Over on Vulpes Libris I am wading through the 800 letters that Michael Carney used to construct his biography of Hilda Matheson. She was the BBC’s first Director of Talks, and Vita Sackville West’s lover (one of them) between 1929 and 1931. Her letters to Vita have ensured that her heroic struggles as a lesbian feminist operating at the top of the broadcasting hierarchy in its febrile, formative years have survived for proper appraisal.
Swordfights and petticoats from Georgette Heyer, the grande dame / mother superior of all things swashbuckling, in this week’s podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book, with The Masqueraders, from 1928.
Georgette Heyer wrote a very large number of novels. To those who haven’t read them, and simply judge them by their covers, from all their reprint phases, it might seem as if they are undifferentiated romantic slush in fancy dress. Not so! Her novels can be grouped into four kinds. There are her contemporary, realist novels published under a pseudonym: I’m not concerned with those. There are her detective novels published under her own name: again, not needed here. There are a couple of Norman and Tudor historical novels, again not relevant here. And then there are the historical novels set in the mid 1700s to early 1800s, which can be separated into subsets of those set pre- and post-French Revolution. In the former the heroes wear wigs, make-up, jewels and high heels, and in the latter, they didn’t.
The Masqueraders is one of the former, in which gentlemen of the upper classes spend as much time fussing over their appearance as women do, and spend their leisure time frivolling, playing cards, gossiping and laying bets. Where, you might ask, is the drama and excitement in that? For Heyer’s novels are undoubtedly exciting, and full of drama. These fine gentlemen also spent a great deal of time falling in love, getting into entanglements and fighting duels. The women in the novels are no less active, because the heroines of a Heyer novel are more often the leading protagonists than the men. Heyer heroines are always spirited, brave, adventurous, daring and unconventional, just the kind of girl to attract a modern readership. Heyer also makes sure that the men in high heels and wigs are also masculine enough to attract her original readers of the 1920s and 1930s. In The Masqueraders she takes this to an extreme.
In the first few pages of the novel we are introduced to a brother and sister on their way to London to meet their father. Unusually, the sister is the one in a smart coat, sword and breeches, riding the horse beside the coach in the rain, and the brother is the one in a pale blue silk gown and blonde ringlets, sitting inside the coach and waving his fan about. But this is no ordinary historical tale of cross-dressing: these siblings have very good reasons for being disguised. Robin (in the blue dress) is a former Jacobite supporter on the run, and his sister Prudence (riding in knee-breeches) has habitually dressed as a boy from childhood to preserve her virtue, living as she did in the trail of her rackety father when he was running a gaming hell, or a duelling studio, or who knows what else. To be the daughter of an adventurer also means that she has learned some interesting social skills. She is tall, and can pass as a young man easily, taking snuff with perfect style, and playing cards so cleverly as to beat the card-sharping gentleman who had hoped to fleece so young a gentleman. We also see that she can fight off three thugs with her sword, and tip wine down her coat sleeve rather than get drunk, or be detected. Prudence is cautious, and has a very cool head.
Robin, on the other hand, is a daredevil actor. He makes an undetectable girl, because he is slight and beautiful, and very, very good at managing his petticoats, flirting with his fan, arranging himself on sofas at parties for chats, and tripping across a room in the most feminine way possible. But in case we might worry that he is almost too feminine for a young man in a 1920s romantic novel (please don’t throw gender theory at me, I’m doing my best here), Heyer heroes are always heterosexual, no matter how much rouge is deployed in their performative gendered self-presentation (see?). Robin is very willing to get into breeches and top boots to act a very masculine role by rescuing the girl he is in love from a blackmailing kidnapper, and also to duel with him to the death. Prudence does not seek a duel, but when one is forced on her, she calmly accepts it, and is prepared to act the gentleman to her probable death, but another gentleman hijacks her duel by forcing one of his own on the nasty assailant instead. Reading a whole novel of this kind of thing is absolutely delightful, because Heyer was a genius at it. Once Alice and Egerton Castle and Baroness Orczy had proved that there was a market for this kind of novel, Heyer reinvented the subgenre of the historical romance for modern times. Her plots are seamless and have perfect construction. She creates unique, memorable and fascinating characters. Her historical research is legendary. She has a gift for dialogue that cries out to be performed on stage. And she is very reliable, almost predictable, in creating scenes of chaos and mayhem that are resolved by the masterful and decisive action of the hero. For Georgette Heyer is above all an upholder of the romantic tradition that decrees that men sweep women off their feet, and women must be ultimately submissive. She doesn’t make all her heroines like this, of course, but they all come to this end, no matter how sparky and active they are.
In The Masqueraders, there are two heroines; Prudence, and Letitia, whom Robin and Prudence rescue, and with whom Robin falls in love. While Prudence is brave, cautious, and daring, Letitia is a bit of a caricature, uber-feminine, with lots of sighs, whispers and dainty behaviour. She has a very vague understanding of the world, which is rather maddening, but for some reason Robin the romantic actor finds this attractive. Prudence, on the other hand, is spotted immediately for what she is by Sir Anthony, a quintessential Heyer hero, the large slow-voiced man who is also very astute, a brilliant swordsman, and quick to react effectively and masterfully to emergencies. Naturally, since Prudence is dressed as a man, and Robin as a girl, a lot of the pleasure in this novel comes from the dialogue in scenes where Sir Anthony is dancing with Robin-as-girl, or playing cards at White’s with Prudence-as-man. We aren’t quite sure that he knows what they are, or whether they suspect that he knows, but there are subtle clues in the writing to indicate that perhaps he does, making these cross-dressing episodes an exciting reading of gendered behaviour for those in the know. Heyer was, of course, fiercely conservative, in the political and social sense, and enjoyed writing fops and effeminate male characters when her hero or heroine needed a safe and amusing confidant, or, once, a nasty villain. But she would never have thought it possible to have a powerfully masculine gay or bisexual hero. I don’t think she wrote The Masqueraders like that at all, but, nowadays, you can work out some spectacular double readings of its cross-dressing scenes, even if, at the end, we are ushered firmly into traditional hetero-normative engagements.
The plot of The Masqueraders also relies on some Heyer stalwarts: the formidable and ingenious older man (in this novel Robin and Prudence’s father); the delightful, reliable and comfortable French matron married into the English aristocracy; the group of affable young men without a thought in their heads further off than the next race, card game or duel; and the walk-on parts by senior historical figures who give authority to the leading characters’ existence. The local highwaymen are very active (Letitia does seem to have a higher average than most for getting held up and robbed). The servants are mostly unnamed, apart from Robin and Prudence’s man John, who followed their father into exile as factotum. But all other servants are perceived from the aristocratic perspective, that is, they exist only to serve, they have no names, and they only achieve individuality when they do not fit that pattern. This is typical for Heyer: servants are not whom she wrote about, because their lives had no scope for dashing escapades or swashbuckling dramas. The Masqueraders is a classic Heyer for swords, wigs, brilliant plotting and charming characters.
I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.
Simon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.
Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.
Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.
China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.
J B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.
Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.
Continuing to swash buckles in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, we’re still in wigland, in the eighteenth century, crossing the Channel and diddling the enemy in disguise, with The Scarlet Pimpernel.
First off, what IS a scarlet pimpernel? It’s a flower, a straggling long-stemmed weed-like plant, that grows in boggy places. It comes in a number of colours, and the scarlet version is more of an orangey pink, to be honest. It has five petals, in a nice-sized head to put through your buttonhole, possibly for a secret sign to your confederates that you are of their conspiracy. Baroness Orczy’s novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, is all about conspiracy, and escape, and plottings, and daring escapades. And for all that to work, when you are pitted against the evil might of the French Revolution, you need a conspiracy that works, and a secret sign that also works. Though, in the novel, I don’t think the flower is actually used as a secret sign. But I’m sure it could have been.
This is another historical novel, published in 1905 and set in 1792, when gentlemen wore wigs and women’s dresses involved the kind of undercarriage that stuck out sideways (called panniers, for those into fashion history, after the French name for the wire baskets over each hip attached by tapes to one’s corset). Upper-class hair was also powdered, and a certain kind of upper-class gentleman was also very concerned with his jewels, the colour of his waistcoat, the set of his cravat, and the right kind of snuffbox. The upper classes lived for pleasure, while the working classes were paid very little to work very hard to provide that pleasure. This kind of class inequality brought about the French Revolution, which terrified the upper classes all over the rest of Europe, and was particularly disturbing in England, where many of the French upper classes escaped bringing tales of how their unluckier friends and families had been caught, imprisoned, and executed. The upper classes of the England were naturally very sympathetic to their friends and relations in France, and many efforts were made to get the well-connected French aristocrats out before it was too late. All that is history.
Where fiction sets in is in the details of the daring escapes and rescue missions that Baroness Orczy invented. She too was an aristocrat, born in Hungary, but she had a very happy marriage with the son of an English clergyman. She began writing novels simply to earn some income, but it was the play of The Scarlet Pimpernel that brought her first real success, and which, in novel form, made her famous. It ran for four years in London, which meant four years of continuing publicity for the novel, and its twelve sequels. The character of the Scarlet Pimpernel too was very important: he is the first of the hero-fops in modern romantic adventure fiction: a man with two identities. The romantic subplot in the novel is whether and how the heroine will find out that the fop she despises (and how sad that is because she is also married to him) is also the magnificently brave hero that she worships.
The plot of the novel begins with a daring escape from the Bastille, by which the reader is led to understand that all who support the Terror of the French Revolution are either stupid, or evil. It’s not a nuanced point of view. The next scene is in a jolly rural pub on the south coast of England, where all is clean, cheerful, familiar, and above all, safe. Some rescued aristocrats arrive here to be greeted by representatives of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, who have whisked them out of France. The aristocrats all chat to each other, while the yokels shuffle loyally and obediently out of the way, into the snug. Another aristocrat arrives, the dull and stupid Sir Percy Blakeney, and his beautiful French wife Marguerite. She is a former actress, the cleverest woman in Europe, and pitied by all for having a lunk of a husband who can neither match her for brains or for looks. She is also snooted at by the very strictest of the French aristocrats, not so much for her artistic past, but for her politics, in line with those of the Terror, which led her to denounce one particular aristocrat. Baroness Orczy tried hard to introduce some political nuance here, to show that it was possible to approve of the Revolution’s ideals and not approve of its brutality, but this all fades away in the face of Marguerite’s agonies about her love life, her married life, and how she will manage to rescue her brother from the Revolution’s clutches.
Enter the villain, the pitiless human face of the revolution, the ambassador of the Republican government of France to the Court of St James, M. Chauvelin. He is, naturally, a very unpopular person at the English court, since he represents the murderers of many friends and relations of the Upper Ten Thousand in London society. But because he is an ambassador with diplomatic immunity, and because the English are all perfectly mannered, everyone is chilly and distant, but not actually rude to him. Some even play cards with him, like that ridiculous oaf Sir Percy Blakeney, but Chauvelin does not pay much attention to such idiots. He is more interested in blackmailing the likes of Lady Blakeney, and in forcing her to reveal secrets and names in which the Revolution is extremely interested. Poor Marguerite gets in a total tangle through being brave but also in being compromised by her relations. She finds herself in dreadful trouble, from which no-one can rescue her, though she longs for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue her, since he seems to have an unbroken record of success in rescuing everyone else who needs it. Instead, all she has to rely on is her oafish husband, who lately has been betraying some feelings for her that she hardly expected in one so bovine, and previously uninterested in anything much except cards, or wine. But she cannot rely on him, of course, and so Marguerite flings caution to the wind and rides for France, to sacrifice herself, if she must, to save her brother and her honour. But by going to France she seriously complicates the rescue plans that the Scarlet Pimpernel has already laid down, and so we have a terrific farrago of disguise, midnight escapes, overheard confidences and creepings about in the backstreets of Paris.
It’s a very simple story, at heart, and if you want to be critical you could say that the novel is repetitious, and that the narrative leaps about from one character to another without discipline or sense. It’s very melodramatic, and hopelessly romantic, and it would not be wise to rely on the plot as a basis for revision for a history exam. There are fine scenes of eighteenth-century high life and jolly scenes of faithful English country life. We are expected to be completely on the side of the aristocrats and the royalists, and to despise anything with the word ‘republican’ in its name. This is not a novel based on a complex set of political ideas. But, for all that, this is wonderful swashbuckling novel of adventure and thrilling romantic escape and derring-do. It ticks all the clichés in the box and it is all the more enjoyable because of it. Other romances of the French Revolution have been better written, more plausible in their plots, and with better literary style. But The Scarlet Pimpernel was the first one to make the French Revolution quite so dashing. Charles Dickens also romanticised the sufferings of the victims in A Tale of Two Cities, but Orczy did romantic escapades with the right amount of effervescence and excitement to keep us reading, agog for the denouement, rather than for historical detail or a moral lesson.
I was persuaded by the excellent word of mouth praise for A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, which is an unlikely-sounding smash hit. I was delighted. Also appalled by its weight and size: this is NOT a book for taking on holiday unless you do the ebook thing. A very absorbing, moving and impressive read, but over on Vulpes Libris I have views about the editorial choices made to get 45 diaries down to two inches of book.
I read After Leaving Mr Mackenzie for #ReadingRhys, but, to be truthful, I really don’t think I would have bothered had it not been for that impetus. I tried Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago and didn’t get on with it at all. I don’t even think I finished it. Jacqui suggested this novel as a re-entry to Jean Rhys’ fiction.
It’s a brutal novel, reminding me powerfully of Colette’s writing in its depiction of Julia Martin, but without the gaiety or the affection. Julia is an Englishwoman in 1930s Paris, slipping so far down the social scale that she is staring into the gutter. She is weak, fatalistic, capable of bravery and quixotic moments of self-assertion, but lazily dependent on the man of the moment. Rhys does not flinch at describing Julia’s hopelessness, and she refuses to give her a shining white knight or a crock of gold. Here she is, roosting drearily in shabby hotels, and if she stays at that level, it’ll be a miracle. Prostitution is her life, at present just as a mistress for hire, but the reader is given no hope that Julia won’t soon be on the streets. She’s run out of men to live off, and picks up a stranger without much caring. But he gives her money to go back to England, and she decides to see her sister Norah, who has been looking after their invalid mother for years. Norah is, understandably, unimpressed at the reappearance of her elder sister, and there is a vast amount of ill feeling between them, fuelled by Norah’s quite understandable fear that after all her sacrifices to stay with their mother and be a nurse, Julia will waltz in and take what little money there is.
I found this novel grim and riveting, describing an unhappy life and a brave attempt to try to change it. There is so much to take apart and study in its structure and narration, and it makes a bracing comparison with light and fluffy comedies of the same period. It’s most interesting, I think, for presenting the hideous and long-established English social code that a lady may not take a job, and must live off men or marry. Jane Austen pointed out this universal truth centuries ago, and Rhys’ novel (one of hundreds from this period saying the same thing) points out that this terrible necessity is driven by snobbery and deprivation of education or training. Julia has a mind and presence, and could have made something successful of herself, but is instead given no option other than prostitution, in or out of marriage.
The very few bright specks of hope in this unrelenting series of miserable vignettes show Julia recovering her pride, and her awareness that she has value and charm, if she could use them for the right reasons. A stranger tries to pick her up on the Tube by giving her his business card and asking her out for dinner, but she lets the card fall into her lap, and when she rises to leave the carriage, the card falls onto the ground unnoticed: a fine example of the rebuff direct in the grandest manner. A lady will not deign to notice that she has been publicly propositioned. Poor Julia. I don’t like her, but I feel for her.
This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, we’re in the 17th century, in the fog of Scotland and the mud of northern Holland, in John Buchan’s early swashbuckler, John Burnet of Barns (1898).
This novel was published when Buchan was just 23; it’s not his first novel, but his second, and a fine meaty affair it is too. His youth is not very evident in the writing, except perhaps in the length: this is not a fast read, but might take only a leisurely couple of evenings. It’s not slow – no true swashbucklering novel should be slow – but there is an awful lot in it, packing the novel with swashbuckling elements inserted at regular intervals for fun and excitement.
When John Burnet inherits his father’s estate he meets and falls in love with Marjory, his childhood playmate and his neighbour’s daughter. Marjory becomes the weak point in all his doings, since as soon as she is in danger, he must rush to save her and get into more danger himself. The novel is set in late 17th-century Scotland, a very complicated time for Scottish politics, because they had not only religious but also political strife on their hands. King James II had ascended the throne after his dissolute brother Charles II, and was causing consternation by being far too Roman Catholic for the liking of the Scottish Presbyterians who ran the Scottish Parliament. The religious objectors to the king took to the hills to worship more freely, or were driven out (it’s contested as to who were the martyrs and who were the persecutors), and so the government soldiers, the dragoons, were a familiar sight harrying the king’s opponents. People could be proscribed (locked up and hanged), or exiled on just hearsay, and that’s what happened to John Burnet of Barns.
The trouble was, he has an enemy, his own cousin Gilbert. Gilbert comes to visit the Burnet family home, and enrages John with his arrogance, so that John challenges him to a horse race, up the mountain side. They ride fiercely and wildly, but John also rides carefully, knowing the ground, and on a horse with a particular talent, and so John wins. As well as objecting to losing, arrogant show-off Gilbert also takes a fancy to Marjory, and to this John objects very severely, despite not having mentioned yet to Marjory that he is in love with her. Once this small matter is sorted out, Marjory will have nothing to do with Gilbert, and there the matter would have rested had not John decided that, now he’d secured the lady, and made an enemy in his close family, now was a good time to leave Scotland for two years to study philosophy in Leiden. I don’t dispute the wisdom of the desire for education, but I do think he was daft to leave everything he valued – his home, his girl and his future – to go abroad when he had an enemy lurking at home to take it all away.
In Leiden John realises that he and Gilbert are destined to continually run into each other. They meet at a dinner, at which Gilbert is unpardonably rude to a lady present by quoting something very vulgar in Latin to her, not realising that as the daughter of a scholar, she of course understands the anatomical detail of his quotation. John is outraged, and throws a glass at his cousin, and next morning is called upon by Gilbert’s friends to arrange a duel. There is a great deal of sword-fighting in this novel: if it’s not between Gilbert and John it seems to be between John and every second man he encounters. He beats Gilbert in this duel, and thinks no more of it, until he gets a strange letter from Marjory. Something is clearly wrong; one of her happy, placid letters includes a panicking plea for him to come home. He spends the next three hours tearing around Leiden paying his bills and saying goodbye to his professors, and is on the first boat back to Scotland. He and his right-hand man, Nicol Plenderleith, put in at the east harbour at Leith, and then discover that the inn they are staying in is full of Gilbert with his soldiers, waiting for John to disembark at the more usual west harbour, because John is now pronounced as an enemy of the crown, and all his lands are forfeit.
So here’s a pretty kettle of fish. John starts a long series of daring exploits to keep one step ahead of his pursuers, and to keep Marjory out of Gilbert’s hands. He starts by stealing his own horse (that Gilbert has taken from the Burnet stables) to get out of Leith. He’s held up by a footpad, but the man recognises him as the Laird of Barns, gives him one of his pistols and tells him the best route to ride to safety. That’s quite some influence to have over the thieves of the road. John and Marjory take shelter with some Covenanters in a cave, and Marjory gets shot by roaming dragoons, so John beats them up, but stupidly doesn’t kill them. He meets a man dressed in fine clothes in the middle of the hills, with one bright blue eye, who challenges him to a duel just for the sake of the sword practice (John loses this one). He rescues a miller being tortured by the dragoons – really, the dragoons are thoroughly out of control in this countryside – and when he gets back to the cave for shelter, he narrowly escapes being caught by yet more dragoons, but the old blind Covenanter brings the roof of the cave down and only John escapes. After being chased by yet more dragoons, John is taken in by the gypsies and joins them for a few months roaming the Border country with a dyed face and scarlet clothes. He terrorises a smug Borders town in revenge for the insults a townsman gave to a gypsy woman, and he fights in an epic battle between two gypsy clans which is one of the bloodiest episodes John Buchan ever wrote. Finally, his wanderings are over when he hears the news that William of Orange has landed, and that James II is on his way to France. All proscribed men are magically free to return home, and John can go back to find Marjory and marry her. Trouble is, Gilbert has got to her first, and John and Nicol have another epic chase across land and water to rescue her. It all ends with, inevitably, another duel of swords.
The reason I like this novel is that it is a roller-coaster, one episode after another. Nothing is too unexpected, no details are overdone, though I do wonder how John gets hold of fresh shoes, clothes and money after continually being taken by surprise and having to run for it, time and again. He also has a surprising number of friends in the countryside to help him out: how plausible is that? Does it matter? The countryside is almost a character in the novel: there’s no map in the edition I was reading, and I really needed one, because the narrative is continually related with references to this river or that hill, not by roads or villages. But the swashbucklery is paramount, the plot leaps from one episode of daring and rushing about to another. Gentlemen are dashing and terrific swordsmen, ladies are brave and obedient, townsfolk are douce and cautious, country folk have great one-liners and put-downs for the arrogant, and the horses never seem to get tired. If only novels were still written in such a brave and robust style.