Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Last Ringbearer

Another recommendation from over-Christmas reading: the 1999 fantasy novel The Last Ringbearer. I mentioned it in February 2011, and liked the concept a lot, but for whatever reason only just got around to reading it, after recent reacquaintance with Tolkien's world led me to a handy ePUB version that worked on the Kobo.

The Last Ringbearer, written by Russian paleontologist Kirill Eskov as Последний кольценосец and translated by Yisroel Markov, is a revisionist account of the events depicted in The Lord of The Rings. It works on a number of premises, one being a geologist's take on necessary consequences of Tolkien's geography of Middle Earth (the world has to be bigger than the part he shows) - but the most significant is the idea that The Lord of the Rings is a mythologised 'history written by the victors'.

The trio of chief characters of The Last Ringbearer are two from Mordor - Haladdin, an Umbarian academic turned field medic, and Tzerlag, an Orocuen sergeant (an orc, in fact, in this book a human ethnicity) - and Baron Tangorn, a disaffected Gondorian soldier-aristocrat. The three are thrown together in the deserts of Mordor after its fall: Haladdin and Tzerlag save Tangorn, who has been left for dead after he tried to stop an elf-led civilian massacre by mercenaries on his own side.

After this brief framing, we get a flashback of The War of the Ring told with a very different slant from Tolkien's. Mordor is an enlightened technological civilisation ruled by the unremarkable Sauron VIII against a general backdrop of barbarian feudal rival kingdoms such as Gondor and Rohan. It has, however, damaged its self-sufficiency by disastrous land irrigation mistakes, and this weakness is taken as cue for the warmongering Gandalf to advise a Western attack on it.

This attack succeeds through various factors. The "vast Mordor hordes" are a propaganda exaggeration. The Western forces have magic: they can create undead armies, have palantir communication, and got the Elves on their side by the loan of a powerful clairvoyant and magic-enhancing device, The Mirror. They indulge in various breaches of rules of engagement, such as failing to honour conventions on single combat. In the aftermath of the main battles, Aragorn seizes the throne of Gondor by engineering the murder of the de facto king, Denethor (with the unlikely cover story that the latter just happened to set fire to himself), and assures the compliance of allies by hostage-taking (he keeps Éowyn, sister of the Rohan heir Éomer, along with the genuine Gondor heir Faramir, under guarded exile). However, it's not all roses for Aragorn: Arwen will not consummate their alliance, as from her immortal Elvish viewpoint, he's little more than a primitive baby. The Elves also, naturally, won't give back The Mirror.

Haladdin, Tzerlag and Tangorn form an alliance, initially for mutual protection from Gondorian mop-up operations, and kill Eloar, the elf who was behind the massacre. Then, while on watch, Haladdin gets a visit from a Nazgûl, Sharya-Rana (the benign and rational spirit of a dead mathematician) who tells him what's at stake for the future. The world ("Arda") is at the interface of physical and magical worlds, and the Elves have plans to exploit this and lead Middle Earth into an Elf-dominated stasis. The only way to stop this is to disconnect the worlds by destroying The Mirror in the Eternal Fire of Mount Doom within 100 days: a daunting task since The Mirror weighs 1000 pounds and is installed in the totalitarian Elf stronghold of Lórien. Haladdin has been selected to do it because he has no magical abilities, and so is impervious to magical attacks. Sharya-Rana dies - or rather discorporates, having used all his energies - and Haladdin is left to contemplate how he can achieve this quest (of which more in a moment).

I was reading this book well into the small hours - I finished at nearly 5am - and was gripped. Eskov has thoroughly worked out the whole revisionist scenario, and it fits the Lord of the Rings timeline beautifully. The overall stance is humane and rationalist, fiercely polemical in its stance of outrage at misrepresented history. And, as Eskov has stated, it avoids alignment of good/evil with ethnicity or military side. It's thoroughly realistic in its portrayal of brutal Realpolitik and the double-edged aspect of espionage: for example, Baron Tangorn's personal shame is that he compiled for Gondor the open source intelligence report on food imports showing that Mordor was no threat, not realising that this very report would be used as the rationale for Gondor's unprovoked attack on it.

Eskov takes a real joy in his world, too, showing vividly the multifarious cultures that thrive in a geographical area stretching across the equivalent of, say, NW Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. He delights in food and wine and how they're prepared, in total contrast to Tolkien's descriptions that really seem to stem from the latter's dull and abstemious tastes. However, this joy does have a slight downside: Eskov occasionally digresses into cultural back-story that holds up the plot. There's a huge and not very relevant chunk about the history of Middle Earth's Africa analogue, and an interminable section (which really belongs in a separate novel) about Baron Tangorn's adventures as a spy in the port city-state of Umbar, playing off the various security services against each other.

That aside, The Last Ringbearer made very satisfying reading, rich in allusion to similar scenarios in real-world history (if you don't spot them, there's an appendix) and more than a few neat references - when the characters discuss the "World as Text theory" - to the whole issue of the fictionality of both The Last Ringbearer and The Lord of the Rings. Despite it being let down in places by longueurs, it's a superb book: a commenter to my earlier post called it "This is a true book of ideas in the Russian tradition". And it's freely available, now in a 2nd Edition.

The copyright is undoubtedly still very 'grey': free or not, this is still an unauthorized derivative work. The Tolkien estate is not known for its liking of derivative works, but there doesn't seem to have been any move from it lately on the matter. Here's the official page, and here is where I found the ePUB version.

(Check out also this striking Flickr image of Dubai by Rick's Images. A detail of this, which shows towers including the Burj Khalifa under construction in March 2008, was used as the cover image for the Tenseg Press edition I read).

- Ray

Spoiler warning:  I've completed the plot summary below, in white text. Mouse over if you want to read it.

So ... Haladdin works out a solution to the problem of getting The Mirror to the Eternal Fire of Mount Doom: do the opposite, and use a pair of palantíri to transmit the Eternal Fire to The Mirror. They obtain the palantíri (one of them by aiding a coup to free Faramir) and set up the second half of the plan. Baron Tangorn goes alone to Umbar, where he conducts months of espionage in order to contact the Elven underground with a forged letter and the fiction that Eloar is still alive but imprisoned. The Elves don't initially buy this idea, and Tangorn thinks he has failed; he plans to leave Umbar with his courtesan lover Alviss, but is tragically murdered by his pursuers when he steps out to buy her a gift. Ironically, the Elves take this as evidence of the truth of his carrying dangerous information; unknown to him, he has succeeded.

Haladdin's plan goes ahead: to subvert Eloar's mother, the high-ranking Elf Eornis, into setting up a palantír connection, thinking she can talk with her son. The Mirror, she is told, must be in sight at her end as a bona fide of her location. The palantír is dropped into Lórien from a glider piloted by the troll Kumai - trolls are another human ethnicity - and the Elves fail to find it (Eornis has glued it underneath The Mirror). Even though The Mirror is giving distinct warnings of impending doom, the Elves fail to act decisely because of their one weakness: a paranoid demarcation of decision-making among their politely bickering Politburo-like leaders.

However, as the moment approaches when Haladdin will drop his palantír into the Fire, Gandalf spots the danger and casts a spell on Haladdin's palantír to turn him to stone; it doesn't work, because of the latter's lack of magical nature. Saruman takes over, attempting to reason with Haladdin via the palantír, and tells him what's probably the truth: that Sharya-Rana's scenario is just one theory, and that destroying The Mirror may in fact destroy the world. However, fate intervenes when Tzerlag accidentally touches the palantír and begins to turn to stone. Haladdin takes the chance and destroys it to save his friend, who lives with just the loss of a couple of fingers.

There are massive detonations - and the magic simply goes away. Elves become just beautiful people without power or charisma. Magical items, such as Elven medical kits, cease to work. Arwen loses her power over Aragorn, and he goes on to a career as an enlightened king who brings in a long era of democracy in Gondor, and is ultimately succeeded by Faramir.

The book ends with a future perspective - a future in which history has gone more or less like ours, with another continent called Amengo discovered - discussing the historicity and modern media treatment of the characters in the narrative. A "Western literary adaptation" called The Lord of the Rings is one of them.

- Ray

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Scots cyberpunk

The Scottish archipelago as depicted
Map via
A while back I briefly mentioned Matthew Fitt's SF novel But n Ben A-Go-Go (Luath Press, 2000), but I finally got a copy and read it yesterday.

As SF, its genre is cyberpunk - "high tech and low life" - but with an unusual setting: an inundated Scotland in 2090 after God's Flood, a melting of the polar ice leaving only the highest mountain-tops above sea-level, most of the population living in Port, a floating megacity tethered to the sea-bed above the submerged Greenock. Disease is rife, from sun-induced skin cancer to the endemic "Mowdie", a virus that turns into a lethal form, "Senga", if carriers have actual sex (though virtual sex is possible in the cyberspace environment .

The protagonist is Paolo Broon, an ex-soldier who works as a "third-class cyberjanny", a kind of enforcer who retrieves data and captures errant employees for "Clart Central". His wife Nadia is incarcerated in a medical unit with Senga - a consequence of an affair with another unknown man. Paolo breaks from his routine life when Nadia's medical insurance runs out, losing the only legal routes to finding the DNA contact that can neutralise her virus. But he suspects that the contact is his estranged father, Diamond Broon, a vastly rich criminal mastermind incarcerated in a luxury prison, "Inverdisney", and resolves to seek him out. As it happens, Diamond - an ailing grotesque who has to be carried around by a giant Inuit bodyguard - is also seeking out Paolo, and via messages received through their respective shady contacts on VINE, their paths converge. Diamond escapes from prison to his luxury island hideout, But n Ben A-Go-Go, as Paolo, now pursued by keen young police lieutenant, swims 200km and braves the dangers of the arid 'Drylands' - sunstroke, renegade American survivalists, and mutant kelpies - to confront his father there.

I've delayed tackling But n Ben A-Go-Go for a long time because I thought it would be hard going: the unusual aspect of the novel I haven't mentioned so far is that it's written entirely in a vigorous broad Scots. A sample from the beginning, where Paolo is visiting Nadia in the Rigo Imbeki Medical Center:
Paolo’s ile-stoor resistant bitts squealed on the ceramic flair as he stepped back an glowered west alang Gallery 1083. It wis a summer Sunday forenoon the clatty end o January an the mile lang visitors’ corridor wis toom. A singil lawyer an her lycra-leggit secretary intromittit the silence, shooglin past on a courtesy electric caur. An indie-pouered germsooker jinked inconspicuously in and oot o Paolo’s personal space, dichtin up microscopic clart as it drapped aff his body.

A quarter mile doon, the wersh blinterin sun forced itsel in throu the UV filter gless at the corridor heid, illuminatin the faces an keek panels o the first fifty Omegas. An as he skellied intae the white bleeze, a troop o droid surveillance puggies advanced in heelstergowdie formation alang the corridor roof, skited by owre his heid an wi a clatter o mettalic cleuks, skittered awa eastwards doon the shadowy vennel. The toomness o the visitors’ corridor offered Paolo nae bield fae the buildin’s oorie atmosphere; Gallery 1083 wis an eerie airt wi or wioot passengers.
As it happened, it turned out to be very readable: about on a level with Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The author does help us along. As he mentions in the slightly too earnest intro, it is to some extent written in a contrived Scots, where unfamiliar words and any number of neologisms - "stoorsooker", "incendicowp", and so on - are well-framed by context. But on reflection, I'd quite forgotten the degree of familiarity I have from childhood: my grandmother had Scottish roots, subscribing to the Sunday Post and getting me Oor Wullie and The Broons annuals every year (before the days when they anglicized the captions); and my stepfather's family were fairly broad Scots speakers. I think that whatever the context provided, it helps with But n Ben A-Go-Go to have some familiarity with Scots vocabulary: no amount of context will tell you that "coup" (a rubbish dump) is pronounced "cowp", not "coo".

There's a certain level of pastiche to the whole novel. For anyone reasonably familiar with Scottish culture, it's hard not to associate Paolo Broon's name with Pa Broon of The Broons. And the portrayal of the floating city of Port has a lot in common with Megacity One in the SF comic 2000AD (which has considerable Scottish roots - see Scotland's influence on 2000AD's Judge Dredd). It has a similar style in its naming of buildings and institutions after contemporary figures; there's an Evelyn Glennie Music Faculty; a Lorne Gillies Square; and a sports team called Portic Thistle.

However, the novel isn't just an extended Scots joke. Its world is a very dark one, where a tropical storm can sink a city suburb, and characters are forced to unusual motivations: a tight legal system, and a powerful taboo about murder, constrain Paolo from any obvious and lethal solutions to his problems, and point up the sheer unpleasantness of his criminal father. Diamond's sole justification for refusing the DNA sample that will release Nadia from years of torment is "Ah am an awfie, awfie bad man".

If you like SF and languages, I highly recommend it.

Eurasis and Africa as depicted
Map via
Geeky aside: the geographical assumptions didn't ring quite true. Fitt's "Gods's Flood" - all polar ice melted - raises the sea level by 700 metres. The actual estimate is 70 metres. As with Marcus Sedgwick's Floodland, the pattern of inundation seems to be a fictional vehicle necessary to create a "waterworld" rather than a realistic one - or maybe the author just got the decimal point wrong.

- Ray

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Trailer #1 - more reflective version.
Trailer #2 - more gung-ho version.

This afternoon Clare and I went to Vue Exeter to see Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

It was hard to imagine how The Hobbit, a much shorter work than The Lord of The Rings, could be stretched to a film trilogy. But it managed the first part effortlessly, while followed the book very faithfully, from Bilbo's recruitment as a "burglar" for a party of dwarves on a quest to regain their home, through to the passage though the Misty Mountains and Bilbo's finding of the Ring. It even included Tolkien's songs, without their coming across as obtrusive musical set-pieces.

The film starts with a framing device of Bilbo writing the story on the eve of his departure party at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, then a deal of backstory of how the dwarves were driven from their subterranean kingdom by the dragon Smaug. Other areas for expansion included scenes with the nature wizard Radagast (only briefly mentioned in The Hobbit); the party being caught up in a mountain battle between the again briefly-mentioned stone giants; and a continuing thread deriving from the enmity between Thorin, the dwarves' leader, and Azog, the orc chieftain who killed his father.

The story is also very neatly framed as a precursor to the events of The Lord of the Rings. In the book, there's no motivation for Gandalf's choice of Bilbo as a participant. The film, however, suggests strongly that Gandalf is working from some intuition or foreknowledge of the importance of Bilbo and Frodo in the War of the Ring decades later. Saruman's presence, fairly unimportant in the book, also acquires darker significance in the light of later events in The Lord of the Rings.

Martin Freeman is an excellent choice as the younger Bilbo, and the dwarves (various largely unrecognisable character actors including Ken Stott and James Nesbit) catch the right balance between humor, pathos and nobility.

The effects, as usual, can't be faulted. This was the first time I'd seen a 3D film since decades back, when I saw one using a creaky red-blue system, but I was blown away by the Real3D system that uses circularly-polarised frames. It's done with a great deal more subtlety than the old-style 3D films that were obsessed with thrusting objects at you out of the screen. It's no mere gimmick, adding intimacy to indoor scenes, and vast depth to landscapes and other vistas.

Overall, we were both delighted with it, and recommend it, with the proviso that Clare found it somewhat over-padded with battle scenes.

Addendum: I do slightly fear where it'll go from here, though. I re-read The Hobbit today. IIt's a 271-page book. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes us up to page 102; the death of the dragon Smaug, another natural break, is on page 225; and the rest, including the Battle of the Five Armies, occupies only the remaining 50 pages. I hope - and I agree with Clare - that we're not going to get all the interesting stuff in the first two segments, with the third a padded-out battlefest.

- Ray

Friday, 14 December 2012

Blue pill - wrong Kingsley

extract, Nelson's Column, page 15,
East Devon Coast & Country, Dec 2012
One for Misattribution Corner. I was just reading East Devon Coast & Country, one of our glossy regional magazines. I recommend it: it's an exception to the usual run of advertorial magazines in actually having good articles, and paying contributors for them. What's more, it puts its issues online.

I did, however, catch one of its regulars in an error in the December 2012 edition, with a reference to a quotation concerning dyspepsia:

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 3

Judkins gives Dean Maitland a shock
frontispiece, 1906 Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner edition
On with the reading of Maxwell Gray's 1886 novel The Silence of Dean Maitland.

The first two volumes had followed the consequences of events that kicked off in the village of Malbourne on New Year's Day of 1863. The curate Cyril Maitland has got the coachman's daughter Alma Lee pregnant, and (we think) killed her father Ben. However, Maitland let his best friend Henry Everard take the rap, and got on with his career for nine years while Everard is in prison (apart from a brief escape in 1872).

Jump to 1881, and a grizzled man, the recently-released Everard, is on the train from Dartmoor to Exeter. He stops off there to buy a change of clothing, then continues homeward toward Malbourne, where he hopes his fiancee Lilian is waiting for him. However, he decides to stop off at the cathedral city of Belminster (Winchester) to look at old haunts, and goes to soak up the ambience at the cathedral.

There he has a number of surprises. He finds that Maitland is now Dean of Belminster, a nationally-famous preacher and author set for promotion to Bishop, and also has a chat with a blind chorister who turns out to be Maitland's son, Everard Maitland.

Outside his career, Dean Maitland has had mixed fortunes; his wife Marion (Everard's sister) died some years previously, as have several other children except for the blind Everard and his daughter Marion. He's also become something of an 'Agony Uncle', a consultant on spiritual matters following his book The Secret Penitent. On the same day Everard is in town, Maitland gets a visit from a young American he thinks is seeking advice. To his shock, it's a Benjamin Judkins, Alma's son, who has come to demand that Maitland admits to be his father. At first Maitland denies all knowledge and threatens to sue, but is taken aback when Judkins shows him a note from Alma. She too is in Belminster, dying in the hospital of a terminal illness; the note confesses to a lifetime of guilt at her perjury, and begs Maitland to visit her.

Now both Everard and Maitland are going through crises. Everard is reading Maitland's books, and impressed by their honesty and spiritual message. Maitland thinks on his own guilt - it's finally explicit that he killed Alma's father in a fight - which is worsened when he fails to visit Alma in time. The two men's paths finally cross when Everard goes to Maitland's sermon in the cathedral, and Maitland gives a highly self-referential sermon about Judas, to the effect that Judas must have been a high-ranking hypocrite. The sermon affects Everard deeply. He concludes correctly that Maitland has been under agonies of guilt for 18 years, and writes to him, forgiving him. On receiving the letter, Maitland, who we now find is taking laudanum for a nervous complaint, is shaken to the point of turning down a royal edict to dine at Osborne House, and packs off his family to Portsmouth.

Everard, having had no reply from Maitland, gets the Oldport train, and by staggering coincidence finds he's sharing it with the judge who convicted him, who he also forgives. After a painfully nostalgic journey through Chalkburne, he finally comes to Malbourne Rectory, where he and Lilian are happily reunited.

Unknown to Everard and Lilian, Dean Maitland is now on self-destruct. In front of an audience including the Prime Minister, at a sermon at Belminster intended to mark his accession to Bishop, he makes a full confession of his crimes, then slumps by the pulpit and dies. On hearing the news, Everard and Lilian go to Belminster and find that Maitland has prepared well. Anticipating the possibility, as indeed happens, that his confession may be taken as insanity, he has left detailed legal depositions; he has also left Everard a hefty bequest. Everard finds himself exonerated, and even feted for his fortitude. A final chapter takes us to Switzerland some time later, where Everard and Lilian are enjoying happy middle age together.

Conclusion: I found it a very good novel, and I can see why it was a best-seller. Sometimes it's weakened by some horrible implausibilities - what are the chances of meeting the judge who convicted you when taking the train home from prison? - but it's well-crafted overall, with the central conflict played out excellently. And Maxwell Gray hadn't got into her later habits of over-egged flights of landscape description.

 It didn't go unnoticed at the time that there were thematic similarities to previous 19th century novels featuring clergy-gone-bad. One reviewer mentioned the possibility of unconscious plagiarism from "Lockhart, Hawthorne, Charles Reade": a reference to John Gibson Lockhart’s 1822 Adam Blair, which concerns a widowed Scottish minister who has an affair with a married woman; Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the minister Arthur Dimmesdale keeps silent about his adultery with Hester Prynne (who takes all the public blame) until - like Maitland - he finally confesses in the pulpit and dies; and Charles Reade’s 1866 Griffith Gaunt; or Jealousy, in which an eloquent young priest attempts to seduce a married woman. Nevertheless, Dean Maitland seemed to hit a nerve by putting events in the hitherto cosy context of middle-class English clergy.

I do wonder what Mary Tuttiett's family made of it, since the character inspirations don't look far from home: her father Frank Tuttiett was a doctor, and her uncle was  Lawrence Tuttiett, a hymn writer, author and churchman whose career wasn't dissimilar to Cyril Maitland's (minus the sensational ending).

The travelogue aspects are proving very interesting, and I may well write more about this. I've only just realised that Alma Lee's family live in a building identifiable as The Temple, Calbourne, an ornamental folly on the Swainston estate. I've written more on this in an update: To see Swainston.

- Ray

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 3 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai03gray).

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 2

On with the reading of Maxwell Gray's 1886 novel The Silence of Dean Maitland.

Volume 1 had introduced us to the village of Malbourne, and left us with a cliffhanger. On the New Year's Day of 1863, the coachman's daughter Alma Lee has given birth to an illegitimate child, and Alma's father Ben has been found dead in a quarry. The former misfortune is known by the reader (though not Malbourne's inhabitants) to be down to the charismatic curate Cyril Maitland. The latter, circumstances are rapidly pinning on Maitland's best friend, the doctor Henry Everard.

As we get into Volume 2, things rapidly worsen for Everard. The police are called in, decide the death is foul play, and Everard is arrested. The case goes through the magistrates court in the nearest town, Oldport, then a few months later comes to trial in the Crown Court in the nearest city, Belminster. It doesn't go well for Everard: it's a tough judge; he creates a bad impression by being posh and confident; and his alibi witnesses are weak. And then Alma takes the stand as star witness, a poised and equally charismatic "ruined maid", and gives crucial evidence that a man in the woods offered her gold for the baby's upkeep, then got into an altercation with her father. But she won't say who, because "I promised that I would never betray him". On being pressed - reminded that it's a contempt of court issue - she perjures herself and falsely identifies Everard as the man. At this point Everard realises what's happened, and despairs.

Maitland, meanwhile, has spent the beginning of the year in a pious funk of denial, not helped by being required to baptise Alma's baby Benjamin, and worrying it'll look like him when it grows up. After wandering Belminster, he decides to do the decent thing and rushes to the court. "Stop !" he cries halfway through the pronouncement of sentence. "I have evidence — important evidence. The prisoner is innocent!" But it's too late. He's silenced, and Everard is sentenced to 20 years for manslaughter. Maitland faints as Everard is taken down. And he stays fainted, more or less, for some months, in a state of near-fatal mental and physical collapse.

The scene shifts to Malbourne in late summer, two years later, and life goes on. The now-recovered Maitland has returned from a continental Grand Tour with his new bride Marion (Everard's sister); he has not confessed to anything, having seemingly compartmentalised anything to do with Everard (though he gets distinctly jittery on seeing Alma). Alma is ostracised by the village for having been responsible for Everard's conviction, and gets engaged to a villager, George Judkins - they plan to start a new life in America. Lilian, Everard's fiancee, rejects an marriage proposal by the local aristocrat, Ingram Swaynstone: she intends to wait for Everard.

The scene shifts again to 1872 (as evidenced by Everard's comment "It is nine years since I touched any drink"), when Everard is working in Portsmouth as "No. 62" on a convict gang. In those nine years, he's built up a good steam of hatred toward "the traitor Maitland", and he comes to a particular low ebb when a chance encounter with a lady in the street brings news that his younger brother is dead. By coincidence, the lady is a distant relative, a Mrs Keppel Everard, who is intrigued by his interest and makes enquiries that lead to Lilian starting to write to him, greatly cheering him.

However, this mood improvement kicks him out of his mindset of dull acceptance. The further torment of family nearby - his father has been promoted to Port Admiral, and he has seen his sister Marion with Maitland visiting - proves the spur to action. On a labouring party, he uses the cover of a violent thunderstorm to jump a ditch and do a runner.

His escape is helped by a run of good fortune. He's halted by a sentry - who turns out to be an university acquaintance, Balfour, who has fallen on almost as hard times. Balfour gets him a change of clothes and helps him hide in a tree until he can get out of town over the bastions protecting it. He's horrified when a man recognises him - but it turns out to be a workman who he saved from drowning in the dock, who gives him money. And then he passes a house where a carriage is parked, and finds his sister Marian is one of the occupants: but she doesn't recognise him! She gets him an odd job mowing the lawn at the house, which he does before moving on, having picked up a religious tract that shows Maitland has now risen in ecclesiastical rank to Canon (well on the way to bishop). A lapse of three weeks finds him hiding, under the pseudonym "Stone", in the vicinity of a village called Hawkburne, where he writes to Lilian of his escape and to request money, and awaits a reply. It doesn't come, and eventually he's found collapsed under a tree and recaptured.

A fortnight later, Canon Maitland is in his drawing room with his wife Marion and sister Lilian. They're discussing Stone, the escaped convict from Portsmouth, when Lilian gets Everard's letter, which has been delayed. She faints!

Thoughts. This is a middling second volume. The psychology of Maitland's failure to confess on his recovery isn't much explored: I guess one interpretation is the that the tensions of the situation were so great that he has buried the memory as too traumatic to bring to the surface. The Portsmouth segment describing Everard's prison life is very good, both psychologically and in regional detail - until he escapes. Unless MG had Divine Providence in mind, the series of handy coincidences that provide him with aid out of the fortifications, clothing, money and food are outrageous, and the chance meeting with Marion even more so. This is lazy plotting. And not another fainter!

Belminster, out of interest, is Winchester. Although MG threw us a physical impossibility in Volume 1 - a direct train from there to Oldport (Newport, Isle of Wight) - the general description of its setting matches, and was noted by contemporary reviewers.
All who are fond of Winchester will enjoy the pretty descriptions of the old cathedral town of Belminster
- The Gentleman's Magazine, Part 2, Page 51, 1897

All lovers of modern English fiction will recall how, under the name of "Belminster," this cathedral is vividly and lovingly described in that powerful novel, The Silence of Dean Maitland.
- Our English cathedrals, James Sibree, 1911
If you're interested in Portsmouth's local history, there's a deal of interest in the descriptions of Portsmouth in this volume, which describes a period when convict labour was being used to demolish Portsmouth's city walls. As MG tells it:
Some few years since, the fiat went forth for the old familiar walls and heavy gates of Portsmouth town to be levelled to the ground, that the space which these now useless relics of the past occupied might be covered with buildings connected with the defences and adapted to the requirements of the present. Down went many a fine old elm beneath axe and rope, and bit by bit the ramparts disappeared, and the ditches were filled by the busy hands of sunburnt men, armed with barrow, pick-axe, and spade.
The Landport Gate page at Memorials & Monuments in Portsmouth has a small picture at its foot, circa 1870, showing the kind of fortification Everard would have had to escape over. The general extent of the walls and polygonal bastions being demolished can be seen in the final map (here) on the Portsmouth page of Fortified Places. The 1874 Ordnance Survey Map shows how, hitherto, the area of 'Old Portsmouth' had been isolated as a defensible citadel separate, and buffered by open space, from the general urbanisation of Portsea Island.

Low-resolution map for illustration. Historic map data is (© and
database right Crown copyright and Landmark Information
Group Ltd. (All rights reserved 2009).
Looking at the Times Digital Archive, a plausible date for Everard's escape is July 25th 1872. On that day, southern England, including Portsmouth, experienced an unusually fierce succession of thunderstorms with a record amount of rainfall.

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 2 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai02gray).

- Ray

Monday, 3 December 2012

Vigilant in Topsham

I'm not terribly into boats, but Friday had a break from the recent "gray afternoon was wearing on to its chill close" weather; and to shake out the cobwebs, I pottered down to Topsham Quay to look at the Vigilant, a 1904 Thames barge that recently arrived here for renovation.

The owners have put an explanatory plaque on the side:
1904 Thames Barge

The Vigilant was built in Ipswich and is a class spritsail Thames Barge rigged with a bowsprit.

She is listed in the Historic Ships Register. Although there were hundreds of these working sail boats on the Thames, only about thirty are still in existence.

Vigilant was built as a working barge for the Horlock Family, who were the Eddie Stobart of the 1900s. These barges worked around the coast transporting massive loads, when Topsham was a working port, they would have been frequent visitors to the Quay.

Vigilant weighs 74 tonnes, could carry 120 tonnes, and was used to ferry grain. When fully loaded up to their marks, these barges would be virtually submerged. They were powered by massive ochre-coloured sails, engines only being fitted in the 1930s. The main sail alone took three men to hoist.

As well as working, these barges were built with racing in mind. The barge racing matches still continue to this day, with racing matches off the Thames Estuary during summer. In 1928, Vigilant was a class race winner. She continued to be sailed until the 1930s, when she was converted into a houseboat.

Vigilant has travelled from the River Colne in Essex down the Channel to Topsham, and will be sympathetically restored to enable her to once again take to the seas under her red ochre sails as a racing barge.

If you would like to be a friend of Vigilant, please email
The Society for Sailing Barge Research site has a few more specifics on its barges listing:
Of Harwich
Staysail Class
Official No. 116176, 73 ton. Built of wood at Ipswich in 1904 by Orvis & Fuller. Owned by Alfred Horlock and converted to a yacht in 1932. Sold back into trade and converted to motor barge by Whiting Bros. Passed to L.R.T.C. Owned by Dawes, Thomas and Martin. as private barge yacht until sold to Ms. Lynn Johnson & Graham Head late 1997 and now based at Woodbridge, Suffolk. moved to St Osyth 2004.
- Ray

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Silence of Dean Maitland: Volume 1

The Silence of Dean Maitland: title page. Note the deleted draft titles:
The Agony of Dean Maitland, and A Terrible Price.
I was going to start reading Matthew Fitt's Scots SF novel But n Ben A-Go-Go yesterday, but it suddenly occurred to me that there's a remaining gap in my coverage of the Maxwell Gray canon: her original 1886 best-seller The Silence of Dean Maitland. I read it in January 2009 and posted a brief summary, but have never properly written about it for the blog. So ...

The start of the hill up through "Chalkburne"
The Silence of Dean Maitland uses a standard mid-Victorian "three-decker" format, originally published as three separate volumes. It's very solidly an Isle of Wight novel, set largely around "Malborne" (a fictionalised Calbourne), and starts not with the titular character but with a coachman's daughter, Alma Lee, taking a long walk home from "Oldport" up through "Chalkburne" to the downs, starting with Gray's for-a-time classic description:
The gray afternoon was wearing on to its chill close; the dark cope of immovable dun cloud overhead seemed to contract and grow closer to the silent world beneath it, and the steep, chalky hill, leading from the ancient village, with its hoary castle and church, up over the bleak, barren down was a weary thing to climb.
Alma gets a lift on a horse-drawn wagon, but when she arrives home, the (married) driver wants payment with a kiss, Alma is rescued by a visiting family friend, Cyril Maitland, the young curate of Malbourne. Then we're rapidly introduced to the social mix in the area of Malbourne: centrally, there's the handsome, charismatic and clever Cyril Maitland, and his sister Lilian; Maitland's college friend, the doctor Henry Everard, and his sister Marion (Maitland is engaged to Marion, and Everard has a long-standing friendship with Lilian). At opposite ends of the scale are the aristocratic Swaynestones, and the various villagers and minions, who include the coachman Ben Lee and his attractive and intense daughter Alma. There is, ominously, a definite attraction between Alma and Maitland, despite the latter's engagement and radically different social status.

Cut to a year later, and Everard and Maitland are travelling home by train to Malbourne, exchanging theological conversation. Maitland is evidently spiritually troubled, and mortifying himself under his shirt with a spiked crucifix, and when they arrive at Oldport, insists on putting dried peas in his boots for the five-mile walk to Malbourne, where they get a frosty reception from Ben Lee. It's noticed that Maitland doesn't look well, and it turns out he's broken off his engagement with Marion after she insisted on going abroad for a year with her convalescent brother. Everard and Marion are reconciled, but this is overshadowed by the news that Alma is pregnant by some unknown upper-class man.

Maitland preaches an apposite sermon at Malborne Church, on the subject of innocence and guilty conscience. It's generally assumed to be an attempt to stir the conscience of the unknown father of Alma's baby, but no-one suspects that it could be self-referential (not even Everard, who has found an incriminating letter in the pocket of his coat, which Maitland had borrowed). Meanwhile, Judkins, a rejected suitor of Alma's has been selling to Ben Lee the theory that Everard is the father, on grounds of seeing Everard's talking with Alma in the woods (actually about her mother's illness).

By the end of the year, Everard and Lilian have become engaged, and everyone on the upper-crust side of Malborne is happy. Everard, Lilian and Maitland go for a walk in the forest on New Year's Eve, returning their separate ways. But simultaneously, Alma's now-enraged father Ben has also headed for the the same forest, aiming to have it out with Everard. The morning after, the general celebratory mood is broken when Ben's body is found in a quarry - and on the same day, Alma gives birth to a child.

to be continued

Brief thoughts; it's an interesting start - Thomas Hardy meets The Scarlet Letter. The novel has a very vivid sense of location and character, representing well the social strata of a mid-Victorian village, and the tensions are set up from the start. It has some weaknesses of an early novel: a tendency to disgress irrelevantly into the author's own obsessions (MG liked cats, and there are extended descriptions of the antics of a cat, Mark Anthony) and some pretty odd areas of local colour that again appear irrelevant. There's a set-piece, for instance, where Lilian displays powers as a horse-whisperer. The climax of the first volume is well set-up; we can see exactly where it's going, as Everard innocently collects circumstantial evidence - being in the forest at the wrong time, a muddied coat from a fall, and a black eye acquired when a child bumps into him - that we just know will prove incriminating.

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Calbourne aka Malbourne.

The silence of Dean Maitland: a novel (1886) - Volume 1 (Internet Archive ID silenceofdeanmai01gray).

- Ray