Robert Barr’s “The Sword Maker”

BLOG #18, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #40
ROBERT BARR’S THE SWORD MAKER
May 6, 2015

Well, there’s always a first time for everything. Quite candidly, when I re-read Robert Barr’s A Prince of Good Fellows after an interval of over half a century, although I was pleased by the second reading, I failed to recapture my original delight. So much so that when I returned the book to my library after writing the April 1 blog (Blog #13, Series #6), I noticed another Barr title I’d evidently never read before, The Sword Maker. After scanning it, I decided to read it and see if I’d been mistaken about Barr’s writing power.

I had not. I literally could not put The Sword Maker down! Turns out it is a much more unputdownable read than was A Prince of Good Fellows. I didn’t quit reading until I reached the last page in the middle of the night. The result? Concluding that I must follow up last month’s blog by another book by the same author.

The setting is imperial Frankfort in Germany back in medieval times. I’ve always been fascinated by the hilltop castles overlooking the Rhine River, thus when I discovered Barr’s protagonist daring to pit his wits against the robber barons who from time to time brought river commerce to a halt, it was a great opportunity to learn more about that period of German history.

I will be most interested in hearing from you, seeing if or not you agree with my featuring this second Barr title.

For biographical information, please refresh your memory by re-reading the April 1 blog.

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I’m guessing that a number of you will now be interested in reading more of Barr’s novels.

Here’s a list to help you in your search.

•    In a Steamer Chair and Other Stories (1892)
•    The Face and the Mask (1894)
•    In the Midst of Alarms (1894)
•    From Whose Bourne (1896)
•    One Day is Courtship (1896)
•    Revenge! (n.d.)
•    The Strong Arm (n.d.)
•    A Woman Intervenes (1896)
•    Tekla: A Romance of Love and War (1898)
•    Jennie Baxter, Journalist (1899)
•    The Unchanging East (1900)
•    The Victors (1901)
•    Prince of Good Fellows (1902)
•    The O’Ruddy, A Romance, (with Stephen Crane) (1903)
•    The Tempestuous Petticoat (1905)
•    A Rock in the Baltic (1906)
•    The Triumphs of Eugéne Valmont (1906)
•    The Measure of the Rule (1907)
•    Stranleigh’s Millions (1909)
•    The Sword Maker (1910)
•    The Palace of Logs (1912)

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The Sword Maker by Robert Barr (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1910).

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).