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.

Scan_Pic0151

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.

Scan_Pic0152

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.”

* * *

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).

A FAIRY TALE ROYAL WEDDING

Indeed, that’s what the April 29, 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton was—a fairy tale. Wisely, the greatest folk tale anthologists end their fairy tales with marriage; not with the inescapable troubles, tribulation, and traumas that, as predictably as day following night, assail all brides and grooms. The “And they lived happily ever after” is tacked on for the benefit of children, for they are satisfied with nothing less.

Given that millions of marriages around the world take place every year, it’s strange, is it not, that the most memorable ones take place in the West? I’ve often wondered why that is—that is, I did until I realized that great romance is possible only if the man and woman are equals. Only within the framework of Christianity is this possible, each wedding consisting of a bride and a groom who mirror Christ’s love for His created beings He loved enough to die for. So look around the world and search for another template to equal this one. What do you discover? Whenever polygamy is permitted—such as is true in the Muslim world—, there can be no equality at the altar. Nor in the matriarchal societies or in any society in which either sex is considered of less value than the other (as in China and India where boys are prized and girls are consistently devalued). And well over a third of this earth’s total population resides in those two societies.

Inescapably, the wedding of William and Catherine is being compared with the wedding of Charles and Diana. Only in retrospect and by comparison do we realize that the earlier wedding (also touted as a fairy tale wedding) was anything but a fairy tale wedding. For a number of reasons: (1) the bride and groom hardly knew each other (having spent only some 21 hours in each other’s company prior to the wedding); (2) the former was an arranged dynastic marriage of unequals; (3) neither of them was in love with the other; (4) the bride was forced by the palace to undergo the indignity of a physical examination in order to certify her as a virgin – the groom was exempt from questioning on the issue; (5) the “kiss” was forced and a sham on his part; (6) when asked if he was in love with his bride, Charles famously quipped, “Whatever that is.” It would later be observed that “Charles was the only man in the world not in love with Diana.”

Not so with William and Catherine: (1) They knew each other very well—indeed intimately—after an eight-year courtship; (2) in this case, the prince married a commoner; (3) both were unmistakably in love with each other, tender and empathetic and kind and supportive of each other; (4) the virginity issue was not ever raised; (5) not merely one kiss–but two; in each case, it was almost like spontaneous combustion, ignited by but a single look into each other’s eyes; (6) both clearly know what love is.

The wedding itself and the pageantry varied little from the standard British royal template, except that it was obvious that William and Catherine put their own individualistic stamp on theirs, unlike the former, planned and orchestrated as it was by the Palace.

But Charles was not all to blame for his condition. Many years before, when but a child, he’d been left with his nanny and servants for half a year while his parents went on a tour around the empire on the royal yacht Britannia. When they finally returned, little Charles rushed into his mother’s arms—not! She stopped him cold in his tracks—with an outstretched hand! A handshake all she had to give her lonely son.

But William and Harry were raised by a loving mother—and it showed . . . in so many ways. Eventually, after Diana’s untimely death, Charles did the best he was capable of in his role of single-parent. And clearly, Catherine comes from a loving united family, uncrippled by separation or divorce.

William and Catherine are beginning their married life in a simple five-room house (on a wind-swept Welsh island) devoid of butlers and servants; she will cook their meals. On the other hand, it is said that Charles has never in his entire life even squeezed toothpaste onto his own toothbrush!

* * * * *

Over two billion people watched—and half a billion more streamed—the April 29 wedding. Within mere hours, Catherine catapulted into superstardom: the most iconic face in the world.

And Americans, as always, continued to express their devotion to, and fascination with, the British monarchy by getting up in the middle of the night to watch the wedding. Perhaps because, deep down, the British royal family is still ours too; after all, we were ruled by them for 174 years (as compared to the 222 years of our republic). So why do the British and Commonwealth peoples revere the monarch so? For today, all royal power is vested in the elected Prime Minister.

One British news commentator expressed it this way last week: “True, we respect the Prime Minister, but we are subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen. In fact, no civic function begins without all singing, “God Save the Queen!”

The April 29 royal wedding, with its million people loosely attending in London alone, confirms this incredible bond between a people and their royal family—a relationship based on love rather than mandatory obedience to.

So in conclusion, the marriage of William and Catherine is not a fairy tale just because of the incredible choreography of every perfectly orchestrated second of the proceedings, but because both the bride and groom appear to love each other so deeply that perhaps for them there may be a future about as close to “happily ever after” as our troubled world ever permits.

* * * * *

Next week, it will be back to the Caribbean.