Dornford Yates (1885-1960)

The Pleydell family went to Paris for a holiday in the 1930’s and were having a fun time, when one evening a friend that they had met in one of the clubs dosed their champagne with sleeping powder and stole all their jewelry and a string of pearls with a long, honored history.  The pearls belonged to Jill, the Duchess of Padua, Jonah Mansell’s sister, and a cousin of Bertram Pleydell, known familiarly as “Berry”.  The friend’s name was Casca de Palk, and was suspected even though he pretended to be unconscious like the others.  After lamenting for a while, they all decided to pursue the thief:  Casca had run off to southern France, near Pau.  Consulting some of their sources in the Surete, Berry discovered that the jewels would probably be offered to a fence, the most likely being one that lived in Chicago.  They investigated and found out that a man named Wokely, a known agent of the Chicago dealer,  would be arriving in Tours from America in the next few days.  Traveling to that city, it was discovered that Wokely would be meeting Palk in a certain hotel room almost immediately.  Realizing that the building next to the hotel was empty, Berry and Boy (his brother-in-law) broke into it one night, climbed to the roof, and saw Casca talking to Wokely, presumably about selling the valuables.  In the process, they both got soaked from a passing rainstorm, and accidentally slid down into a gutter filled with mud and tar.  Covered with goo, they returned to meet the others.  A certain amount of derision ensued; after some more inquiries, the crooks are traced to a small town near Pau in the northern Pyrenees.

They drive down in two vehicles, a Rolls and a Lowlander (Rover, maybe?) and have fun chasing their enemies through western France, and being chased themselves.  At lunch one day, in a rural cafe, they are accosted by a giggling, maniacal male figure who attached themselves to the group and wouldn’t be dislodged until Boy and Berry take him for a ride across 100 kilometers of wasteland into a forest and leave him there, using trickery and deception to leave him stranded.  Later they find out that this person was named “Auntie Emily”, a notorious hired gun who liked to shoot people.

After finding a hotel near the border, they encounter Casca again, and engage in a road race, chasing him and his colleagues up and down a rolling highway, through fields of grain and cow pastures.  In a hilarious episode, Berry manages to follow Casca and Wokely away from the car, after a flat tire, into a patch of woods, where he sees Casca drop a small leather bag into a hollow tree.  Berry creeps into a ditch and crawls through a slimy muddy bog, while being tormented by black flies and hornets, in order to get close enough to overhear the conversation between the two.  But he’s still too far away to pick up any information.  After they leave, he investigates the hollow stump in which the bag was dropped and discovered that the pearls are in it.  After retrieving them he returns to the ditch. Delicately throwing his coat over the hornet nest he found there, he carries it back to the stump and drops it in.  From a distance the Pleydells observe Casca, covered with stings and mud, running madly over the grassy fields, waving his arms and yelling obscenities.

After more episodes resembling the above, the Pleydells and Auntie Emily and his cohorts have a final rendezvous at the Spanish border.  Casca has made arrangements to sell the rest of the jewelry to Wokely and his companions, the exchange to take place on a local mountain top.  Berry and Boy get there first and find out about another road leading to the trysting spot and they make plans to foil the bad hats.  They dress up as old ladies and drive up the road just ahead of the felons’ car.  But they want to stay well ahead of them, as they have a surprise planned.  The previous day, they had found a large pine tree overhanging the road, and had partly cut it through so it could be shoved down onto the road in a few seconds.  So they wanted to stay ahead a certain distance so their car could pass under the tree before it was used to block the road.  So, just before the two vehicles get to the ambush spot, Berry, driving, starts screaming and waving his arms and allows the car to reverse direction, shooting backwards and forcing the following auto into a ditch.    Then he re-engages the transmission and drives back up the hill, past the tree, which is felled across the road thus trapping Auntie Emily and company.  All goes as planned:  they arrive at the top, discard their attire and have a shoot-out with the belated criminals, gain possession of the remaining jewels, and escape via the Rolls which has been parked on the alternate road they discovered earlier.

I’ve read a few of Yates books and like them a lot.  He has an approachable writing style and a vivid imagination.  His descriptions drag the reader into action and he has a gift for brilliant evocation.   Describing the Pyrenees:  “a screen of unimaginable beauty, of dreamy spires and shadowy battlements, of peeping domes and keeps and galleried belvederes, rising and falling in disarray and exquisite as to make architecture seem an art not so much lost as never yet acquired.”

The Pleydells are the chief characters in Yates’ short stories and in two novels.  Most of  the action in these occurs in France.  He has an additional sequence of novels that has to do with another set of friends who have adventures in the Balkan regions.  If one’s taste leads to car chases in old open touring cars, gunfire, mysterious caverns and tunnels, remote Bavarian villages, thwarting villains and rescuing maidens, these books should prove quite satisfactory.

I should mention Berry’s extraordinary and brilliant repartee:  his ability to express himself in superbly brainy and picturesque language, that he humorously and ironically uses to complain about the various mishaps that occur to him is amazingly funny, and better than any of that sort of thing that i’ve ever read.



Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Ijon Tichy (Jonathon Peace, in Czech) has just gotten back from the Calf constellation when he is tagged for another expedition to the moon.  Earth’s most experienced astronaut, he is enlisted to solve a lunar mystery.

To wit:  the cold war on Earth had reached a point at which conflicts were conducted but not resolved, solely through and by giant assemblages of computers.  Computer tanks, soldiers, rockets, bombs, all were invented and deployed by the various political cyber-antagonists inhabiting the planet.  But reason of a sort assumed sway after a long period, and somehow the combatants agreed to move all the war machinery to the moon.  And for a long time, astronomers and concerned statesmen observed the moon battles apprehensively, fearing that earth might once more be drawn into the fierce lunar fireworks.  But time passed, and the uproar on the moon subsided, and eventually disappeared, causing the leaders of the various earth factions some alarm, due to not being able to see what was actually transpiring up there.  So it was decided to send someone to investigate.

Robots, called “remotes” had been invented:  duplications of humans that could be operated by a person through radio technology were used to explore hostile environments and hazardous situations.  A series of missions had been sent to the moon to search out clues as to what was occurring on the silent planetoid, but no results had been obtained for one reason or another.  So when Tichy returned from the aforesaid constellation, the space authorities were eager to enlist his services for another try.

When Ijon arrived on the moon, he sent his remote down from the orbiting spaceship to check out the situation in several different locales, but he couldn’t find a sign of any activity;  only minute particles of logic bits and electronic minutia were discovered.  So Tichy decided to look into the matter himself.  He donned a spacesuit and descended to the surface to poke around.  Leaning over a sort of cyber-boulder, something struck him on the head and he woke up back in the ship.  Fumbling about in the entry port, he noted that his suit was covered with some sort of dust.

Back on Earth, scientists examining Tichy realized that somehow his brain had been split into two parts, that the corpus callosum had been severed, so that the right half of his brain no longer knew what the left was doing or thinking.  Since the left side has to do with present imagining and manipulation of the world outside of the brain, it was dominant.  But the right side had past memories, even though it had no control over speech or the right side of the body.  Since the memories of the right brain were not available to the left side, Tichy was not able to tell what had happened. After a long period of struggle, involving consultations with psychologists and neurologists, Ijon was incarcerated in a sort of asylum, and his left brain learned to communicate with the right side through Morse Code.

Some time later, talking to various inmates during a black-out, Tichy found out that the cyber-structure of the Earth, all the computers, electronic devices, including data storage centers, communication networks, traffic lights, telephone systems, and camera installations had ceased to operate.  It was as if the whole of modern society had been physically transported back into the early nineteenth century.  The catastrophe brought the electronic substructure of the world to a screeching halt:  bank accounts were wiped out, the legal system ceased to function, government stopped governing, no more hospitals or social services or cars or…

It took awhile before what had happened was understood.  One of the remotes used by Tichy and others while on the moon had been made of miniature bits of powder, actually small biocircuits, that operated on command to form whatever sort of spacesuit the astronauts wanted.  When Ijon was on the moon, this was the kind of suit that he had worn.   Apparently the latent bits and pieces of logic circuitry and tiny digital elements accumulating on the lunar surface as a result of the continual wars, had been evolving into a sort of primordial soup that was possessed of a kind of consciousness, and this cloud of fragments had coalesced with Tichy’s powder suit and created a viral soup with basic self-awareness.  So when this powdery substance arrived back on Earth, it was freed into the atmosphere, and proceeded to spread out and disrupt all the electronic circuitry on the planet.  Its influence expanded at a logarithmic rate and in no time civilization as it was known had vanished.  Thereby creating eternal peace on earth.

This was book was a lot more complicated than i’ve described it above.  The narration was disjointed and temporally discontinuous.  But i liked it anyway, because Lem has such a creative and fantastic imagination;  his body of work is pretty original in the science fiction universe, and is replete with startling and novel ideas.  There are about ten books featuring Tichy as heroic space pilot, and i’d recommend any of them to anyone interested in the:  well, i won’t say bizarre, but definitely outre, creations inhabiting Lem’s cosmos.  His output was large but only a small fraction of his books are available in English.  I think “Mortal Engines” is his most accessible work.  I wish i spoke Polish.  If any publisher reads this, i hope they take the hint…


C.S Forester (1899-1966)

This book is an early biography, written when Forester was in his mid-thirties.

Cecil was born in Cairo, Egypt.  He had two elder brothers and two sisters.  Two years after his birth the family moved back to England, leaving Mr. Forester in Egypt, as he was wrapped up in delicate negotiations having to do with the British military presence there.  Cecil’s first language was Arabic;  presumably the family displacement had something to do with raising the children in a European environment.  One of his earliest memories was seeing a wrecked ship on a sand bar, presumably at the mouth of the Thames.  They settled in Camberwell, south of London, where the two elder brothers attended school, and Cecil occupied himself by learning to read and write, more or less spontaneously,  at the age of three.  By the age of seven he was reading a book a day and in his spare time playing soldiers and inventing war games with his brothers whenever they happened to be home.  Cecil liked Thackeray, hated Dickens, and amused himself with Gibbon, Suetonius, Hudson, and other heavy-weights in classical literature.  In school he studied math, French and English grammar and became obsessed with gunpowder.  At the time a pound of gunpowder could be purchased from a local vendor for a penny.  After some experimentation, Cecil and a friend learned how to confine the explosive so as to produce a satisfactory bang.  But it took a while before they understood how to make fuses, which involved soaking cotton wicks in saltpeter- laden water for a couple of days. Eventually the time came for a practical trial.  The two pulled up a fence post in the back yard and filled the hole half-way with gunpowder and stuck the post back in, leaving the fuse lying on the ground.  They lit it and Cecil’s friend ran for cover while Cecil watched in satisfaction.  When the fuse was functioning as designed, he suddenly experienced a realization of sorts and bolted around the nearest house corner, looking back just in time to hear a tremendous explosion and to see the fence post vaulting into the air several hundred feet.  Windows were broken for a block around and the locals dashed out of their houses expecting to see an invasion or some sort of major disaster.  A large crater was visible where the garden used to be and the post landed some yards distant.  Cecil was happy but a little alarmed.  His mother made him fill the hole back up, and soon he was sent off to an academy for educational and disciplinary purposes.  The police didn’t bother him because they didn’t believe a seven-year old could have done it.

Cecil attended several schools, some on scholarship grants.  He was quite bright and due to his early reading was miles ahead of the other students in both literature and math.  And he learned better war games in the playgrounds and sports arenas.  He was pretty frank in his descriptions of disciplinary practices:  caning, beatings and such, but he evidently was not bothered very much by them.  In fact, he stated that without some pretty severe regimentation, he probably would have drifted into criminal activity or, worse, into some sort of business.

Cecil’s oldest brother graduated from Guy’s Hospital and made an impressive record in later life as a doctor and surgeon.  Cecil was headed in the same direction, and did well until he had to pass an Anatomy exam.  He shockingly discovered that in spite of his superior intellect and retentive abilities, he couldn’t master the 400 bones in the human body, together with all their little foramens and muscle attachments, each with a separate name.  So, after waffling about, chasing girls, playing bridge for a living, singing in the street for pennies, and unsuccessfully looking into other occupations, he decided to take up novel-writing regardless of what his parents and relations said about the inevitability of terminal starvation.

He wrote several novels;  the first was finished in two weeks and died a quiet death, but those written subsequently, mostly having to do with Napoleon and Josephine and the upheavals of that era, had some success.  Cecil also wrote articles and short stories for a broad range of magazines and newspapers, learning his trade through concentration and practice.  But he only achieved undeniable recognition when he began writing the Horatio Hornblower novels.  He acquired a boat and sailed it down the Loire in France, and read a three volume edition of Naval Chronicles that he’d run across in a used book store.  After a vegetative period, he wrote the first entry in what was to become a multi-book series:  “Beat to Quarters”.  Speaking of his writing methodology, he stated that his ideas were initially like a water-logged timber:  down in the basement of his consciousness, the sodden trunk lay inert in the mud while barnacles, allegorical ideas, gradually attached themselves until a point was reached when the entire assembly, barnacles and all, sprang full-blown into his mind, at which point all he had to do was write down what he’d suddenly realized.  What was important to Cecil in the process was the sudden gelling of the ideas into a comprehensive whole, in which unconnected elements cohered into a related series of events that made sense in a novelistic way, establishing a logical flow of narration that created not only the book, but the series of books.

Forester had a life full of travel and variegated experience.  He worked in Hollywood, toured the world more than once, sailed in the Caribbean, and was employed as an unofficial diplomat on several occasions.

I discovered Hornblower as a young man and devoured the series.  They’re well-written and imaginative, and accurate in detail, as Forester was a stickler for research and authenticism.  There was a TV series made of some of the stories and is excellent as well.  Patrick O’Brien’s series owes something to Forester’s, i think, although the two are quite different.  And if a reader were to wade through one, i’d surely think that he would greatly appreciate the other.


William H. Davies (1871-1940)

Will’s intention was to take the train to Carmarthen in south-central Wales and to begin walking , initially, to Swansea, on the south coast.  He was 41 years old and possessed of a lifetime of experience tramping the highways of America and Britain.  As well, he had a start on a minor reputation as a poet and travel-writer.  He was familiar to, and with, some literary English figures: Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, G. B. Shaw, W.H. Hudson, Walter Sickert, and others.  He’d been published in a few minor magazines, but had never achieved notorious celebrity or anything close to it.  He was mainly admired for his verses on nature and issues connected with manual labor, and recognized for occasional bursts of vivid descriptions of seen objects.    His view of walking, or hoboing, was that it was a near-perfect attainment of freedom, without worries concerning money, social responsibilities, or legal strictures.

After spending the night in an inn on the main street of Carmarthen, he directed his feet toward Kidwelly, having inquired of a shabby-looking person riding a shabbier-looking bicycle the correct path toward said village.  But he got lost anyway, finding himself climbing slippery wet hills in the dank rain with his awkward gait and eventually settling for a more-or-less sordid room in a hostel in Llanelly.  Next morning he continued on through a dismal section of seedy cottages and wasted landscapes for 13 miles until he reached Swansea, a major port and industrial center.  Will noted the dirty unkempt children and pale, wasted-looking factory workers, the apparent products of the vast coal industry and associated corporate interests, and contrasted these with the occasional farming villages with their stout, red-faced farmers and clean, merry children.  In Swansea he was bemused to overhear the conversation of three retired sailors, grumbling about the new coal-powered ships with their stokers and engineers who never saw the water and who by no means could ever be regarded as real seamen.  They reminded him of his grandfather who was a deep-water sailor and had similar opinions.  Walking through Neath and Myrthr and Ebbw Vale, Will finally left the over-industrialized country and entered a hilly, wooded section, with well maintained houses, a clean, prosperous population, and a total lack of tin, copper, or iron works and mines.  One night he was privileged to hear a trio singers giving an impromptu concert in 3-part harmony (the Welsh were famous for their singers, especially tenors) and he over-indulged a bit with the local beverage and woke up in the middle of the night, startled by a strange apparition.  After a second, he realized the person he was attempting to impale with his walking stick was actually the bedpost.  Traipsing on toward Monmouth, he included vibrant descriptions of clean rivers with sparkling rapids and gentle cows browsing in the lush green grass.  The river Wye, silver in a green glade…  And then Tintern Abbey in full moonlight, with it’s ragged towers and ancient broken walls…

Before Chepstow, he paused for quite a while, listening to the local choir:  an unrehearsed performance of vocal music presented by a small herd of lambs, ewes and rams.  Stopping on the way to Newport, he stopped at an inn named the Rising Sun, but was driven out by navies.  Navies were road-repairmen who worked on contract, always traveling along the highways, fixing chuck-holes, slides, and repaving macadamized roads.  They lived on beer, onions, and bread and cheese.  Will hated onions and was over-powered by the fetor.  He was born in Newport, and stayed there for a while, visiting old acquaintances.  One of his friends reminded him of the story about the fastest runner in the world who lived in the area.  Gutto Nyth Bran, “the wind”, did a favor for his mother one day.  She needed a jug of barm(beer foam used to leaven bread), so, while she was chatting with a neighbor, he ran sixteen miles to the nearest tavern and back to fetch a bucket of it for her.

Dealing with trouble on the road, Will found it best to maintain silence in the face of hostility, or even unfriendliness…  But he discovered that, if beset in a social gathering, all he had to say was, “i’m a stranger here”, and no harm would come to him:  this formula apparently held true all over Wales.  Upon reaching Cardiff, he decided to take a train to Bristol for the final leg of his tour.  He became friendly with a traveling farmer en route until the train entered a 7 mile tunnel.  The lights went out for some reason and the man became anxious and violent, clutching Davies and wrestling with him and scrabbling around in the dark.  With the help of a porter, the man was subdued and when they got back into the light, he sat up and abused them for being so physical;  “All I was trying to do”, he said, “was close the window!”

The final section of the book held more descriptions of small adventures and observations of nature.  The umbrella man who cursed the sunshine and warm weather because it ruined his business;  the singer with the bad voice who earned pennies by annoying people so that they paid him to leave;  the man who reminisced about his time at Oxford, meaning the prison, not the university (awakening my memory of my grandfather’s story about going through Lawrence College:  meaning he walked through the grounds to get to work…).  Davies ended his walk in Reading, staying a few days in a group hostel,  which revived his dislike of crowds and their bickering and discontent.   Then on train back to London…

Davies’ writing is a lot like Defoe’s or George Borrow’s style, rather simplistic, but with a subtle rural charm and occasional  sparkly bits.  It’s fun to read and the experience is almost as good as walking along with the author.  I referred above to Will’s peculiar gait: when he was hopping a freight car in America, he slipped and had his foot crushed by a wheel.  His leg had to be amputated below the knee and he used an artificial leg after that, but it didn’t stop him walking.  He couldn’t afford a light metal one, and had a friend make a wood one for him;  according to one doctor, walking all those miles, lifting the extra weight, eventually caused heart failure…  Open to opinion, i think…

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

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Carl Moritz (1757-1793)  Translated by Reginald Nettel

Carl’s father was a strict Lutheran and a regimental oboist.  He apprenticed his son to a hatter at an early age, but it wasn’t a acceptable position for the intellectual and curious young man.  He abandoned hats fairly quickly and joined a touring theater group.  Through contacts with other artists, he became enthused about the emerging “Sturm und Drang” movement in the German arts, which was influencing Germanic culture away from rigid Prussian ethics, and introducing psychological and spiritual complexities into the national zeitgeist.  After several years, Carl entered the University of Erfurt and graduated with a doctor’s degree in Philosophy.  Entering the teaching profession, he became entranced with English culture and decided to visit the country.  He left Hamburg by ship and was violently seasick during the 14 day trip.  Approaching the mouth of the Thames, he wasn’t reassured by the sight of ship masts jutting out of the water, marking the destruction of the latest vessel on the Goodwin sands.

Carl’s ship stopped about ten miles before London, as the water traffic was characteristically dense and made navigation difficult and tedious.  From that debarkation, he took a carriage the rest of the way.  He noted the many little villages with red walls and flat roofs, and the frequent advertising signs that stretched across the road from store to store, flaunting the qualities and availabilities of local services and inns.  Nearing London, the spire of St. Paul’s cathedral was visible above the fog and smoke.  London itself consisted of dark narrow streets, lots of traffic, light posts and spectators and an abundance of little parks populated by cows and birds.  He obtained a room for 16 shillings a week.  Carl noted the cleanliness of the people and their clothes, the stone houses, and the dense population.  He was warned to avoid certain districts because of the press gangs:  ship masts were erected near the river to attract inquisitive strangers, who, expressing interest in the local attraction, were kidnapped and shanghaied aboard naval or merchant ships.  Books were popular:  there were lots of book stores and most persons carried pocket editions around with them.  Brandy was a very common refreshment, possibly because it was regarded as a deterrent to the ongoing influenza epidemic.  There may have been other reasons.  The Britons seemed fond of boiled cabbage with a sauce of flour and butter.

Carl visited Vauxhall Gardens, a sort of fair grounds intended for general entertainment, where he was told to watch out for pickpockets and beggars.  He also went to Ranelagh Gardens, a large circular hall with an inside balcony used for people-watching and general socializing.  His visit to Parliament was notable for the amount of yelling and occasional furniture destruction that went on, especially after speeches by Burke or Fox.

Puffery was common:  pseudo-scientific cures for everything from the flu to the pox were advertised by word of mouth and by the aforesaid overhanging signs.  The ubiquitous noise was eliminated in the coffee houses, though;  they were quiet, contemplative places where a Dr. Johnson could have a conversation with his Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, or  other acquaintances.

Carl took the stage to Richmond at a cost of four guineas.  It was an “elegant” coach, seating six in relative comfort, and providing a safe ride against the possibility of being assaulted by footpads or highwaymen, both of which were common at the time.  The beauty of the countryside was astonishing, the grassy hills, clean water, and magnificent forests totally unlike the over-used German landscape.

From Richmond, Carl decided to walk to Windsor and Eton, both to experience England close at hand and to save money.  After being lost in Richmond itself, he successfully  found the correct road and trudged along at about three miles per hour.  There were lots of other peasants and beggars on the highway, because of the advances in industrial development and the new laws enclosing lands that had previously been occupied by small farmers and laborers.  The latter had been ousted piecemeal and turned out to wander the country in search of food and employment.  As a result, most pedestrians were shunned by the townspeople, and often attacked and insulted.  Carl had this happen to him quite a few times;  he slept under a tree more than once because no inn would accept him.  At one inn, the maid kicked him out and to add insult to injury, two Hanoverians sneered at him.  Intrigued by a tall mast-like pole on top of a hill, he side-tracked his way up it, only to discover that it had been placed there so the locals would have something to laugh at travelers about.  After passing through Windsor, low in spirits, he met a fellow walker, a clergyman, who accompanied him all the way to Oxford, and provided a room for him to stay in.  He visited many of the tourist attractions, including the Bodleian Library and some of the colleges.  He met a poet, Tom Warton, who was fixated about shooting ducks, and was to be elected Poet Laureate in 1785.

Carl took a coach to Birmingham before resuming his walk, in order to avoid the hassles he’d endured in his walk to date.  On the way, they stopped briefly in Stratford to honor Shakespeare.  Carl said the Avon was a muddy slough, Shakespeare’s house was a dump, and Shakespeare’s chair (that he was supposed to have sat in while creating) had been chipped away by souvenir-seekers until there was hardly anything left.

In Birmingham, Dr. Fothergill, to whom Carl had letters to deliver, had died eight days previously, so Carl walked on to Lichfield, where his reception was so antagonistic, that he went around it so as to avoid meeting anyone there.  From this point, into the more hilly districts, people began to be more friendly, and he had less trouble finding room and board.  Passing through Bakewell, he met a saddler who quoted Homer, Vergil, and Horace at him;  eventually he arrived at Castleton and toured the”Devil’s Cavern”, an extensive  series of large caves situated in a mountainous environment created by underground rivers in the limestone matrix.  Making his way toward a large gaping black hole in a looming cliff, he met an old ragged menial who offered to guide him through caves.  Accepting, he was picked up and carried across a stream by this rural Charon, who led him into a village actually inside the cave entrance.  The inhabitants made their living by making rope on very large wheels that were rotating on axles in the gloom.  Presumably the work was carried on in that location because of the even temperatures.  Anyway, the tour lasted some hours, including crawling through muddy holes and creeping under boulders and climbing subterranean mountains.  Stalagmites and stalactites were common as well as ribbons, shelves, and towers of limestone.  The guide led him up a steep cliff to a viewpoint, while he went back down and crossed another creek and lit a candle:  a tiny speck of light in the vast, overweening dark.  Finally, upon returning to the open air, Carl tried to pay the poor ragged man, but he wouldn’t accept any pennies, as the local lord had appointed him official guide and supported him, although he didn’t receive any salary.

Carl continued touring the area, climbing up Mamtor, another prominence composed of shale that was continually sliding down hill and forming another hillock at the base.  And he visited Eldon Hole, in which he dropped a pebble and caused a sigh, a rumble and a hiss to be projected back at him.

Finished with his rambling, Carl returned to London via coach and foot, bypassing many of the places he had planned on visiting, mainly because he had developed a cough from being in the cavern, and needed to return to Germany for various reasons, including money and his pedagogic responsibilities.

I quite liked Carl:  he seemed sensitive and alert and good-natured;  his letters (the book was presented in an epistolary format) were well-written and he had an eye for beauty and landscape.  He was an excellent example of a civilized person managing to survive in the undeniably difficult and dangerous 18th century.  Although he didn’t for very long:  he died at 36;  i wonder if it was that bug he picked up in the cave…


Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Harry  Coningsby was the son of Lord Monmouth’s youngest son, whom Monmouth  hated;  Monmouth had two sons:  the eldest hated him.  The Lord was extremely rich and spent most of life in foreign countries, usually Italy.  As a consequence, he delegated the raising of Coningsby to a political hack, Rigby, who was a hanger-on and follower of the Lord, and represented his interests in Parliament and the Tory party.  After an insulated childhood in Coningsby Castle, and through the manipulations of Rigby, Coningsby was admitted to Eton, arguably the most famous public school in England and populated entirely by the sons of rich and influential families.  He made friends with Henry Sydney, Oswald Millbanks, Eustace Lyle, and others, important associations that would be of great assistance in his later life.  Harry was studious , developing interests in literature, politics, philosophy, and was well above average in the field as well:  horse-riding, cricket, and various other sports.  But he had never met his grand-father.  When he became fourteen, Rigby arranged for Lord Monmouth and Harry to have a meeting at the Lord’s townhouse in London.  Harry was overwhelmed by the grandeur and splendor of the Monmouth edifice, to the point that when he was ushered into the room in which his grandfather was waiting for him, he burst into tears.  Not being a gentle or unselfish person, Monmouth told Rigby to get rid of him.  But the two, after several days, became adjusted to each other and became more friendly.  In fact, Monmouth, although not the loving sort, became quite attached to Harry, principally because Harry, being unusually bright, perceived the necessity of agreeing with everything that Monmouth expressed an opinion about.

Years passed, and Harry, after attending and graduating from Cambridge, was exposed to and became familiar with the privileged and and affluent existence lived by the very highest classes in London.  He was interested in politics, and was regarded as a potential member and possible candidate for parliament for the borough of Dalford, the county in which Lord Monmouth’s principal residence lay.  Because of his interest in social classes and curiosity about the Reform Act (1832), Harry toured northern England to observe first-hand the conditions under which the workers lived.  For the most part, he saw squalor, dirt, inhuman conditions, and dire poverty.  But one of the towns he visited, Millbank, founded by Oswald’s father, was entirely different.  The workers were housed in clean, bright circumstances, worked reasonable hours, and had access to libraries and schools.  And the elder Millbank seemed personable and intelligent, and possessed of an overt desire to maintain his employees in a civilized state.  And he had a daughter, Edith, who was to play a major role in Harry’s later life.

Caught by a rainstorm, Harry takes refuge in a local inn, and meets a mysterious rider with an Arab horse.  No names are exchanged, but the stranger is a young sophisticated member of the upper classes, with years of travel and study behind him and Harry is awestruck with his knowledge and opinions, and, not inconsequentially, with his wealth. Among other topics, they discuss the “Great Man”  theory:  the idea that political change is often the result of exceptional individual leadership  rather than the product of partisan manipulations.  Here, Harry first asks the question about the Conservative party, which becomes an important theme at a later date:  “What do they want to conserve?”.  The answer, as he discovers over time, is wealth and power.

Several years pass, and the Millbanks purchase an estate adjacent to the one that Harry grew up at:  Coningsby Castle.  As it happened, Lord Monmouth had eyed the parcel for years, hoping to add it to his own property.  That it fell into the hands of the Millbanks became a source of resentment and jealousy for him, and his anger at the intruders was beyond reason.  In attendance at a party thrown by the interlopers, Harry falls deeply in love with Edith Millbanks, and, in the absence of his grandfather, invites Oswald and Edith to stay at the Castle, as a friendly gesture and as a mark of appreciation.  Eventually, though the Lord discovers what he regards as Harry’s disloyalty, and is irate.  Harry undertakes a European tour for a year to escape his rancor.

Upon his return, he is alienated from Edith and his grandfather both, and is somewhat at a loss about what to do next.  After a period of partying and visiting, Lord Monmouth decides he wants Harry to run for parliament in the county of Darford.  Not feeling enthused by the prospect, Harry refuses, and Monmouth makes the offer to Rigby instead.  He gives the London town house to Rigby, alters his will to cut off Harry without a penny, and moves to Richmond, another of his houses.  Meanwhile, in London, Harry meets the man he had met after visiting with the Millbanks in northern England and finds out that his name is Sidonia, one of the most powerful and richest men in the world.  They converse at length, and Harry determines to take up the study of law.  He moves into rooms at the Temple(where most of the legalists live in London), studies, and achieves a few minor successes

Lord Monmouth dies and leaves all his money to Flora, his illegitimate daughter.  Harry seems caught in a situation well below his expectations, and is feeling isolated and friendless, when…

Well, observing the spoiler advisory, i’ll omit the events of the last fifty pages, and cease with the assurance that Harry does rebound and achieves the recognition he merits.

I’ve read most of Disraeli’s novels with appreciation for the most part, and this one was pretty good.  It’s critically regarded as one of his best efforts, but i thought it fell below that standard a bit…  It’s quite long and the plot is rather hazy, frequently switching locales and introducing characters that, like particles in the quantum world, vanish unexpectedly without ever reappearing.  It seemed somewhat autobiographical, also, depicting Benjamin’s conversions and political identities as they transpire in the person of Harry.  I should add that Disraeli was a complicated and brilliant strategist in his career as parliamentarian and prime minister(twice), and was personally responsible for some of the government’s most laudable achievements in the fields of foreign relations and domestic agitations.  As well, he was a master wordsmith.  He wrote with the authority of a conductor of an eighty-piece orchestra, never at a loss for the perfect word in exactly the right place.  Two of the century’s most significant figures in politics and finance, Robert Owen and Nathan Rothschild, seem to have been the inspirations for the characters of Millbanks and Sidonia.

I did like the book, even though it didn’t have the explosive finale of “Vivian Grey”, one of the most extraordinary finishes i’ve ever read…  i’d recommend it to any reader who has the time…  (either book)


Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

Herbert Tyrrel, late of St. Kitts in the eastern Caribbean, arrives in a sickly condition at the “Rabbits”, a roadside inn near the seat of Tylney Hall, the estate of Sir Mark Tyrrel, the current baronet.  He is put to bed and Doctor Bellamy is sent for.  Bellamy is the only local professional, but his methods are viewed askance by Mrs. Hanway, the inn-keeper’s wife, a self-labeled herbsperson, with a talent for despatching all and sundry to a quick and occasionally painful demise.  The doctor is slightly more competent, but imbued with all the prejudices and procedures common to early nineteenth century medical authorities.  In short order, the two practitioners reduce Herbert to a critical state, at which point Sir Mark is sent for and he arrives in time to witness his brother’s decease.

Accompanying Herbert is his son Walter, a comely but dark hued youth of sixteen.  Mark has two sons, also:  Ringwood, the eldest, and Raby the younger.  They are youths in their late teens;  Ringwood is a devoted hunter to hounds, and a horse enthusiast, while Raby is mostly interested in books, poetry, and Latin.  Mark invites Walter (later referred to as St. Kitts by the two brothers) to come and live at the Hall and he accepts.

Walter feels out of place and resentful because of his skin coloring and his supposedly unsanctified heritage.  His mother, presumably of native origin, was not married to his father.  Tension grows between the three youths, and is fanned by their interests in local girls.  Grace is the daughter of Justice Rivers, a rigid, unyielding magistrate, compared by the author to the infamous Justice Jeffries, a hanging judge of Welsh fame who was elevated to Lord Chancellor, probably because of his iron interpretation of the laws.  The Twigg family, newly arrived in the area, have purchased a nearby farm and are busy remodeling it and learning how to make it a profitable enterprise.  Their daughter, Flora, is a comely but bovine lass, who is the object of admiration by Ringwood.  Raby is attracted to Grace. The Twiggs throw a garden party for the local gentry;  it’s an extravagant display with a pageant, a champagne tent, a floral exhibit, and a horse race, among other features.  The cow, Daisy, takes a major part when she escapes and careers through the yard, knocking over tables and making a mish-mash of food, plateware, and silverware, scaring the ladies and wreking havoc right and left…  The champagne bottles explode, having been left in a hot tent, and the affair is washed out at last by an intense rain storm.

Walter is at a disadvantage in all of these goings-on, partly because of his racial characteristics, and partly because he is sort of a sneaky, underhanded manipulator.  Helping him in his nefarious schemes is a local gypsy-like vagabond, a lady with the reputation of a fortune-teller named Indiana.  She tells Walter that she was a friend of his mother’s, and she displays a greedy interest in Walter’s efforts to attain power in the Tyrrel family’s activities and enterprises.  He becomes enamored of Grace and jealous of Raby.

The three youths leave home to attend Oxford.  Ringwood spends a lot of time in sports and gambling.  Raby reads and studies himself into a state of physical enfeeblement.  Walter makes a few artful associations that serve him in some of his devious operations.

Returning home, their relative positions are not much changed and Walter is more bitter than ever.  He persuades Raby, one day, to go rabbit hunting with him.  After flailing about in the brush for a while, Walter, espying Ringwood partially hidden behind a tree, advises Raby, whose eyesight has been damaged through overuse, that a rabbit is lurking behind the same tree.  Raby shoots, killing Ringwood.  Aghast at what Walter has made him do, he runs away and disappears in London. The cynical Walter blames the assassination on him and uses the opportunity to become more familiar with Grace.

Meanwhile, Sir Mark, grieving over losing both sons, is wasting away, to the bitter sorrow of his best friend, Ned, a local hunt master and inventor of mechanical gadgetry.

After Mark passes, Walter, having received a supposedly original copy of his mother’s marriage certificate, given to him by Indiana, assumes possession of the Tylney Estates, and more or less crowns himself Sir Walter.  And begins courting the inconsolable Grace, who hates him, especially after a major flood during which the body of a man was found, resembling Raby.

Several years pass, during which Walter gleefully exercises his seigneurial rights, firing the servants, changing the furniture, and selling the horses. As Grace, fading and miserable, is about to obey her father and marry Walter, Ned, angered at the loss of his friends, chases Walter down, riding over fences and leaping small streams (at a single bound).  They duel:  Walter tries to shoot Ned in the back, so Ned, swerving about, plugs him through the heart.  A passing stranger has observed these carryings-on, and, walking up, notes that Walter is lying dead on the ground.  Ned recognizes him as Raby, who has just shown up after walking all the way from Dover.  Apparently Raby was kidnapped while hiding in London, and experienced some years of adventure on the high seas, fighting pirates, being taken prisoner by the French, escaping and eventually arriving back in England.  He had traded clothes with a local inhabitant while running away to London, so as to conceal his identity.

The plot continues to unfold, but in the interest of non-spoilage, i’ll cut off my precis at this point;  suffice it to say, there is a happy, more or less, ending, with the various threads neatly polished off.

There’s very much more to the book than i have recorded here.  Hood’s genius for satire and comedy is very much in evidence, and many of the characters are true originals.  Mrs. Hanway, unlucky Joe Spiller, the ranting preacher Bundy and others are vehicles illustrating Hood’s rather negative understanding of English society.  He really believes, and with some justification, that the system is upside down:  the rich and powerful are immoral and nasty while the poor are honest and true.  “The moral balance preponderates in favor of the wicked;  evil wins, goodness loses”.  Hood struggled for recognition his whole life, and what success he achieved was at the expense of his health.  He died at 45.

If a copy of this book can be found, i recommend reading it…  it’s sort of a cross between Thackery and Dickens, but not inferior to either, so far as i could estimate…