Sunday, June 27, 2021


James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)

"...when the English flagship came sweeping past in a cloud of smoke, and a blaze of fire.  His own broadside was nobly returned, or as much of it as the weather permitted, but the smoke of both discharges was still driving between the masts, when the dark hamper of the Carnatic glided into the drifting canopy, which was made to whirl back on the devoted Frenchman in another torrent of flame.  Three times was this fearful assault renewed on the Scipio, at intervals of about a minute..."

If the above description pleases, you'd probably like this book, but it's not all thunder and mayhem.  The action takes place in the middle of the 18th century, beginning at a signal station on the coast of Devonshire in a small village named Wychecombe.  Master Dutton lives at the station with his wife and daughter Mildred.  Sir Wycherly Wychecombe is the aged land-owner and ruling baronet of the area.  He's a bachelor and at 85 years old, and there's some question as to who will inherit the estate when he's gone.  He had five brothers but they are all deceased.  the eldest had a son out of wedlock named Tom, who's eager to take over his uncle's property, but he's not liked by most people, being sneaky and  dishonest.  

The Baronet visits the Duttons to see if any ships have arrived in the small harbor.    He finds an emergency situation:  another Wycherly Wychecombe, this one from Virginia, has fallen over the cliff in front of the station and has landed on a ledge about thirty feet down.  He'd been talking with Mildred and had lost his balance while trying to pick a flower just over the edge.  After a certain amount of dithering, the Master and the Baronet rig up a rope and rescue him.  There's been a bit of fog hovering over the site and when it lifts, they see that a fleet has entered the shallow anchorage. There are two Admirals in charge of the battleships, Rear Admiral Oakes and Vice Admiral Bluewater.  The two grew up together in the Royal Navy, beginning as Midshipmen and serving in different vessels until they were both promoted at approximately the same time.  Oakes is a die-hard Naval Officer, while Bluewater, although just as competent, has Jacobite leanings.  This is the era in which Bonny Prince Charlie was about to land in Scotland in order to reclaim the British throne.

At a large dinner to welcome the fleet to the area, the Baronet has a stroke and dies.  Since he has no heirs, he leaves all his worldly goods and estate to the other Wycherley, him being a distant relation even though he's a colonial.  Tom has forged a marriage certificate to prove that he's the legitimate heir, but it's generally recognized as being fake.  Wycherley has fallen in love with Mildred and is about to declare himself when news arrives that the French are "out", meaning a French fleet has entered the English Channel.  The two Admirals make their plans:  the fleet is to be split into two halves in order to attack the French from two sides at once.  Sir Oakes leaves first with five ships, and engages the enemy, fulling expecting Bluewater to back him up once the engagement has begun.  But Bluewater has been approached by other Jacobites and there is danger of him sailing away up the Channel to aid Prince Charles.

Oakes can't believe his long-term friend would desert him in a crisis, but he fights a losing battle against the overwhelming French forces.  Things are about to look even bleaker, when...

(Will Bluewater arrive in time to rescue his friend?  Will Mildred and Wycherley marry?  Will Tom manage to take over his uncle's estate?  Will the Prince defeat all comers and acquire the English throne?  et alia...)

Cooper is a much better writer than Marryat.  He is one of those authors who can detail out a meticulous plot while interjecting interesting side comments at the same time on human affairs and human behavior.  Reading his work is like listening to an authority on whatever subject might lie under discussion, be it seamanship, surveying, hunting, anthropology, politics, exploration, farming,  or geography.  The result being a three or four dimensional impression, instead, as in Marryat's case, one limited to two dimensions.  Granted, his prose style gets a bit weedy sometimes, but that serves as a sort of bottomless receptacle for his multiphasic interpolations.  Reading his work is an adventure of the best sort.  Try it, you'll like it...

Sunday, June 20, 2021


Captain Frederic Marryat. (1792-1848)

The Nore Mutiny in 1797 saw the rebellion of 40,000 sailors complaining about their brutal treatment by the statutes and officers of the British Navy.  One of the leaders, Edward Peters, was flogged around the fleet and later falsely accused of stealing a watch for which he was hung from a yardarm.  His wife died shortly after but his son was adopted by a kindly ole bosun's mate, Adams.  He tatooed Willy, as the son was called, on his right shoulder with the king's broad arrow(shown above) so as to indicate his position as an employee in good standing with the Navy department.  At the same time they changed his last name to Seymour, so as to disassociate him from the recent unpleasantness.  He was officially enlisted as a midshipman at the age of six, when he showed his mettle, while his ship was engaged in a cutting out action on the coast of France, by rolling a live shell overboard during a cannonade and thereby saving the Captain's life.   

Later he was returning to England in a small boat to deliver messages and to get his uniform, when a sudden gale capsized the boat and cast him adrift.  He was picked up by a sleek sailing sloop, the Sainte Vierge, a smuggler captained by M'Elvina, a past master at evading official notice.  They became good friends and M'Elvina sent him to school in France for five months where he acquired the French language and the basic ABC'S.  Three years later, M'Elvina's boat was sunk and he quit smuggling, having acquired the wherewithal to move into a quiet cottage in the country which just happened to adjoin the property of Lord de Coucy. 

De Coucy was an irritable old curmudgeon who didn't like anybody and refused to make a will.  Therefore, when he died shortly after the M'Elvina's moved there, all his vast holdings went to his nephew Rainscourt instead of to Willy Seymour, who was his grandson.  Rainscourt was a wastrel and gambling fiend who was constantly in massive debt as well as being mean to his wife and daughter, Emily.  When he inherited the estate, he moved to London while the balance of his family stayed in the country mansion, or in the de Coucy Castle on the coast of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Willy has enlisted in the Royal Navy and he was appointed midshipman again in the frigate Aspasia.  The first tour of duty was to the West Indies, where they surveyed reefs north of the Bahamas for three years.  Sudden gales and the occasional pirate added spice to the otherwise rather somnolent occupation.  Willy went to visit M'Elvina when he got a chance to return to England and fell in love with Emily, but their relationship was discouraged by all since Willy was regarded as a commoner who was not a satisfactory mate for a rich heiress.

So he rejoined his ship which sailed for the Far East, stopping in Calcutta, Bombay, Sumatra, and points in between.  Years later when they were returning to England, the ship was caught in a major storm off the coast of Ireland.  At the same time, they spotted a French ship of the line which was battling the same hurricane force winds.  But the captain saw his duty as showing fight regardless of the weather, and in the ensuing engagement, both ships were wrecked on the Irish coast.  Bad things occurred and the book's ending was not a happy resolution.

Marryat is one of my favorite authors.  He was admired by Conrad,  Mark Twain, and Hemingway and he was a good friend of Charles Dickens.  This was his second book, published in the early 19th C., and i have to say it was just an awful book.  The story could have been artistically and logically related in a quarter of the 400 pages it occupied.  The plot was ignored for many pages, the author at one point chortling to himself over having written a whole chapter without once mentioning anything germane to the storyline.  The sea battles and storms were described with the accuracy and vividness with which the author is famed, but those descriptions didn't begin to make up for the messy nastiness of the rest of the book.  I wouldn't have read it except for having a copy and having read almost everything else he wrote, which works were nearly all excellent and well written.  I'm just grateful that he got this sort of unpleasantness out of the way before he produced his other magnificent sagas and travel diaries.  I wouldn't advise anyone to read this one, but i heartedly recommend any of his others.

Sunday, June 13, 2021



James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)

The story starts in Newport, Rhode Island in 1759.   A mysterious dark ship has been anchored in the outer harbor for several weeks and it has been the subject of popular speculation as regards its purpose and intentions.  James Wilder, a visiting ship captain and his two friends, Dick Fid and Scipio,  are in town and are curious about the ship as well.  Wilder meets a young lawyer all dressed in green and strikes up an acquaintance.  They amble up to an old abandoned mill and ascend a ladder to the second floor in order to view the dark ship through a spyglass.  The lawyer leaves Wilder staring through the lens while he quietly descends and takes the ladder with him.  Fid and Scipio rescue James and the three return to town, slightly irritated.

Apparently unemployed and looking for work, Wilder visits the ship and talks to the captain, who turns out to be the prankster lawyer.  After a certain amount of haggling, Wilder signs on as lieutenant along with his two friends.  It is tacitly assumed that the ship is the notorious "Red Rover", a pirate preying on ship traffic in the south Atlantic and Caribbean areas.  Back in town, the new lieutenant becomes familiar with the de Lacy family who are about to embark on the "Royal Caroline", a passenger ship about to leave for South Carolina.  Gertrude, a relation of Admiral de Lacey and her governess, Wyllys, and Bob Bunt, an old sailor, in spite of advice to the contrary, go aboard and discover that the captain has broken a leg and that Wilder has taken his place.  The Caroline gets under way but soon discovers that the dark ship (which Wilder knows is the Red Rover) is blocking their way.  Wilder executes some clever maneuvers but finally re-anchors so as to avoid a collision.  But with a change in wind direction, they're able to sail around the impediment and reach the open sea.

Wilder notices that the Red Rover is following them at a distance, but is helpless to do anything about it, as the weather is turning foul.  A veritable hurricane develops during which the Caroline is dismasted and most of her crew drowned.  The remnants appropriate the pinnace (a sort of lifeboat) and sail off, leaving Wilder and the two ladies behind.  The only chance the three have, in the sinking ship, is to climb into the larger launch and hope that it will float after the larger vessel is engulfed.  The Caroline fills with water, dives into the depths bow first and precipitates the launch into the air.  It lands upright and the survivors swoon in relief.  The Red Rover is lurking about, however, and picks them up before their small boat is endangered by the heavy seas.

A week passes and the Red Rover is sailing near the Bahamas, drifting along with the Gulf Stream.  The crew is restless, wanting loot, but a potential mutiny is averted with the help of Fid and Scipio.  They continue sailing down into the Caribbean.  Wyllys learns that the lieutenant (Wilder)  has had some connection with the "Ark of Flynnhaven", a Royal Navy ship lost some years ago and that the Captain's real name is Heidigger, although he as well as his ship is known as the Red Rover, even though the latter's actual name is "Dolphin".  A sail is spotted by the look-out and in short time it's identified as a vessel belonging to the British Royal Navy.  It is the "Dart", Captain Bignall commanding.  It has more cannon than the Dolphin and it's doubtful whether it is a suitable candidate for looting by the pirate.  Argument ensues over the question until Heidigger, adapting the disguise of an upper class Commander of the Royal Navy, visits Captain Bignall and convinces him that the Dolphin is just another naval vessel.  Returning to his own ship, Heidigger suspects that Wilder is a spy, and is responsible for the presence of the Dart.  But after fretting over resolving the dilemma, he decides to let Wilder and the ladies go free and they are ferried over to the Dart.  

A naval battle between the two ships results in which the Dart is partially destroyed by cannon fire and Captain Bignall is killed.  The Dolphin contingent boards and is about to hang the survivors from the yardarm when the chaplain of the vessel appears and various disclosures are announced.  Wilder is actually the great-nephew of the late admiral de Lacey, Wyllys is his mother and Heidigger is a de Lacy also, although it wasn't clear as to the actual relationship.  Heidigger is moved and swears to give up piracy.  He returns to the Dolphin with his cabin boy and blows up the ship, although one sailor thought he saw a small boat receding into the distance after the explosion.  Twenty years later, back in Newport, the de Lacey family (Wilder married Gertrude) is visited by an old man in a wheel chair who blesses them all and expires.  They find out from his companion that he was a hero in the Revolutionary War and that he had been a pirate in his earlier life.

This was another exciting sea story by Cooper, with vivid descriptions of storms and battles.  Cooper was one of those authors of whom it has been said, "he never settled for one word when twelve would do".  But if the reader can deal with his prolixity, he would discover an ingenious plot and a ship-load of interesting characters.  Cooper worked as a common sailor and as a midshipman in his early life, but only after he was summarily ejected from Yale for the egregious use of explosives and locking a donkey up in one of the lecture halls.  He was a strong advocate of people's rights and spent most of his life writing and pontificating for a Democratic society based on Constitutional mandates. 

Sunday, June 6, 2021



Bram Stoker (1847-1912)

Squire Norman of Normanstand estates desperately wanted an heir to carry on the Norman name and to govern the buildings and lands associated with the property in a manner which his holdings deserved.  Unfortunately for his future dreams, his wife passed away upon delivering his first child, a daughter, who he named Stephen.  She was raised as if she was a boy, and acquired many boyish habits, which somewhat warped her self-image.  Her best friend was Harold An Wolf, the rector of the local church's son.  Harold and Stephen grew up together, befriending each other and establishing an intimate friendship.  Harold went off to Cambridge at an early age while Stephen devoted herself to good works on behalf of the local citizenry.  She was deeply concerned about the well-being of "the submerged tenth", as she termed the lower classes.  The Squire was killed in a carriage accident along with Stephen's uncle Rowley, leaving Stephen the sole inheritor of the estates.  Mrs. Rowley, having little income, and being a long term replacement for Stephen's mother, moved into the castle with her.  Leonard Everard, a neighbor lad who spent time playing with Stephen and Harold while they were growing up, has developed into a characterless spendthrift, but Stephen, feeling the need of a partner in the absence of Harold, decides it would be a good idea to marry him.  So, with all the assumed prerogatives of a male landowner, she proposes to him.  But almost immediately she realizes that she's made a disastrous error, and Leonard, although not being in love with her, sees her as a solution to his debt problems so he makes plans to blackmail her over a letter she was foolish enough to send him revealing her matrimonial scheme.  Aunt Rowley comes to the rescue and pays off Leonard's debts, even though it puts a large dent in her "widow's mite".  

Harold returns from Trinity College and asks Stephen to marry him.  She, fresh from the contretemps with Leo, assumes he's making fun of her, and unleashes a formidable tirade on his head.  He, a loyal and loving suitor, is aghast and, not realizing that Stephen was just letting off steam, leaves England.  Onboard ship, he meets the Andrew Stonehouse family, a wealthy entrepreneur and his wife and six-year old daughter Pearl.  A storm brews up and Pearl is washed overboard but Harold dives in and saves her.  She loves him forever after, referring to him as "The Man".  Harold continues on to northern Alaska, where he looks for gold, and making a big strike, becomes rich.  After two years he decides to return to England

Meanwhile, Stephen has purchased another estate near the coast in northeast England.  She spends all her time helping the poor and indigent and makes friends with a Quaker lady known as the "Silver Lady".  She lives in a kind of watchtower overlooking the sea.  By this time, Stephen has realized why Harold left and she deeply regrets the last meeting with Harold that fractured their developing relationship.  She has acknowledged to herself her love for him.  

A huge storm arises and the ship in which Harold is a passenger is caught and driven aground adjacent to Stephen's castle.  Harold dives into the raging surf and manages to splice a line which he is carrying to one that has been shot from the shore, thereby enabling the rescue of the ship's passengers and crew.  But he's caught in a dangerous situation, outside of a jagged tier of rocks that prevents him from swimming ashore.  So he paddles around the point of land enclosing the beach and is rapidly tiring, when a local resident mounts his aquiferous horse, Hercules, and swims to the rescue.  Reaching Harold at the very last second, Hercules succeeds in saving the drowner and they all return safely to shore.

Harold and Stephen are glad to see each other but their memories keep them from resolving their feelings for one another.  Finally the Silver Lady intervenes and tells Stephen to get her act together and the two embrace and are happy.

Stoker wrote at least fifteen books in addition to "Dracula".  He was the manager of the Lyceum theater in London for 27 years, and the effects of that long exposure to the stage pretty definitely influenced his writing style.  In the works of his I've read, his prose is rather the opposite of flowery, but he has the gift of expressing emotional minutia very effectively.  Reading his prose is almost like observing the development of action on the stage, and, in the same way, the reader is, almost in spite of himself, pulled along by the drama whether he wants it that way or not.  The result is a riveting read, involving the peruser in almost a hypnotic relation to the developing plot.  I'm not sure whether I like that sort of thing or not, but it's certainly effective...

Tuesday, June 1, 2021



Lucas Malet (Mary St. Leger Kingsley)

Laurence Rivers is an Englishman living in America, married to Virginia, an American lady born into the New England upper classes.  He's comfortable in his marriage, but two years after the wedding, he's informed that his rich uncle in England is dying.  Eccentric and reclusive, the uncle is the owner of extensive property and a large mansion full of servants, a large selection of horses and a commodious supply of gardens with cultivated pathways, white marble statues and dark cypress trees.  Laurence arrives after a sea voyage and finds his relation bed-ridden and wasting away.  They converse and the uncle  makes clear his aversion to religion, spiritualism and reality itself as it is usually regarded.  He says: "Reality as we know it, being the biggest illusion of all".  But he's generous in other ways, giving Laurence the freedom of the house and grounds.

Laurence explores the house and finds an old tapestry with sirens and unicorns woven into the fabric suspended at the end of a hallway.  Behind it is a locked door that he manages to open;  he discovers that it leads into a music room, with a piano, various sorts of guitars and lyres lying about and some odds and ends of sheet music.  And he sees a young lady with her back to him, looking through the window into the garden.  She is a sylph-like being and while he watches, she slowly, without looking at him, glides over to the escritoire and vanishes behind it.  Laurence examines the back of the piece of furniture but is startled to find no method of egress from the room.  It's love at first sight, though, as he can't get her image out of his mind.

The uncle passes away after a while and Laurence takes over the management of the property.  He becomes more and more friendly with the young lady (Agnes Rivers);  they walk in the garden and Laurence falls more in love.  She tells him her history:  during the Napoleonic Wars, her affianced sweetheart was killed and she died of grief and has haunted the music room ever since, waiting his return.  His name was Laurence also, and the present owner of Stoke Rivers (the inherited property) is the identical image of her former lover.  

Virginia sends an urgent telegram requiring Laurence's presence back in America and he is faced with making a decision that he doesn't want to deal with, but finally decides to ignore the cable and stay with Agnes.  But even though she has been acquiring more and more traits of reality, such as a shadow, she knows that there is no future on earth for her and Laurence.  One day she says farewell and slowly vanishes behind the escritoire for the last time.  But not until she affirms that they will be reunited in the hereafter.  Laurence pines away but ultimately realizes that his earthly future depends on him asserting himself as a property owner, so he attends to business and returns to America to his wife.

But the life she leads seems boring and repetitions with all the parties and inane conversation so he returns to Stoke Rivers.  But while he was absent, there was a fire in the music room that opened up a hidden chamber behind the escritoire, and (spoiler) in it they discovered an old charred coffin with the  body of a young lady in it.  So they bury it in the churchyard and Laurence finds some peace in the affirmation that he and Agnes will be reunited in heaven.

Lucas Malet was the pseudonym of Ms. Kingsley, who came from a family of authors.  Her cousin Mary explored parts of Africa and wrote a book about her experiences.  Her uncles, Henry and Geoffrey were famous authors and her father Charles was well-known also, principally for his novel, "Westward Ho" although he wrote many more.  The Kingsley's all were top-notch wordsmiths, and i've enjoyed reading their works a lot.  Mary was a friend of E.F. Benson and she was acquainted with Henry James.  This book is available on Gutenberg...   

P.S.  the picture at the top is me with an old bike i assembled out of odds and ends...