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 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.
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.
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…’
‘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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
I heard of the 1873 novel, ‘The Manchester Man’ through its being mentioned in the footnotes of Joyce Marlow’s book ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ as having an excellent account of the horrors of that day depicted within it.
‘Mrs G Linnaeus Banks’ novel (female Victorian writers were known by all of their husband’s names) had an account from various eye witnesses from that day, and her paternal grandfather had written a satire on the outrages of the Manchester Yeoman Cavalry.
As I read, I became drawn into the story, which is intirguing, if highly melodramatic. I particularly liked the fact that as in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, there is a story of a deubauched wild young man from a landed family who falls for an innocent young girl, who is determined to save him – and unlike in the hearts and flowers HEA’s envisaged by so many Regency Romances – fails.
This is not to say that the author doesn’t, unfortunately, go in for bursts of purple prose and Victorian sentimentality fairly often.
On this, as an aside: I wonder why were many Victorian writers so sentimental, Dickens being one of the most crass examples? Is it a question of taste changing, so what was acceptable to the reading public then is cloying and embarrassing to us? I suppose there are stylistic excesses which modern authors adopt – all of us – which will cause later generations to raise their eyebrows. We will appear naive to them – those of us who are still read – and we have a blind spot – we cannot predict in what way.
I’m willing to predict, that those individualistic Hearts and Flowers Happy Ever Afters in escapism for the main pair might well be part of it.
Anyway, to return to this story. Parts of it are based on fact; not only the depiction of the Manchester of that era – the buildings, customs, speech and the day to day life of the people – and parts invented.
Intriguingly, the most dramatic episodes, not only the horrors of the massacre – which is widely known – but a baby rescued from a flood, swept along in a cradle and the details of the disastrous love match of the main female character and the villain of the piece are, according to the author’s appendices, matters of historical fact.
The story begins when the tanner Simon Clegg and his daughter Bess rescue and subsequently adopt the baby whose cradle has been carried away in the terrible flood of 1799. Unable to trace his parents, they adopt him.
Named Jabez, he grows up to be a the ‘Manchester Man’ of the title and a blessing to his adopted family. He rises by dint of his character and application to be first an apprentice, then a master, and then a partner in his own business.
The hero is a bit too exemplary at times, but I still liked him, even when he felt obliged to turn informer on his workmates, who were cheating their master, who is also his benefactor.
Personally, I deplore giving names in such a situation, but Jabez’s orthodox religious convictions oblige him to.
However, this is the only occasion when he does speak against his colleagues, however roughly they treat him. Earlier, he remains silent when he is persecuted by a group of bullies led by his later rival in love, Laurence Aspinall and he endures much unfair treatment from his fellow apprentices with good nature.
It is interesting that the author’s depiction of schoolboys and the fights between them is wholly realistic, and she points out that this robust attitude towards violence between young males was typical of the Regency era, as is the heavy drinking of some of the men in the story.
Meanwhile the main female character Augusta decides that the bold, rakish behaviour of Laurence Aspinall resembles the heroes she has read of in the circulating library- also rakes in need of reform.
Intriguingly, Laurence Aspinall does resemble Arthur Huntingdon in Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, even down to his cheerful wildness, his prized chestnut curls, bright blue eyes and addiction to the bottle, besides being a Regency contemporary.
However, the author’s appendices state that these characters and the events of their relationship leading up to their marriage are based on real characters from an earlier date. This is even true of some of the quotes from Augusta, ‘I’ll please my eye even if I plague my heart’ and their two foiled elopements between Aspinall and Augusta.
Parts of Aspinall’s abuse are, in fact, so extreme that I guessed that it had to be based on fact – no author would try to convince readers of such excesses in fiction. For instance, he rides his horse up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife lies with their new baby (not so difficult a feat as it might seem, given the wide staircases and shallow stairs of Georgian mansions).
As I say, the author often falls into purple prose: ‘Poor Mr Ashton’s care was his stricken child, whose white shoulders, bathed in blood, were washed by a father’s tears’. Still, much of the writing is strong, ie, on the victims fleeing from St Peter’s Fields: ‘From their windows they had seen men, women and children flying along, hatless, bonnettless, shoeless, their clothes rent, their faces livid and ghastly, shrieking in pain and terror as they ran by or dropped in the path of pursing troopers…’
I would recommend this book to anyone who are interested in reading historical fiction set in the UK during the Regency and the late Georgian era. The story provides not only drama and excitement, but a realistic account of the everyday lives of people from varied backgrounds in the Lancashire at the beginning of the industrial revolution.