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The Peterloo Massacre and its Bicentenary on 16 August 2019


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.




More on Antagonists: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and the Eponymous Lovers as Antagonists.

SL old cover

Following on from my recent post about antagonists, it is interesting how that role is often played by an inhuman character, and can even be an impersonal force. Sometimes, the identity of the antagonist can even appear to shift from one character to another: one formerly not perceived as an antagonist can become one as regards the protagonist’s aims and goals.

How far this is deliberate obviously varies. In older novels the antagonist, of course, was largely seen as ‘the villain’ and was as often as not fairly obvious, like Count Dracula. Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian times.

Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian timesThese days, all writers are far more aware of the mechanics of plot, character development, the necessity of a strong antagonist, and so on.

The shifting role of who is the antagonist is particularly intriguing in one of my favourite classic Victorian stories, Elizabeth Gakelll’s Sylvia’s Lovers. How far this is intentional I find it hard to assess: perhaps the author did it unconsciously.

In the beginning, the antagonist comes across clearly as an impersonal force, the use and abuse of the press gang to recruit sailors by force to fight in the French Revolutionary Wars. In depicting how this changes, I can’t make this point without detailing the plot at various points as I discuss the antagonist aspect. I hope regular readers who have read other articles about this favourite novel of mine will bear with me.

In the second chapter we see a press gang taking the crew of a whaler as it returns from Greenland. A riot breaks out amongst the townsfolk of Monkshaven (Whitby), then a busy whaling port. The passionate, untamed and pretty teenage Sylvia Robson reacts with violent longing to join in the riot. Her shopman cousin Philip Hepburn, who is anything but her idea of a man, regards that as ridiculous in a young girl. His own view is that ‘it’s the law and you can’t do anything about it’.

It was not legal for the press gang to impress whalemen, who were supposedly protected by law from their encroachments. Least of all was it legal to impress them as they returned for six months’ away in the Greenland Seas. In practice these regulations were ignored: any Naval captain was expected to make up his crew with few scruples and much expediency.

For instance, In the Hornblower series, Horatio Hornblower as an naval lieutenant and then as a captain knows, and quietly endorses, the press gang working for his ship taking ‘country bumpkins’ who have obviously never been near the sea in their lives. Its remit is limited to ‘seagoing men’ and I believe, ‘vagabonds’, but this bending of the rules is seen as an unfortunate necessity: without flouting the regulations a captain could not get enough of a crew to leave port. This is a fact to be taken into account when we come to the later career of the gallant rebel, Sylvia’s love object Charley Kinraid.

What can be termed ‘the inciting incident’ of the story, which sets off Sylvia’s infatuation for the Specksioneer Kinraid , is caused by his showy heroic defiance of the gang who come to impress the crew of The Good Fortune.

This tale is recounted to the impressionable Sylvia and her family by the tailor Donkin when he visits their farm. He recounts how Kinraid stood over the hatches, armed with a whaling knife and two pistols, and declares: ‘He has two good pistols, and summat besides, and he don’t care for his life, being a bachelor, but all below are married men, you see, and he’ll put an end to the first two chaps who come near the hatches…’

Stirring heroism, indeed. He does just that with the first two who approach, and for my own part I had to feel for those men, unscrupulous or not, when they were ordinary sailors themselves, and under orders to obey or face hanging for mutiny.

In fact, there is another single man in the crew below, Kinraid’s friend Darley. He does however, have a bedridden sister, though alsi a father living and working for the Vicar, so perhaps that is the reason he is seen as having dependants.

The gang shoot down Kinraid and kick him aside for dead, and fire into the hold, killing Darley, and taking off the others.

Sylvia is agog to hear if Kinraid will survive his wounds. In fact, He is lucky that he was ‘kicked aside for dead’, as if he hadn’t been asssumed to have been killed, he would have been tried for mutiny. She goes to enquire after him of his cousins, the Corneys, and at the same time, arranges to go to Darley’s funeral with Molly Corney. Here, she meets Kinraid, whom two sailor friends have carried up the famous steps to the church. Although he looks like a living corpse, she is still very taken with him, ‘Full of shy admiration of the nearest approach to a hero that she had ever seen.’

Few young men could resist the lure of such a pretty admirer, and when her father, Daniel Robson, himself a former whaler, invites Kinraid to come and visit them, he takes up the invitation and impresses the girl with tales of sea adventures and smuggling. Besides, as he recovers, he regains his looks, with his waving dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and equally flashing white teeth. He is reputedly, besides, the ‘boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’ (poor whales; nobody, not even the humane author, seemed to think of them). He is generally a wholly fitting object for Sylvia’s girlish admiration.


Meanwhile, she has another, largely silent but dogged admirer in her cousin Hepburn. He has a killjoy attitude to harmless fun, having been raised by puritanically devout people who disapprove of all festivity and high spirits, even in the young. Alice Rose, with whom he lives along with his fellow shopman William Coulson, was once a pretty, blooming girl who insisted on marrying the wicked whaler Jack Rose; she is now so embittered that she regards any worldly ambition as futile.

William Coulson’s late sister Annie was once courted by Kinraid back in Newcastle for a couple of years, but he broke off things when he saw another girl he preferred. Rumour has it that after that, he moved on from that girl in turn when he saw yet another he liked better. Annie Coulson subsequently died within six months, and Coulson puts it down to a broken heart.

Besides being solemn, Philip has an unprepossessing appearance with an indoor complexion and a long upper lip. He is wholly tame and seemingly lacking in masculinity in comparison to the dashing Kinraid. He has a blind spot about his obsessive infatuation with Sylvia; he cannot see that his plan to win the lively, ignorant, thoughtless girl through rising to become the owner of the drapers where he works, and through teaching her to read, is, to say the least, ill thought out.

It is worth pointing out here that Sylvia seems as infatuated at this point with adventures in the Greenland Seas as she does with the man Charley Kinraid himself. Hilary Schoer makes the astute point that Sylvia, as a girl with a restricted and largely domestic role, cannot aspire to such adventures herself. Though she dreams of these, she is compelled to sublimate by playing the female role and falling in love with the man who personifies those adventuers in her eyes.

Kinraid goes back to sea, but fifteen months later he attends a New Year’s party to which Hepburn escorts Sylvia, and on this visit, he courts her passionately – to the annoyance of both Hepburn and Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney, who regards herself as unofficially engaged to him. It is typical of Kinraid’s extrovert character that he finishes up the New Year festivities by dancing a hornpipe. This is in fact what Wiley Ben does at a festivity in Adam Bede, but while his performance is depicted as ludicrous, no doubt Kinraid’s is executed with style.

Before he sails to Greenland, Kinraid comes to ask Sylvia to marry him with suitable directness and dash: ‘Ever since I saw yo’ in the corner of the kitchen, sitting crouching behind my uncle, I as good as swore I’d have yo’ for my wife, or never wed at all.’ She cannot believe her luck. When the next day, Hepburn turns up to tell her of Kinraid’s reputation as a ‘light o’ love’ and the story of Annie Coulson she dismisses it as a ‘back biting tale’.

The next day Heburn walks along the beach the seven miles to Hartlepool, it being the most direct route (It is an interesting comment on how used to walking people were in this era that Hepburn, who follows a despised and sedentary occupation, does this with ease). To his dismay, he sees Kinraid walking ahead of him on his way back to Newcastle. By a bitter irony (or a karmic test), Hepburn is the only witness when Kinraid is taken by a press gang.

He leaves a message with Hepburn for Sylvia. Outrageously, after hearing more talk of Kinraid’s past behaviour with women in a Newcastle pub, Hepburn decides against telling her the truth. He will not let Sylvia make her own mistakes. The community at Monkshaven, finding Kinraid’s hat washed up on the shore, assume he has somehow been drowned, and Hepburn remains silent. Whatever the reader might think of Charley Kinraid’s character, this an appalling piece of treachery.

At this point in the novel, from the point of view of Sylvia as protagonist, Hepburn largely takes over from the press gang as the antagonist, in that he is the chief block to her achieving her wishes.

While Sylvia mourns Kinraid and the happiness she is sure she would have shared with him, Hepburn – helped by dread, impersonal forces when the foolish Daniel Robson is hanged for leading a crowd to burn the press gang’s headquarters – continues to act to thwart the heroine’s natural inclinations. His aunt Bell Robson loses her mind under the strain. Sylvia and the labourer Kester struggle on to try and keep the farm going, but now the dispirited Sylvia gives up on the fight. Kester urges her, ‘Dunnot go and marry a man as thou’s noane taken wi’, and another, as is most like for t’b e dead, but who, mebbe, is alive, havin’ a pull on thy heart.’

That is exactly what Sylvia does. She feels imprisoned in the house behind the shop in town. It is a dismal marriage for her; she is unable to forget Kinraid. She and Hepburn are unsuited.

It is never made clear whether she is actually physically indifferent to him or whether she is actively repelled by him. As a respectable Victorian writer, Gaskell would have considered it wholly inappropriate to make this explicit, or even to dwell too much on it. Possibly because of this, it is possible to read too much into the fact that one of the chapters in the first volume is called ‘Attraction and Repulsion’ – the said ‘repulsion’ may reflect more on the behaviour of iron and magnets than anything.

This is the period of Hepburn’s greatest success in both his working life and his personal life. Still, he finds that marriage to the now quiet and docile Sylvia a disappointment; he misses the old lively one. He remains the antagonist as far as Sylvia’s goals are concerned, save for her having the baby Bella, which is an endless source of delight to her.

Then, of course, Charley Kinraid returns. He is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, having been promoted for his participation in Sir Sidney Smith’s adventures. While Sylvia and Kinraid’s indignation and disgust at Hepburn’s dishonesty are ferocious. Unfortunately, I have to say – slightly off topic – that part of the writing here is absurd in some places, if tragic in others.

For instance: ‘This is Kinraid come back again to wed me. He is alive; he has never been dead…’ Well, he wouldn’t exactly be likely to have been dead and then alive, would he? That doesn’t tend to happen in this world with ordinary mortals. Then there are Kinraid’s own speeches, which have a stereotypical, cardboard flavour about them: ‘Take that!…Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he paid an honest sailor.’

Anyway, although she refuses to leave with Kinraid, Sylvia swears an oath never to forgive Hepburn or to live with him as his wife again. Hepburn, overcome with shame, packs a few possessions and runs away to join the army. He has the idea that if he can return as a hero too, she might forgive him. Presumably, Sylvia does not give any thought to Kinraid’s certain role in raising press gangs now he is a naval officer himself, as she keeps her high opinion of him. At the Siege of Acre Hepburn comes across a wounded Kinraid (this man really is indestructable) and rescues him. However, shortly afterwards, he is horribly disfigured by an explosion. Unfitted for service and unrecognisable, he drifts home to live in a state of semi starvation.

Meanwhile, Sylvia has learnt some disturbing news. Within seven months of their dramatic parting, Kinraid has married someone else, a pretty, superficial heiress. Now Sylvia is humiliated, indignant against Kinraid, mortified that he has been able to forget her so quickly and replace her with someone else. She bitterly says, ‘I’m speaking like a woman,  like a woman as finds out she’s been cheated by men  as she trusted, and has no help for it.’  She tells Hester Rose, ‘Those as  one thinks t’most on, forgets one soonest.’ Sylvia may not be cerebral; but she clearly sees that both men, through their vastly differing temperements, have failed to keep faith with her.

I have often been puzzled by the depiction of Charley Kinraid.  He is almost always depicted externally, and he is not, in fact, in the novel very much, though he has such a catastrophic effect on the lives of the others. Graham Handley suggests that this element of mystery is a deliberate ploy on Elizabeth Gaskell’s part to make the character more intriguing, for when the reader is given access to his thoughts, they are not very interesting. Perhaps it is significant that when he thinks himself to be dying at the Seiege of Acre, he pities his ‘new made wife’ for losing him.

As Arthur Pollard remarks, ‘ It might be said that Kinraid is hardly individualised enough to carry the weigh the part he is given… On Kinraid’s return there seems to be a certain inadequacy in his response, a conventional theatrical quality…Finally, however, he shows that he really is just conventional. By marrying the superficial woman we hear about, he is shown to be superficial himself, as superficial as some people said he was and the reader has at times suspected.’

This is an astute approach of the author’s. Now, Sylvia experiences disillusionment with the man she has idolised for years. ‘I think I’ll niver call him Kinraid agin.’ If Hepburn has broken the first commandment in worshipping Sylvia, she has done the same with Kinraid.

At the end of the story Sylvia is reconciled with Hepburn, who has done some more heroics in rescuing their daughter from the waves.  To some extent, he has changed places with Kinraid in her eyes. Now, in an odd reversal of roles, he is the wounded, corpse like hero.  Previously, Hepburn formed a human barrier between Sylvia and the fulfilment of her dream – marriage to Charley Kinraid.  Now it seems to her that she has discovered her mistake about Kinraid’s shallowness too late. In a revulsion of feeling,  she sees her long infatuation with him as having served as a barrier to any chance of happiness with Hepburn, even though her cousin did marry her under false pretences. She even excuses Hepburn’s former treachery: ‘Thou thought he was faitthless and fickle, and so he were.’  Whatever the truth of that, she loses them both.

Overall, as some modern critics have argued, Sylvia cannot make a right choice between her eponymous lovers, as neither of them has shown himself worthy of her trust. Neither could be a satisfactory partner to her in the long run. Kinraid is handsome and dynamic but superficial and opportunistic. If Hepburn had behaved honourably, passed on his message, and Sylvia had duly married Kinraid on his return, she would certainly have been disillusioned fairly soon.  Hepburn is deeply devoted but plain looking and dismal  and  selfishly keeps Sylvia from making her own mistakes through his obsession with her. He can only be unselfishly loving at the end of his life.

Thus, arguably, both male leads can be said also to play the part of antagonists regarding Sylvia’s happiness; Hepburn through his imprisoning devotion, Kinraid through being a false idol.

I was flattered that someone had made a meme out of my ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ summary on social media. The problem is, that I can’t enlarge the copy I took of it enough to maake it legible, so I will quote it instead:

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds dissilusionment. Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

Transcending Genre: an Intersting Example from Light Music.

I haven’t yet finished my posts about antagonists, but I am writing this short one about something else as waking up with an old song sounding in my dreams set me to thinking.

I have never liked the type of music dubbed ‘Easy Listening’ generally, always thinking of it as the sort of stuff played in chain restaurants and supermarkets, middle-of-the road and bland, with a conventional feel to it and a sentimental tendency. In recent decades, I believe that it has now developed into something known as ‘lounge music’. Of course, a lot of outstanding singers and performers began their careers as ‘lounge singers’ – Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel and others. I am not deriding the talent of the singers, but I never took to the content of what they sang.

Anyway, be that as it may,  I have always been deeply moved by one easy listening song, sung in fact by Matt Monro, ‘Softly, as I Leave You’. This was so even when I was young and hard.

Matt Monroe was to my mind massively underestimated as a singer. His baritone voice was surely outstanding. Frank Sinatra said this of him: ‘If I had to choose three of the finest male vocalists in the business, Matt would be one of them. His pitch was right on the nose. His word enunciations letter perfect. His understanding of a song, thorough.’

That must be mainly why the song comes to passionate life when he sings it. Besides that, though, it is, describing a final parting between loved ones as it does, dealing with rawer emotion than is typical of the ‘Easy Listening’ type of song (whether this parting is a lover leaving or a lover dying is a matter of interpretation: it seems Elvis Presley thought the latter).

I gather that the song as sung by Matt Montro was a translation from an original in Italian, called ‘Piano’ and sang by a singer called Mina. A songwriter called Hal Shaper,  wrote lyrics in English:

Softly, I will leave you softly
For my heart would break if you should wake and see me go
So I leave you softly, long before you miss me
Long before your arms can beg me stay
For one more hour or one more day
After all the years, I can’t bear the tears to fall
So, softly as I leave you there
(Softly, long before you kiss me)
(Long before your arms can beg me stay)

I woke up not only with the song running through my head this morning, but also, thinking that it transcended its genre exactly by stirring deeper emotions in the listener than might be expected in light music.

This made me think how that lesson can be applied to other art forms. I reflected all over again how it is surely a fine thing for genre writers like myself to do their utomost to make their writing sour, to go for one hundred percent, not the eighty-five to ninety per cent; to pull out the stops and to write something that makes the spine tingle and the emtoions sour – tin fact, to produce soemething that transcends the boundaries and requirements of genre writing.

Here is the Youtube link to hear the 1962 recording of the song by Matt Monro, which I think the best.


The Antagonist in Various Forms


‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. Sir Clement Willoughby introduces himself with an air of gallantry, Letter XIII. This edition published in 1920. First published in 1778. FB, English novelist, 13 June 1752- 6 Jan 1840. Illustration by Hugh Thomson 1860-1920. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

I read somewhere the phrase, ‘Inside every antagonist, there’s a protagonist waiting to come out’ ( obviously a variant of the saying ‘inside every fat person, there’s a slim person trying to come out’).

The antagonist, of course, makes the story nearly as much as the protagonist. If you have a weak or insufficiently motivated antagonist, it massively detracts from the tension, and tension, as so many advisors on writing craft constantly hammer home, forms the main interest of a plot.

Of course, an antagonist does not have to be evil or wrongly motivated. An antagonist can just be someone on the other side about a particular issue, and have strong arguments for doing the things s/he does to frustrate the will of the protagonist. Then, the situation can be as true to life as it often isn’t, when the rights and wrongs of a situation are wholly clear cut, with the baddies writ large – though reading about that sort of situation has its own appeal.

I have often thought how in Shakespeare – with the exception of his early, unfair depiction of Joan of Arc – part of his outstanding greatness is his capacity to depict everyone’s point of view fairly.

For instance, this is true of one of his greatest antagonists, Edmund in ‘King Lear’. He is shown to be motivated in his appalling villainies and his determination to usurp his legitimate brother’s place, by Gloucester’s insensitive treatment of  him, leading to his obsessive jealousy of Edgar. Gloucester even jokes coarsely about his mother in front of him to the Duke of Kent. Then Gloucester adds that he has been abroad and will be sent away again…

At the end of the play, on hearing how Goneril and Regan have died through their rivalry over him, he says, ‘Yet Edmund was beloved’. That is a tragic phrase; it shows what underlay his dismal scheming and brutality. He trusted no-one; but he had a great neglected need to be loved.

Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is  often described as the antagonist, and his motivation appears to be more simple than as so often in Shakespeare. He seems to be merely violent, and to hate the rival family unthinkingly.
An antagonist can be honest but misguided, or charming but flawed, or an estranged former ally. What s/he does have to be – even if s/he isn’t a person, but an impersonal force like the weather or a societal rule – is strongly motivated and a fit adversary for the protagonist.

It can be difficult  to enjoy a book when you wholly side with the Antagonist, as I did with Mary Renault’s books about Theseus. There, the Antagonist is female power as personified in the Great Mother, and I was very sorry that Theseus as the personification of patriarchy inevitably triumphed as regards power. He did not, of course, triumph as regards his personal life, ending up an empty shell after the sacrificial death of his Apostate Amazon and his murder of his wife Phaedra (incidentally, that  was an astoundingly inefficient choke that he used; done efficiently it should have rendered her unconscious in ten seconds appproximately, not in minutes; but that’s the Sportsfighter in me speaking) .

Then there is the story where the Antagonist can triumph – the Anti Hero, and the one where the Protagonist is his or her own Antagonist. Perhaps s/he does things under an unconscious influence or is even haunted by his own Doppleganger; as In ‘Dr. Jeklyl and Mr. Hide’ and the main character in Chuck Palanhuik’s ‘Fight Club’.

Sometimes, an antagonist truly makes a series, for some readers at least, becoming a favourite character.

I remember when I read ‘The Mortal Instruments’ to my daughter, I never thought the later books were the same after the larger than life antagonist Valentine was killed off. I found his habit of jumping through a portal with a contemptuous jibe a brilliant feature (besides, I was sad that he was never depicted as repenting before going to his final account).

On entertaining Antagonists, I recommend Rannie in Robert Wingfield’s ‘The Legend of Dan’ series. I do relish an Antagonist with a sense of humour. Also, there is Harpalycus in Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series. He is so foul it is funny, and he revels in his wickedness. What he most keenly relishes, after many centuries of body hopping, is causing as much misery as he can on the three main characters, Aridela and her two rival lovers.





I have said before, that sometimes the Antagonist is unfortunately more interesting or even more sympathetic than the Protagonist , and even if s/he fails to win the lead characters’ love, or take over the world – or whatever it is s/he wants to do –the said Antagonist anyway takes over the book.

This is what I felt about Clement Willoughby (the original of Jane Austen’s own beguiling Willoughby, perhaps –as we know from Mary’s quotes from Evelina that Jane Austen had read it). He is far more entertaining than the sententious Lord Orville, and protests eternal devotion to suspicious heroine, the problem being that he never quite gets round to proposing and makes the occasional half-hearted effort to abduct her.

MrWickham_characterportraitOn Jane Austen, I never thought that Wickham was quite up to the part. That may just be me, and perhaps a villain of that sort doesn’t need much strong motivation, and just drifts from one self-indulgent escapade and heartless seduction to the next. While general hatred towards Mr. Darcy is part of his motivation, it isn’t somehow made convincing, and his seduction of Lydia is just part of his general self indulgence rather than something he is strongly motivated, though it does further the plot. I suppose this weakness, this tendency to undertake mean schemes and then to be bought off from them, is meant to be all part of his villainy, but somehow he is a disappointing villain.

Another interesting point, to return to what I said at the beginning of this post, is the fact that sometimes exactly who is a Protagonist and who an Antagonist can be unclear. It can even depend on perspective, as according to the point of view, their roles can be interchangeable. It is to a particular example of this that I return in my next post.

Review of the 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ by Helen Hughes: Fascinating and Insightful.

Scarlet Pimpernel


I have commented in previous posts – some will say ad nauseam – that it is unfortunate that light historical fiction, and historical romance especially, has long been afflicted by a disproportionate focus on the upper class. While this is particuarly so with the genre of Regency Romance, which seems to offer a world largely peopled by aristocrats, it is also largely true of stories set in other eras.

There are many reasons why this should be so. One obvious one is that the writers writers of the early historical romances were themselves from the upper middle class or even the lower echelons of the upper class. In an era of limited public education most authors would invariably come from that sort of background,and their bias would be natural.

‘Baroness Orczy’, author of the 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ was a great believer in arisctocratic superority, while the views of such writers as Sir Arthur Conon Doyle were generally that power was best left in the hands of those who had been raised to wield it.

Another reason for this contentration on the ruling class is, of course, the obvious appeal of writing about the glamourous and remote lifestyles of the powerful. When Georgette Heyer adpated the format of the historical romance of Dumas, Conan Doyle, Weyland and Farnol so as to appeal to a female readership, though regarding herself as true to the tradition of Jane Austen, she in fact wrote about a world far higher in social status than Jane Austen’s gentry. While the most highborn of Jane Austen’s heroes is Mr. Darcy,the untitled grandson of an earl, most of Heyer’s heroes are by contrast earls themselves. Her later followers have taken this further, beocming obsessed with dukes and even the odd prince, to the extent that one might think that every second person to be met with in the Regency UK had a dukedom.

Regency Romance has, of course, no interest in portraying the real Regency UK, with its ruinous extended war with France, its failed harvests, Corn Laws, poverty and social turbulance culminating in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The influence of Georgette Heyer and her followers has been such that (unless I am missing something, and I am qite capable of that) there have been no famous writers of serious fiction on the late Georgian/ Regency era since the rise of the Regency Romance. Popular understanding equates the age with the frivolous.

I believe that there will be an eventual move away from this – but it is, like overall improvements in public transport in the UK, a long time coming.


Having these particular views, I was delighted to find that Helen Hughes 1993 study ‘The Historical Romance’ had been done on this very topic, investigating the historical romance generally, exploring its upper class bias and consensus based depiction of society, and providng some penetrating insights into the writing of Georgette Heyer and the development of the Regency romance genre.

Here is my Goodreads review:

This traces the genre from its origins with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the male adventure novel as typified in such works as his ‘The White Company’ through the writings of such authors as Jeffrey Farnol’s ‘The Broad Highway’ and ‘Baroness’ Orczy’s 1905 best seller ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ to the modern change into historical romance as primarily one aimed at a female audience as in Georgette Heyer’s adaption of it.

She makes reference to a Weyman novel that must surely have been an influence on Georgette Heyer, Stanley Weyman’s ‘Stavecrow Farm’ (1905). This book , set shortly after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, has many of the features that distinguish the later ‘Regency’ (or late Georgian) romances, the unfeeling, contemptuous aristocratic hero, the spirited but innocent and vulnerable heroine rebelling against the artificial constraints placed upon her by society, the run away ingénue, an attempted elopment, the rescue of the heroine by the hero, morally contemptible lower class subversives, and much more.

The only complaint I have to make about this study is an entirely unfair one; I wish the book had been updated to take into account the new developments in the genre that have arisen with the rise of epublishing and the Indie author and the wide availability of older and out of print works online. As it is, as a book published in 1993, it inevitably deals with traditional print publishing only.

I have long been of the opinion that the ‘historical past’ depicted by popular historical romance is in fact, a highly artificial construction, though this is often obsucred by a detailed depiction of certain aspects of historical reality, ie, historically accurate and lengthy depictions of dress and manners, social venues for particular parts of society etc.

Faro's Daughter Georgette Heyer

I have also long argued that unfortunately, the form of popular romance made popular among female readers by Georgette Heyer and continued by the form of current Regency Romance, is also a highly consensus based and upper class biased depiction of UK and European history in particular. This is especially true with regard to the treatment of working class radicalism in the UK or – folllowing on from Dickens and Orczy – the French Revolution.

That being so, I have always found it startling how little attention is paid to the treatment of history in historical romance in the various books I have read analysing romance. For instance, Pamela Regis in her ‘Naural History of the Romance Novel’ seems to see history as oddly static and a wholly uncontentious area.

Therefore, I found it really refreshing to come across Helen Hughes’ analytical approach which accepts nothing as self-explanatory.

It is an excellent study. I cannot do better than give a few quotes from the author.

‘Historical romance thus provides a useful subject for the study of the ways in which an artificial ‘past’ can gain ‘mythical’ signifcance, confirming attitudes or highlighting fears and hopes which arise from the nature of contemporary society.’

‘Even an account of historical ‘reality’ which seems neutral is actually – through selection of ‘facts’ of their interpretation – an ideologically charged construction.’

From Conan Doyle and Orczy through Farnol and Georgette Heyer, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on the ruling class in the historical novel. This goes along with an often nostalgic, if vague, depiction of pre-industrial England. For instance, with Geoffry Farnol:

Jefffrey Farnol

‘Farnol uses the past as a nostalgic frame for a world which never existed in fact: an impossible Old Engalnd’ untouched by the industrial revolution. He is not concerned to depict an accurate picture of pre-industraliszed Britain; his England is simply what the modern world is not, a gentle, countrified background for private adventure.’

He uses, ‘A wealth of picturesque detail, but anything which might suggest poverty, hard work or filth left out…Farnol portrays a world which may contain indididual, private conflicts, but no social conflict. The villagers respect the genry, but do not envy them.’

In historical romance generally, revolt – and particularly the French Revolution – follows from Dickens’ model in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in being inchoate, based on a brutal desire for revenge rather than inspired by any thought out ideology and leading inevitably to a bloodbath and failure, unless properly lead by the natural leaders, the ruling class.

However, rebellion against the unjust and oppressive abuse of power by corrupt members of the upper class – if contained and directed by principled and far sighted members of it – is seen as acceptable.

Intriguingly, this depiction of a partial social rebellion as being acceptable, is not only true of the later historical romances, the ones aimed at a female audience from Georgette Heyer’s time onwards, but also encapsulates the relations between the male and female leads.  Her heroines are well aware that the restrictions placed on marriageable young girls from moneyed and landed backgrounds by society are unfair, and often stage a minor revolt against them and against the attitude of the domineering, patriarchal hero, but in the end they are prepared to surrender their freedom in exchange for the prize of his true love.

Among other approaches, Helen Hughes discusses Tanya Modleski’s 1982 study ‘Loving with a Vengeance’ on the mechanics by which a woman reader of historical romance is drawn into acceptance of the inevitable plot feature of the heroine ending up in the arms of the hero through a sort of ‘revenge motif’ whereby the reader gains a vicarious feeling of power through this previously impervious male’s increasing emotional vulnerability as regards the heroine.

Well researched, and thought provoking, this book is full of fascinating insights – my short quotes do not in any way do justice to it.

One of these insights Helen Hughes makes, is that a different approach to a given text can give rise to a different interpretation of the plot. She leaves us with this thought:
‘If the mythical quality of an historical setting carries a potent ideological charge, which it clearly does, the ideological element may not always be received uncritically at every reading.’

I do hope not.


‘The Peterloo Affair’ is free on Amazon today and tommorow…Also ‘Ravensdale’ free on and Kobo


For those readers interested, my latest novel ‘The Peterloo Affair’ is free on both Amazons today. It’s a love story set about the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, and here is the blurb:

Young Joan Wright knows exactly what she wants: to escape with her friend Marcie from domestic drudgery in her poor village of Lancashire cotton workers, and to make a living using their healing skills. They have sworn to have nothing to do with men.
But when roving, rascally, magnetic Sean McGilroy comes on a visit to his relatives, Joan finds herself attracted to him despite her plans and his bad reputation as a ‘light o’ love’.
Appalled by the poverty all about, McGilroy joins Joan’s father and the local Radicals in organising a protest march to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear the famous Radical orator Henry Hunt.
Joan and Marcie organise a group of women to march with the men. Irresistibly drawn to McGilroy, Joan finds that she must choose between the dreams she has shared with Marcie of independence, or in taking the risk of trusting the beguiling but notoriously fickle McGilroy.
But meanwhile, McGilroy has made powerful enemies among those who have the support of the goverment to surpress the Radicals…



Here for

…And my novel ‘Ravensdale’ is also free on

Here is the blurb:

The author is proud to announce that this novel has become her second to win a B.R.A.G medallion for outstanding self-published fiction.

For those who love a satire on the cliches of historical romance, which at the same time draws them into the adventure.

When the group of highwaymen, headed by the disgraced Earl Ravensdale hold up the hoydenish Isabella Murray’s coach, she knocks one of them down and lectures them all on following Robin Hood’s example. In fact, she has been long resisting the urge to escape from her parents’ plans for her advantageous marriage and become one herself.

The rascally Reynaud Ravensdale – otherwise known as the dashing highwayman Mr Fox – is fascinated by her spirit.

He escaped abroad three years back when he fell under suspicion of shooting a friend dead after a quarrel. Rumour has it that his far more respectable cousin was involved. Now, having come back during his father’s last illness, the young Earl has largely lost hope of clearing his name of murder, living as an outlaw as he is, and having sworn to protect someone else who was involved in the quarrel.

Isabella’s ambitious parents are eager to marry her off to Ravensdale’s cousin, the next in line to his title. The totally unromantic Isabella is even ready to elope with her outlaw admirer to escape this fate – on condition that he teaches her how to be a highwaywoman herself.

This hilarious spoof uses vivid characters and lively comedy to bring new life to a theme traditionally favoured by historical novelists – that of the wild young Earl, who, falsely accused of murder by the machinations of a conniving cousin and prejudged by his reputation, takes up life as an outlaw.

‘Ravensdale’ is a fast paced, funny and light hearted read from the writer of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’, and follows the adventures of Émile Dubois’ equally roguish cousin just prior to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. It can be read as an independent novel.



You can get it free at Kobo free


I understand that if you quote that it is free on Kobo, they will make it free on too, and I hope that readers will do that. As I am only a customer on, I can’t do that, unfortunately…




Stonehenge as a Backdrop for Novels


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.


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.


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’.


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.


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.






Disappointing Reader Expectations and Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

Queen of Spades images

Most books about successful novel writing emphasize that above everything, the writer who wants to sell well and avoid bad reviews must at all costs respect the  tropes of a genre, and particularly avoid ‘disappointing reader expectations’.

In fact, Chris Fox in his well argued and generally witty book  ‘Write to Market’ emphasizes this to the point of going into the specifics of market research,  cover design and plot details including even the sex of a spaceship’s pilot.

Besides this, genres are not at all costs to be mixed. He gives some brisk advice in a chapter headed ‘Don’t Get Cute’, citing his own experience.

Market research had already told him that Super Heroes and Alien Conspiracy stories were popular around 2016, and he had the idea of combining features of his two favourite television series, ‘The X Files’ and ‘Heroes’. He joined the themes of alien conspiracy and superheroes in the first novel for a projected series called ‘Project Solaris’, ‘Hero Born’.  As both of these are popular sub genres of fantasy, he hoped to draw in readers of both and market a best seller (his first novel had in fact been a best seller, though he modestly ascribes this to a stroke of luck) .

He claims that as it turned out, ‘Hero Born’  failed to attract readers from both genres because the expectations of each group were different and even conflicting.  For instance, market research advised him that readers of superhero stories tend to be in their teens and indulging a fantasy of being suddenly special. By contrast, readers of alien conspiracy themes are interested in reading about uncovering a deeper truth, solving a mystery, and putting right an injustice. He argues that the two themes  of his novel clashed.

The result was, that his book sold hundreds rather than thousands of copies. His current fans loved it, but it attracted no new ones.

Write to Market

view here

For me, and for many other writers, selling in hundreds is fine – it is selling in dribs and drabs of a couple a month that is soul destroying.  Chris Fox however, aims to sell thousands in weeks, and disappointing reader expectations is not the way to do that.

All this made me think enviously of writers in previous ages, who may not have had the advantages of internet publishing, but who seemingly did not have to adhere to such rigid demands from readers.

Queen of Spades image three

When I recently re-read the collection of Pushkin’s prose in the book ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’  (also In this collection is to be found my favourite robber novel, ‘Dubrovsky’ but that is irrelevant here), it occurred to me that this story, phenomenally successful in its day and now of course a renowned classic, almost seems to be designed to wrong foot the reader.

‘The Queen of Spades’ is of course, Pushkin’s most famous piece of prose writing and was the equivalent of a best seller in his own time. Obviously, with so small a reading public, the numbers sold would be insignificant compared to internet sales in the modern age, but not in his. It was an overnight sensation, and the talk of fashionable society – and possibly of unfashionable society as well.

I first read it at twelve – my father had an old edition of this book – and was struck even then by the concise, dry style, even in translation. For instance, there is the famous beginning of the story: –

There was a card party at the rooms of Naramov, an officer of the guards. The long winter night had passed unnoticed and it was after four in the morning when the company sat down to supper’.

Apparently, Pushkin used the concise style of the old French masters to perfection.

However, it is not about his style that I want to write in this post – though reading it makes me reflect how I must write more concisely myself – but about how in this classic story  Pushkin in fact seems to delight in disappointing those dreaded reader expectations.

For those who haven’t read it, it is about a secret gambling formula which gives inevitable success at cards. It was given to a spoilt young noblewoman by the mysterious Saint- Germain in the 1770’s. She at that time faced the threat of ruin, having lost a massive sum at faro at Versailles. Through using it, she recouped her losses, winning spectacularly, but never played again.

She refused to give the secret to her sons – all determined gamblers – but did once reveal it to another man in desperate circumstances, who also recouped his losses and ceased play from then on.

This story is told at the card party by Tomsky, her grandson, and is overheard by a German officer of the Engineers, Hermann. This man is remarkably careful of his money, having been left only ‘a small independence’ . He does not even touch the interest on his capital, living on his pay. However, so fascinated by cards is he, that he sits up watching others play until the small hours.

Pushkin says of him: – ‘He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but strength of character preserved him from the customary mistakes of youth’.

Queen of Spades two

That he is a very odd character is surely shown by this. This is further reinforced by his obsessive thinking over the story as he wanders about Petersburg the next evening, musing on finding a way of getting the Countess X to reveal her secret to him.

As he sees it, winning her favour and perhaps posing as an admirer might compel her to do so. However, he dismisses this idea on the grounds that ‘She is eighty-seven. She might be dead next week, or the day after tomorrow, even.’

The callousness of this calculation made me start on first reading it, and then laugh at the grim depiction of his coldness.

His wanderings take him to a great house outside which a great many carriages are arriving for some social occasion, which he learns belongs to the Countess X.  Dreaming that night of winning enormous wealth through gambling, he returns to patrol outside the Countess’ house, and sees the Countess’ lovely young companion, the unfortunate Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom the Countess  has raised as an orphan and treats as a drudge. He looks up at the windows.

In one of them he saw a dark head bent over a book or some needlework. The head was raised. Hermann caught sight of a rosy face and a pair of black eyes. The moment decided his fate.’

At twelve, I had read a fair amount of romances and novels of other genres with romantic sub plots, and I knew that men more callous than Hermann were often destined to cast aside their wicked plans as they fell in love with the heroine. This is what I naively assumed would happen here. After all, I knew nothing about Pushkin save that it seemed that he had died young in a duel over his wife, which seemed to me romantic indeed.

I was startled and dismayed when far from falling in love, Hermann remains cold and calculating. He writes Lizaveta love letters (copied, so Pushkin tells us, from a German novel) and gradually persuades her to agree to an assignation with him. She tells him how to get into the house.

Hermann waits for this ‘like a tiger trembling for its prey’.  He waits until the staff have retired and the Countess is left alone in her room, and then approaches her.  At first, he begs her to reveal her secret to him. When she refuses, he threatens her with a pistol. She dies of fright.

He goes to confess to the horrified Lizaveta.

So those passionate letters, those ardent pleas, the bold, determined pursuit had not been inspired by love…It was not she who could satisfy his desires and make him happy! Poor child, she had been nothing but the blind tool of a thief, of the murderer of her aged benefactress! …She wept bitterly in a vain agony of repentance…’

The most sinister developments of the story are yet to come, but I will write no more spoilers, having made the point that this tale does not follow a conventional pattern. The anti-hero remains cold and callous, indifferent to Lizaveta’s appeal:

‘…Neither the poor girl’s tears nor her indescribable charm in her grief touched his hardened soul.’ 

Reading this at twelve, I was dismayed by the sheer unpleasantness of the anti-hero, who incidentally, is described facetiously by Tomsky to Lizaveta Ivanovna as having ‘the profile of Napolean and the soul of Mephistopheles’. I recall my reader expectations were disappointed in a big way. I did read to the end, and found it a fascinating tale, but at this age found the cynicism in the story rather too much for me, so that it was many years before I read any more Pushkin.

Queen of Spades image

Though I was very young when I read the story, I tend to think my expectations of it were typical. I seem to remember reading  somewhere that in this story, Pushkin deliberately upends expected tropes, and that most readers would expect some sort of love story between Hermann and Livaveta Ivanovna, even if it was not the main focus of the plot. How far Pushkin deliberately toyed with disappointing these dreaded tropes and reader expectations, it is hard to say. Pushkin was fascinated by innovation in writing, and Hermann has also been described as a character of a new type for Pushkin’s age.

There are all sorts of levels of  irony in this story, of course. One is that while it might ostensibly be called a story with a moral that points against becoming obsessed with making easy money through games of chance, Pushkin himself was dangerously drawn by gambling himself. On his death in that infamous duel, the Tsar paid off gambling debts for him amounting to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Pushkin was, of course, a writer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, though this story might be defined as belonging to the genre of horror, or as a ghost story. By the time he wrote ‘The Queen of Spades’ of course, he was so renowned that he could afford to ignore such incidentals as readers’ tastes.

Have specific requirements for genres become more of a requirement in the current era? I do think readers make more demands for specific tropes for genre fiction, and in pointing this out, Chris Fox is doing a great favour to the writer who aspires to sell more.

But it is surely a hindrance on innovative sorts of writing, and I also wonder; isn’t it by breaking out of the demands of a genre, perhaps creating a new one in the process, that a writer often obtains the greatest success?

Interstingly, various highly successful writers have achieved this in the past, Mary Renault for one, and Anne Rice for another. Perhaps I should not try and speak for advocates of sticking  to the tropes of a genre. Still, I suppose they might say that yes, that is true, but those are the ones in several thousand who became world famous, and that perhaps it is best to build a firm readership base before starting to tamper with the boundaries of a genre.

There are, to sum up on a tediously neutral note, there must be arguments either way.  Finally, I supose it must depend upon how well you can write for the market (and I would like to emphasize that Chris Fox in no way advocates selling out and writing about what you hate). Some can do it brilliantly; others, I suspect, less so.


‘Ferrandino’ the Sequel to Rinaldo Rinaldini – Review.



It took me ages to find an English translation of the sequel to ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini Captain of Bandetti’ by Christian August Vulpius. In fact, it wasn’t me who finally tracked it down; it was an obliging colleague on Goodreads, who directed me to the site where it can be downloaded google books

The problem with sequels is often that however much readers who love the first in the series may request one, they are not always a good idea. If some of the main conflicts have been resolved, then colflict has to be introduced artificially.

In this,in fact, Rinaldo Rinaldini’s problem in the first two volumes – how to abandon being a robber captain and lead a good life when his past keeps on catching up with him -has not been resolved.

In the original version, he was stabbed to death by his menor, the Old Man of Fronteja.  Vulpius brought him back to life to satisfy public demand, rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes.

I read the first two volumes of the novel back in 2013, when I was writing my own robber novel ‘Ravensdale’.

I loved the first book in this series, wholly tacky and gothic as it was in tone. Vulpius strives to reproduce that  blood and thunder effect here, but does not qute come up to it. Grotesque features, such as Rinaldini’s adoring voluntary servant Rosalia’s body being preserved by the Old Man as a skeleton are added, true. Yet, they seem to have been included in the plot in an atempt to capture some of the gothic excitement of the first volume rather than as a necessary part of the story.

maxresdefaultThese skeletal remains of poor Rosalia are in defiance of the rules of time. It is mentioned that the equally devoted Countess, Dianora, has an infant by Rinaldini. From this we may assume that little more than a a couple of years have passed since the events in the last volume, where the unlucky Rosalia died not long before Rinaldini was attacked by the Old Man, to save him from the disgraceof being taken as a robber. Yet we are are asked to believe that her body has decomposed to the extent of being reduced to bones. That is, unless the Old Man has reduced it to this form by some magical process.

There are some more independent women in this novel, besides adoring ones like Dianora. There are a couple of ‘man haters’ who dwell in a castle where Rinaldini stays, and they expose him as the dreaded brigand in a splendidly dramatic ending to one chapter, where he is offered the services of a dancer who has entertained the company:

‘Ferrdanino looked at the girl in silence. She smiled and cast her eyes on the ground. At this moment, the Countess entered the hall, and enquired: “What is the matter here?”
Ferrandino replied ernsetly, “I have engaged this maiden.” The Countess laughed aloud, and said in an undertone, “Whither?”
Ferrnadino without confusion, and very dryly, replied; “To my companions and fellow travellers.”
“Indeed! My cousin must know that.”
The cousin came, and the Countess told her laughing, of Ferrandino’s intention- the cousin turned to the dancer, and said, “You will go with this man?”
“Why not?” replied the other, with great naivite.
“You do not know who he is.”
“Do you then know?” asked Ferrandino, quickly.
“O yes!” replied the cousin, in the same tone.
Ferrandino looked round him in astonishment- the women laughed aloud. The musicians and the dancer left the hall. The cousin took the dancer by the hand, led her to Ferrandino, and said, “There is the bride – Take her to your den.”
Ferrandino stared at her, and would have asked her meaning, when she held a minature before his eyes.He cast a look at it, and trembling violently, started a few steps back.
“Have you,” said the cousin, “read the writing beneath this portrait? – It is the likeness of RINALDO RINALDINI THE ROBBER CHIEF!”

Then, another woman, Serena,who met Rinaldini and fell for him in the earlier novel, jeers at his faithlessness, which was depicted without comment in the first volume:
‘I cannot desire that you should love me better than you have loved the dearest of your mistresses, Aurelia, Rosalia, Olympia, Dianora, Ersilie, and who knows how many more, as you would and will love, even Serafina. You love very inconstantly. Like as the moon loves the earth, sometimes not at all, generally half, and only on a few days with full adhesion.’

41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_To be fair to Rinaldini, though he has some sort of compulsion to be promiscuous, he does seem to genuinely fall in love with all of these women in turn, and often at the same time.

Oddly enough, we are informed that he at one point writes to Aurelia, whom he never did manage to win after his abduction attempt failed. She unaccountably turned up to be present at the dramatic stabbing in the last volume. We are never told what her connection was with the Old Man. I may have missed something here. I am far from sure that there wasn’t a connection between her uncle and guardian and the Old Man.

Rinaldo looking poshAnyway, Rinaldini somehow has her address.

Sadly, Rinaldini’s devoted henchman Ludovico, one of my favourtie characters, is killed off in this volume, fighting to liberate some oppressed people, a cause which Rinaldini undertakes and at which he is defeated.

My own edition of the first volumes has Rinaldini die at the age of sixty, fighting in the American War of Independence: this is, of course, and amended ending from the original. Oddly enough, an expert on Vulpius writing on  JSTOR mentions that Rinaldini is killed fighting in the battle to liberate the Haiduks along with his henchaman, and I am confused about this.  Whether in fact, this is Rinaldini’s end in the original novel is a possible explanation.  The one available on Goodle Book is obviously a later edition, and perhaps Vulpius once again gave his hero a exculpatory ending which he later reversed.

The story ends inconclusively regarding Rinaldini’s love life – we don’t know if he went back to the devoted Dianora, though we do know that the Old Man , who turns out to be a Prince, reveals that he is Rinaldini’s father. He arranges things so that Rinaldini can drop his old identity as a wanted man.  As he is now the son of a prince rather than a low born robber chief, we may assume he can wed whom he wishes.

I found that a shame. I preferred him as a goat herd made bad….

The Difficulty in Portraying the Truly Good Hero and Heroine – Examples from Classic Novels

The literary critic Graham Handley writes of the difficulty of creating a character who is very good: ‘It is a strange but true fact that the truly good person is difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, and Hester Rose (a sort of secondary heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’) may be compared with Diana Morris in ‘Adam Bede’ where there is a similar partial failure of imagination.’

Why this should be so is possibly a question of fashion. These days, we don’t want our protagonists to be too admirable, and the dread spectres of Mary Sue and Gary Stu hover near, whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson rose to fame (or infamy) through writing about two Mary Sues and one Gary Stu, namely, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlow and Sir Charles Grandison.

These endless novels were best sellers in that era; people just couldn’t get enough of them. Of course, with ‘Pamela’ there is the issue of whether he drew in the reader with the lure of,  ‘Attempted Rape as Titillation Whilst Expressing Every Sort of Moral Abhorrence’ . I tend to agree with Coleridge that he did, possibly unconsciously.

The rape in Clarissa takes place offstage, and not until Volume Six, so a reader would have had to be as patient as s/he was purile to keep on reading that long just for that, even if people did have longer attention spans in previous centuries. Probably the fascination  of that saga was the villain Lovelace as much as the heroine, and the depiction of his evil if far fetched machinations.

Clarissa is of course, a far more sophisticated creation than Pamela, who to most modern readers comes across as a prize opportunist hypocrite. I can’t answer for Sir Charles Grandison. I have heard that the character is unbearable, and it is worth reading just for that. I have also heard that in it, a woman actually apologises for preferring God to Sir Charles.

Still, having in recent years ploughed my way through ‘Pamela’, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’ (it seriously is called that!) I don’t think I can stand reading any more of Richardson’s self-serving Puritan morality for a long while.

Both the eponymous heroine of ‘Evelina’ and the hero Lord Orville are extremely virtuous and outstandingly dull. I felt like going to sleep whenever Lord Orville spoke.  Fortunately, he does that only occasionally, usually to show a high minded understanding of whatever situation it is in which he is involved.

By contrast, the villain Sir Clement Willoughby (did Jane Austen borrow his name?) provides a great deal of amusement. He spends much of his time, when not involved in rascally plots, in insisting on his deep love for the heroine. Still, never – the cad -does he  so much as hint at marriage. At the end he informs Lord Orville that she is not well born enough for him to consider for anything but as a mistress.  Lord Orville proposes believing her to be ‘low born’ – but then, he is a hero.

It was left to the genius of Jane Austen to create a hero who insults both the heroine’s face and her family origins.

Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are another virtuous and dull hero and heroine in a classic novel. Someone has commented somewhere (I have managed to lose the link) that Darnay is just like an android programmed to do good things – he seems to possess no mental life at all, and whenever he opens his mouth, virtuous platitudes come forth. Lucie Manette is an embodiment of a Domestic Angel.

I have to admit that I dislike that novel, because of the influence it has had in portraying the French Revolution in an entirely negative light, in particular shaping the popular misconception about the number of victims of the Terror.

As George Orwell says: ‘ Though he (Dickens) quotes no figures, he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared with one of Napoleon’s battles. But the bloody knives and the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in (the reader’s) mind a special sinister vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers. To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads. ’

That however, is off topic…

Intriguingly, Charles Darnay does come to life – twice – when he is in danger of death. Both when he is being tried for treason in the UK, and later when he is tried for it in France, he is suddenly there, real and believable.

In fact, I found the scene where Lucie Manette (who doesn’t yet know him) sheds tears because she is forced to give evidence against him, and they gaze at each other through the courtroom and obviously start to fall in love, both evocative and gripping.

Generally, then, I find it hard to think of a truly noble hero or heroine in a classic novel who is both interesting and believable.  Readers may have been more fortunate; if so, I’d love to hear of it.