Horace Smith (1779-1849)
A ruined castle on the edge of Ashdown forest is accompanied by a newer manor house: Brambletye House, the home of Sir John Compton and his son Jocelyn. As the novel opens it’s midnight and Compton senior, along with a few friends is quietly ushering a horse- pulled cart through the dark woods, intent upon delivering a cache of arms and gunpowder to the basement of the castle. The English Civil War is at an end for all practical purposes, but die-hards such as Sir John(vehement royalists) are not abandoning the good fight. Later, while celebrating their illegal acquisitions at the Swan tavern, word comes that they’ve been denounced to the local Cromwellian forces by dame Lawrence, an embittered old lady who hides in the forest and quotes the Bible at rebels. Sir John escapes and eventually makes his way to Ostend, but Colonel Lilburne arrests Jocelyn and transports him to London. Jocelyn is carried to Cromwell’s establishment, where he sees Milton dictating Paradise Lost and Marvel mumbling over sheets of poetry. Confined to the Westminster Gatehouse he converses with several jailed actors and dramatists, one of whom (Rookwood) rants to the following effect: “Oh Huntingdonian brewer base!” exclaimed the former, as he stalked up to Jocelyn with a theatrical air, – “O truculent and most Herodian knave! O thrice Nerotic Caligulian spawn! -or rather, as may best befit thy lineaments obscene, -O red-nosed Noll! (referring to Cromwell), is’t not enough that men of full-grown pith, and mighty mind sublime, thy spleenful wrath endure, but must these babes and sucklings yield their blood, and feel the fury of thy festering fang? -Prythee, thou jocund bowman of the woods, youthful concomitant of Dian’s train, for such thy garb and looks may well beseem, why art thou here with musty rogues forlorn, in durance vile and carceration close? Speak, that mine ear may drink intelligence.”
The little group enlists Jocelyn to play the queen in a production of Macbeth they are staging in the prison courtyard. But before the drama comes together, the warden discovers Jocelyn dressed like a woman and ousts him out of the prison, assuming she had been there on business. So he escapes, and by various means, finds his way to Ostend where he re-unites with his father.
Meanwhile, King Charles II has been more or less evicted from France because of his overwhelming debts, and moving his household to Brussels, is met there by Jocelyn and Sir John. After some under-the -table dealings having to do with the siege of Dunkirk castle undertaken by the Austrians and English (against Spanish forces), Sir John and Jocelyn make their way to Paris where Jocelyn is educated and socialized into French society. At one point, he runs afoul of the young Duke of Anjou over the mistreatment of a turtle and, befriending James Crofts in the same incident, comes under the aegis of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles II and Queen of England. With his newly achieved status, he enters a royal tourney and stages a miraculous performance in unhorsing a powerful German knight in a jousting event.
Cromwell dies and Charles is instated as King. Jocelyn returns with the royal family and travels home only to find that his father, who had had dealings in Rotterdam, was married to a grasping Dutch hausfrau who was intent on stealing all the money she could get her hands on.
Jocelyn becomes absorbed by London high society, fights a duel and is forced to escape to Europe once more. He lives for a while in a castle sited in the middle of a swamp, where the chief resident is an apparent madman suffering from rampant paranoia. Jocelyn falls in love with the daughter, Constantia. He’s also in love with Julia, the daughter of Adrian Beverning, a rich merchant that both he and his father came to know earlier in Rotterdam. Before any resolution, however, Jocelyn is recalled to London, as the person he wounded in the duel failed to die.
Jocelyn is appointed secretary to the Queen and becomes even more involved and corrupted by the blatantly immoral royal court, until the plague arises in the city. Jocelyn catches it but survives and shortly afterwards the Great Fire begins which burns down about 10,000 houses and makes London uninhabitable. Having become intimate with court life, he attends the trial of one of the judges who sentenced the king to death during Cromwell’s reign; the criminal, he discovered, was Constantia’s father, the paranoiac who lived in the swamp. He manages to die of a heart attack before being sentenced.
Julia had arrived in London with her father and had become involved with several rakish types, Lord Rochester and his fellow nogoodnik, Mark Walton, to her discredit and notoriety. Jocelyn rescues her from their clutches even though he had seen arm in arm with the Lord, and her story is revealed to him by Constantia, so that the two are reconciled. Leaving London and returning to Brambletye, the pair find Sir John, gouty, hag-ridden, and browbeaten by his new wife.
Looking for money, power, and revenge, Mark Walton arrives at a nearby mansion, where he learns from dame Lawrence about the cache of arms hidden in the old Brambletye castle. They invent a plot in which the plan is to blow up the stash and blame the Comptons for it. But they forgot that the gunpowder was stored in a cellar underneath the fortification, so they blow up themselves as well as the arms. Mrs. Compton was so alarmed by the explosion that she dashed out of the house with a box of gold, tripped, fell in the moat, and drowned.
This was for all practical purposes the end of the book, although later events included the marriage of Jocelyn and Julia, and the happy resolution of all the many complications that had pestered the Comptons and their friends.
This was a much better work than i had expected. It really reminded me of Peregrine Pickle or Gil Blas. The descriptions of the London Plague were quite reminiscent of De Foe’s “Journal of the Plague Years”. And it had that sort of picaresque quality that keeps the reader engaged from one episode to another. The language was beautiful and effective and, although complicated, the plotting was logical and surprising. Included were quite a few original songs and period poems from the Ironside Age, as it was termed. Smith wrote about twenty historical novels and i’d love to find some of them, but i’m afraid they’re impossibly scarce. i’d recommend this book to any one, especially if they’re interested in the Civil War or that period of history.