Robert Barr’s “A Prince of Good Fellows”

BLOG #13, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #39
ROBERT BARR’S A PRINCE OF GOOD FELLOWS
April 1, 2015

For April, here is an easy-read after the monumental War and Peace. It is one of the earliest books I ever bought with my own money; I purchased it in 1953. It had everything my boyish mind reveled in back then: history, royalty, intrigue, danger, romance, and a likable protagonist, James V, King of Scotland.

Back then, I knew nothing about the author. Several days ago, browsing in my library for our 39th book selection, I spied the battered, stained, and discolored copy of my old friend, picked it up, and decided to re-read it to see if it would still have its initial hold on me.

It did—and it didn’t. What was different was that I now had over half a century of historical and literary research behind me, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, a masters in English, and a doctorate in English (History of Ideas concentration). Back then, I read it for the adventure and romance of it; now, I read it with the critical eye of a scholar. In other words, even though I knew it was fiction, I now wondered if it was fiction based on fact (back in the fifties I didn’t care the proverbial “two hoots” whether the book was accurate historically or not—I was just looking for a good read). But now, that wasn’t enough.

Now, remembering how I was captivated by the concluding romance back then, I discovered that I still was, but now I wanted to know if that was accurate. I almost wished I hadn’t checked, for though the book still appears to be historically accurate, there wasn’t to be a happily-ever-after scenario for the king and his bride.

I’d long ago discovered in my historical research that there was precious little real romance in royal marriages down through the centuries. Marriages took place for dynastic reasons and the principals had precious little to say about it. If they wanted romantic love, society would wink at their many extra-marital escapades. In fact, James V was the only legitimate child his father ever had. Note Charles and Diana’s disastrous marriage. In fact, it was said that Charles was the only man in the world not in love with Diana. Instead, he found love with Camilla, another man’s wife. In the case of William, Kate represents one of the very few cases in British history of a future monarch being permitted to select his own mate.

Now, in my research, I discovered that James V’s bride died during the first year after marriage; he remarried—and out of that union came one of history’s saddest heroines: the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, doomed to die at the hands of Elizabeth I, her cousin.

But having said all this, I’m still glad I prowled around in actual history after having re-read this book, because now that I’ve authenticated the core story, I’m more fascinated than ever with James V; his nemesis, that rascal Henry VIII of England; and so many other fascinating real-life characters.

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Now for the author, a most fascinating real-life figure himself. Robert Barr (1849-1912) was born in Glasgow, Scotland. When only four years of age, he emigrated to Canada with his parents. After being educated in Toronto, in 1881 Barr decided to relocate to London, then the most exciting and powerful city in the world. He would go on to become an educator, journalist, editor, publisher, and novelist. By the 1890s, he was publishing a book a year (mostly novels, short story collections as well), and was close friends with literary luminaries such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Bret Harte, and Stephen Crane. Barr was especially prolific in writing historical romances and books about crime.

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He was a real craftsman with words. According to his close friend Jerome K. Jerome, Barr will “often spend an entire morning constructing a single sentence. . . . If he writes a four-thousand-word story in a month, he feels he has earned a holiday.”

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Now that I’ve learned all this about Barr, I’m intrigued enough to track down more of his books and read them. I’ll be interested in your reactions.

Look for copies on the web: A Prince of Good Fellows (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902).

Golden Wedding Anniversaries — The End of an Era?

BLOG #46, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOLDEN WEDDING ANNIVERSARIES
THE END OF AN ERA?
November 13, 2013

It happened on board Celebrity Cruise Line’s ship Summit, as it was serenely sailing down that great Canadian seaway, the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was September 28, a very special day in the lives of two cherished friends of ours, Ed and Jo Riffle of Glasgow, Kentucky. Bob and Lucy Earp of Murphreesboro, Tennessee and Connie and I were there to complete our traveling six-pack.

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We had ordered a small cake in order to celebrate the fact that half-a-century before, on September 28, 1963, a young bride and groom were married. Back then, that was what we all did. As Doris Day would sing it, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage–you can’t have one without the other.”

Not so today. Marriage is no longer the norm in America. About half of all couples merely cohabit a dwelling-place, living together without any commitment to be there for each other for the rest of their lives. As one of my aunts put it, “It’s like an automobile is parked in the driveway with the engine running–first bump, and “I’m out of here!” Once there were two, and now there is only one. Welcome to our age’s throw-away society. Everything is transitory: nothing lasts–not even relationships.

But you just don’t realize the long-term effects. Not until you sing “Happy Anniversary” to a couple who have been married to each other for fifty years. After we had done so, and the ship’s Blu Room had erupted in applause, our maitre ‘d, an effervescent young Lothario of about forty, came over to congratulate Ed and Jo. But it was what he said next that gave birth to this blog. There was a regretful poignancy in his voice as he said, “I’m not married – so there will never be a golden wedding anniversary in my life.

259The Happy Couple!

A society with fewer and fewer couples who have shared the ups and downs of life with each other for half a century is bound to be very different from the one that was born in what we call “The Normal Rockwell Era,” graced by picket fences and marriages and children born to couples committed to being there for each other, and for the children who would grow up safe and secure in a home where their parents continued to love and cherish each other. And when the children grew up, married, and had children of their own, there would always be a “home” to go home to.”

Today, more often than not in America, there is no longer such a place.

And that is a national tragedy.

Great civilizations do not collapse because of armies and destructive weapons. They collapse from within.

Just like ours. Are Golden Anniversaries a vanishing species today?

HERE’S TO THE LOSERS AT VANCOUVER

No, that’s not a misprint. It’s just that there were a lot more losers than there were winners at the 21st Winter Olympics. And thanks to our digital age, when a hundredth of a second may separate a Gold Medal winner who can then earn millions in endorsements from a loser who is forced by that fraction of a second to return home to cold shoulders—well, this makes the Olympics not only fascinating but riveting.

As for the venue, my wife and I love Canada—we have to. It all started when a Canuck named Duane captured our daughter Michelle’s heart and ventured into the lion’s den so he could ask permission to marry our daughter. His voice was near breaking, just as mine was when I asked Connie’s father if I could marry her. We have to be kind to Duane, for we may need him when we move north because of global warming. And we have two half-Canadian grandsons who, like their father, are rabid ice hockey and soccer players/fans. The three of them would have sulked for four years had Canada lost to the U.S. in that ice hockey Gold Medal match. It lived up to its hype, that thing so rare in sports: an absolutely perfect match between two great teams.

Another reason I measure my life by Olympic showdowns is because they accelerate life to the breaking point: when so much is at stake, when you have trained to the exclusion of everything else for four long years, just to prepare for a few minutes of action, the pressure to succeed may become all-consuming. And since so many nations value winning Gold over everything else, the system guarantees a disproportionate number of broken hearts.

It’s mighty difficult not to overreact when all your dreams are but shattered shards at your feet. Like Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko did when he lost Gold to Evan Lysacek in Men’s Figure Skating. Lysacek really rose in my estimation when he refused to take the bait when interviewers tried to get him to balloon Plushenko’s cutting words into a feud. Merely smiled and said he’d always admired and looked up to Plushenko—and still did. Then there were those who broke, like U.S. skier Julia Mancuso who was already green with jealousy over her beautiful teammate and Sports Illustrated swimsuit pin-up girl/Gold Medal Winner Lyndsay Vonn getting a disproportionate share of media attention. When Vonn crashed into a fence and thus aborted Mancuso’s run for Gold., Mancuso’s cup boiled over into spiteful words. As for me, I self-righteously condemned her for such poor taste—until I remembered something even more ignoble in my own past. The time I’d desired a college division chairmanship so bad I practically lusted for it. So when one of my best friends got it instead of me, in my raging jealousy I wrote him a note that pulverized any joy he might have had over landing the position. That ill-fated note destroyed our friendship, and represents one of the defining moments of my life, a Rubicon if you please, when I was forced to re-evaluate all my life’s priorities. And then there was U.S. Figure Skater Rachel Platt who was unfairly downgraded by judges in their evaluations. And how could anyone forget the sight of the great Dutch skater Sven Kramer who was only seconds from Gold when he discovered his own coach had given him the wrong lane instructions—and there he sat, head in his hands, all his dreams bleeding onto the floor.

And even that queen of figure skating herself, lovely Kim Yu-Na of Korea, admitted during the competition (before she won Gold) that she was terrified of failure, convicted as she was that so high were expectations that if she returned to Korea without that Gold Medal, her fans would abandon her.

For all these reasons, my heart goes out to the losers at Vancouver, for they are the ones America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, must have been thinking of when she wrote these lines:

“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory.

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!”