I could have been more charitable about him  (I expect he was fond of him in the same way that I am fond of Kenrick).

Anyway, it makes a great read. Like all of the darkest comedy, it’s somehow cathartic.

It can be very hard to carry out that excellent bit of advice by James N Frey and to ‘follow through’ and deliver that bloody end, that unhappy ending, when it comes to writing an unhappy fate of a character to whom you have become attached (in a good way,  I mean, not as in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’).

And that brings me to another book I relished recently, Mari Biella’s ‘Pietra and Other Horrors’.  This series of dark tales, like ‘Lord of the Flies’ is an exploration of the uneasy coexistence of the savage and amoral and the civilized, both in the external environment, and in the human heart and psyche.

Besides her elegance of style and vivid writing, I have always admired the way that this author never draws back from wreaking havoc to the lives of her characters when the plot requires it.  This is never easy to do.

The author brings a new approach to a series of classical themes of terror, the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the sea folk, and the traditional and malevolent spectre.

Here’s my review:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2219833247

Reverting to Arthur Conan Doyle, whom I mentioned in my last post, he seemingly could do it quite happily. He admitted to being utterly callous about the supposed death of Sherlock Holmes in  1893 in that fight to the death with Professor Moriarty by the Reichenbach Falls. Still, perhaps he resented his character for taking up so much of his time and attention.  He had to be offered – for those times – great sums of money to back his creation and write more Holmes’ stories.

He was equally callous about poor Watson’s wife, the Mary Morstan whom he meets in ‘The Sign of the Four’. As he wished to have Watson share the rooms at Baker Street with Holmes again, Mary Morstan had to be killed off with a pen stroke.

It must have been convenient for him to be so oblivious to his characters happiness. While I do not, like Dickens or George Eliot, shed tears over my characters’ fates if they are sad, they do give me a pang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’ due out soon

 

 

Now is the time to wish all readers of this blog,  and all my wonderful writer friends, Season’s Greetings.

On that, I wish I had that plug in with snow drifting across the screen that everyone else seems to display at this time of year, but I believe you need to have the self hosted wordpress to enjoy that. No matter. ‘I ask everyone to picture a snowstorm…’ as I once heard a drama teacher say. Update: lovely Jo Danilo has just told me how to do it; so here are those snowflakes.

In common with many areas, we had the real thing here last week. A foot of the stuff, so that for days people round here had to abandon car dependency and walk down to the town. People actually started to talk to each other and strange things like that.

Snow and plug ins or not, I’ve been in a jubilant mood these last few days, because at last, I have finished the final edits of “Where Worlds Meet’ the sequel to both ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and ‘Ravensdale’ . I hope to bring it out after Christmas. Well, at this time of year, everything is ‘After Christmas’. I hoped to bring it out before Christmas, but that schedule is too tight for the formatters, who have a backlog of work, no doubt of Christmas novellas.

That surge of relief the author has, when finally, s/he has read that manuscript through  for inconsistencies, anachronisms, and typos for the last time!

Now, you can get on with the next project. Well, there always is a new project, isn’t there?

That is the problem with reading something over and again. It slightly ceases to entertain.  There will be a time when once more, you can bear to look it in the face – but re-reading can be torment when you come on those same jokes and funny scenes again and again. You do remember that you thought they were funny when you wrote them; you can only hope that the reader doesn’t feel as weary on encuntering them the first time, as you do, on your sixth reading…

Being dyslexic and so having a mild form of ‘word blindness’ , I am particularly prone to missing those typos: what would I do without my Beta readers? And, it’s amazing how none dyslexic authors say that they have the same problem, and some typo becomes invisible. Ah yes, I know there are copy editors. But the expense, the expense…

Anyway, back to ‘Where Worlds Meet’.

You can download ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ for free here

Spoilers follow.

Readers may remember that Goronwy Kenrick’s half vampire household on the Famau Mountain is a menace not only through their liking for a nice sup of blood, but through their time travelling ambitions.

Kenrick has come back from a journey to Transylvania, having accidentally killed his beloved wife. Having no faith in another life, he now set his mind on time travel as a form of reunion.

Being unable to find a capable enough mathematician who will work with him willingly, he uses his siren second wife to lure in the rakish French émigré  Émile Dubois, then besotted with his aunt’s companion Sophie de Courcy, but at odds with her and seeking diversion elsewhere.

Gothic adventure amongst the snows on the isolated Famau Mountain in North Wales in the bitter winter of 1794-1795 follows – some of it alarming, much of it comic. Finally, the mutual hatred between Émile and Kenrick culminates in a brutal knife fight where Émile and his ally Georges – as they think – stab Kenrick and his man Arthur through the heart.

They believe they have killed them. But an explosion soon follows, which draws the bodies away before they can sever their heads.

End of Spoilers…

Three years have passed.  Kenrick and Arthur plan to return from that other sphere in the time distortion, and Kenrick, having failed to achieve reunion with his wife there, once again sets to draw in Émile into his schemes. He has a new accomplice in another siren, Ceridwen’s cousin Guinevere.

Émile and his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale, the eponymous anti hero of ‘Ravensdale’ available from Amazon here,  are now on their way up to North Wales to investigate if all is yet still at Kenrick’s house, and the sharpshooter Reynaud carries silver bullets. Kenrick sends through some odd creations of his own to waylay them.

Kenrick – who always suffered from what was once known as a ‘servant problem’ – has been far from idle in his other sphere, and has created a private army of monster men.

…And if they don’t deter Émile and Reynaud, perhaps his new siren accomplice will.

Meanwhile, he sends ahead his man Arthur to prepare his house for his own return. Unluckily for Émile and Sophie, their maid, the sultry Éloise, has always had a soft spot for Arthur. When she comes upon him, bloodied and seemingly dying, she can’t resist helping him, paving the way for another full scale confrontation between the deadly enemies.

Can Sophie – with the invaluable help of Agnes – her mentor and nominally her maid –  change the course of events, so the men and half men do not once again descend into another bloodbath?

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This is the scenery thorugh which Emile and Reyand ride on their way up to North Wales. This is in fact, the Horseshoe Pass, not created until 1811. They would have passed near here, but in the very different landcape of June – albeit the very wet one of 1797.

 

‘Martin Coninsby’s Vengeance’ by Jeffrey Farnol: Swashbuckling Adventure From a Former Era

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Jeffrey Farnol, who wrote ‘historical swashbucklers’ and was a huge infuence in historical novels in the early twentieth century, had a writing career spanning from 1907 until his death in 1952, but now his reputation has now largely sunk into obscurity.

Historical swashbucklers intended largely for a male audience seem – unless I am  missing some new development – to have fallen out of favour. Meawhile, ‘historical romances’ catering for an overwhelmingly female audience have taken over from them in popularity. I don’t quite know why.

I can see why the swashbuckler type of story is less likely to appeal to a modern female readership, because it concentrates largely on male experience, and female characters in this genre were given largely traditional and subsidiary roles.

I heard somewhere that Farnol was notorious for his dialogue, of the ‘Marry, thou art a saucy rogue’ type.  – In fact, this seems unfair; his historical dialogue is nothing like as bad as that.

I was originally attracted by the lurid blurb for his 1921 ‘Martin Coningsby’s Vengeance’:

‘Jeffery Farnol brings back the pirate days of the Spanish Main in this stirring book with a company of picturesque characters. It is a full-blooded, wholesome novel that captivates the reader.
Martin Conisby, sour from his five years of slavery on the Spanish galleon Esmeralda, escapes during a sea fight on to an English ship and makes his way back to England. Seeking revenge on Richard Brandon, who was the cause of his father’s death and his own imprisonment. Broken both in body and spirit, he arrives home disguised as a tramp, just in time to save a beautiful girl from the hands of robber, Lady Jane Brandon, the daughter of the man whom he has sworn to punish.
In the tavern he meets an old friend, Adam Penfeather, who tells him the tale of Black Bartlemy, the infamous pirate, with his treasure buried on a desert island–treasure of magnificent value.’…

I have to say, I expected the worst of this, the first book I have ever read by Farnol. I thought for sheer badness it might even rival the work of that writer of Victorian romantic melodramas, Charles Garvice -and that really would be something. I have Charles Garvice up on a pedastal for, as Laura Sewell Mater puts it, ‘Astonishingly, almost unbelievaby bad writing’.

In fact, Jeffrey Farnol turned out to be a better writer than I expected. His style can even be evocative.

True, the plots are far fetched and the actions and speeches of the characters melodramatic. Also, the views of the author are obviously as reactionary, unfortunately racist, and as given to conventional sex roles as can be, despite the appearance of a rather wonderful female pirate in this story – Joanna, otherwise Cap’n Jo – who comes to fall hopelessly in love with the hero, who shows superhuman indifference to her manifold charms, being determined to be faithful to his first love.

She, having been a heartless mistress to several savage pirates, wastes away for love of Coninsby, who is disgusted by her previous colourful history. In the end, she dies saving him from the murderous plot she had intended for him.

Here, as in a good many other places, the writing takes off: as Coninsby sails away from the desert island where he has left her buried, he reflects:

‘And with my gaze thus fixed, I must needs wonder what became of the fiery, passionate spirit of her, that tameless soul that was one with the winds and stars and oceans, even as Resolution had once said. And thus I presently fell a praying, and my cheek wet with tears that I thought no shame.’

Coninsby is motivated by a burning desire for vengeance on his old enemy Brandon. He even – this is one of the wildly improbable parts of the plot – engineers to be taken by the Spanish Inquisition in order to be brought into contact with his old enemy, who has fallen into their hands himself.

However, here he finds that Brandon has been so changed by the tortures of the Inquisition that he is no longer the callous, arrogant enemy in the prime of life. He has turned into an old man broken in body, but transformed in spirit.

I was impressed by this feature of the plot – how Coninsby finds that, having lived for vengeance, it has lost all its appeal:

‘God had given to my vengeance at last no more than this miserable thing, this poor, pale shadow.’

Gradually, Coninsby comes to forgive his once pitiless enemy, and to value him as a friend. Together, they escape from the Inquisition by boat, only to encounter further and wilder adventures:

‘And now, we were admit the breakers; over my shoulder, through whirling spray, I caught a glimpse of sandy foreshore where lay our salvation; then, with sudden rending crash, we struck and a great wave engulfed us.’

Despite the author’s addiction to adjectives and adverbs, his tendency to purple prose and his conventional outlook,  there is often a strength to the writing that I hadn’t expected.

However, I gather that the female pirate Joanna is not a typical female for Jeffrey Farnol, Coninsby’s virtuous sweetheart Joan being the sort of woman he approved, and that he likes to portray coy, lash batting wenches more often than combatative ones. If I sample other novels of his, I can see myself becoming irritated by that and his reactionary views generally.

This sort of swashbuckling historical novel has, as I said, gone out of fashion, while historical romances with a plot catering for ‘feminine’ tastes, with an emphasis on the love story, have conversely developed a large following.

I think this is a loss, but then, I enjoy an adventure story with the love story as part, rather than the pivot of the plot.

To finish, here’s another of those wonderfully lurid covers.

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