Sir Walter Scott’s “Quentin Durward”

BLOG #35, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #44
SIR WALTER SCOTT’S QUENTIN DURWARD
September 2, 2015

I was still in my childhood when I read my first historical romance. It made such an impression on me that I searched out more. By my mid-teens, historical romances had become an integral part of my yearly batch of must-read books

Early on, I stumbled onto my first Sir Walter Scott novel—I’ve been hooked on Scott ever since. So much so that I have concluded that our 44th book selection must be one of Scott’s historical novels.

Margaret Drabble, in her monumental The Oxford Companion to English Literature, declares that Sir Walter Scott’s (1771 – 1832) “influence as a novelist was incalculable; he established the form of the historical novel, and according to V. S. Pritchett, the form of the short story. He was avidly read and imitated throughout the 19th century, not only by historical novelists such as Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton, but also by writers such as Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and many others, who treated rural themes, contemporary peasant life, regional speech, etc., in a matter that owed much to Scott.”

Early on, impressed no little by Goethe’s romantic German poetry, Scott wrote romantic poetry that celebrated his native land of Scotland. His greatest successes being works such as Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and Lady of the Lake (1810).

Then he turned to a new genre: historical novels. Of which two centuries of devoted readers have reveled in romances such as Waverly (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Ivanhoe (1819), Kenilworth (1821), and Quentin Durward (1823).

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I am choosing Quentin Durward first on the assumption that many of our readers will already have read the ever-popular Ivanhoe. There is something about Quentin Durward that so resonated in my mind many years ago that I have been unable to forget it.

The lead characters include Quentin Durward (a young Scottish adventurer, in France searching for action). He more than finds it!
La Balafré (Durward’s maternal uncle).
Isabelle, Countess of Croye.
King Louis XI of France (a Machiavellian pragmatist).
Charles, Duke of Burgundy (hasty and pugnacious).

The time: 1468.
The setting: France and Flanders.

Bear in mind that the action may seem slow at first; but, before long you’ll find it increasingly hard to put the book down. Surprisingly, you’ll discover that Scott’s portrayals of King Louis and Duke Charles seem modern in that their ethical behavior appears almost distressingly contemporary to readers of our time.

Also, it quickly becomes obvious that royal and aristocratic marriages back then had precious little to do with love; in that respect, both women and men were merely dynastic pawns.

Welcome to the anything-but-calm 15th century.

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There are a multitude of editions to choose from, but I heartily recommend a hardback with color plates such as the Dodd, Mead (New York) edition of 1924 which sports 16 color illustrations by Percy Tarrant.

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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).

Eric Knight’s “Lassie Come Home”

BLOG #45, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #24
ERIC KNIGHT’S LASSIE COME HOME
November 6, 2013

After the two-month marathon September Book of the Month, Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables, I decided I ought to throw in a real change of pace.  As I searched for a book generations of young people (as well as adults of all ages) have loved, I chanced to look at the most beloved shelf of books in my entire library: the books I cherished most during my growing-up years.  Front and center was Lassie Come Home.  Memories flooded in on me as I retrieved it, looked at my teen-age writing inside the cover, and remembered the impact of that first reading.  My missionary parents [in Latin America] had given me a great gift: the gift of living with my maternal grandparents, Herbert and Josephine Leininger in their large rambling home in then almost perpetually foggy Arcata in California’s redwood country.  I got to live there for my entire eighth-grade year.

Given that I was named after their only son (of seven children), who drowned in a swimming accident when he was only ten, they – especially Grandpa, who declared, when the body of his only son was brought into their house, “The light of my life has gone out!” – I was given a double dose of grandparenting love that year.  And almost every week, I’d be taken to a local book store with enough money to buy another book just for me.  One of those books was Eric Knight’s timeless dog classic.  I could not put it down, reading on to its conclusion sometime in the middle of the night.

But now, I wondered, after over half a century, would the book still have the same power it did back then?  Not to worry: it was near midnight before I reached that last page.

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THE BOOK, THE MOVIES, THE SEVERAL TV SERIES

I would guess that even though millions have read the book, many times that number will have seen the Lassie movies and been addicted to one of the longest-running series in television history.

First of all, the author was himself a larger-than-life-figure: Eric Oswald Mowbray Knight (1897 – 1943) was born in Menston in Yorkshire [James Herriot country], England.  His parents were both Quakers.  His father, a rich diamond merchant was killed in the South African Boer War when Eric was only two.  His mother then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess of the Russian imperial family.  She later settled in America.

Knight had a varied career, including service in the Canadian Army during World War I, and along the way studied art, became a newspaper writer, and later on, a Hollywood screenwriter.  His first novel, Song on Your Bugles (1936) depicted the working class of Northern England.  His This Above All is considered to be one of the most significant novels of World War II.

But it was his 1940 novel, Lassie Come Home, that catapulted him into worldwide iconic fame.  Knight and his second wife, Jere, raised collies on their farm in Pleasant Valley, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from 1939 to 1943.  Though Knight then lived in America, the setting for the novel was back in the Yorkshire of his childhood, hence the Yorkshire dialect in the book.  Knight met an untimely death in a plane crash in Dutch Guiana (Suriname) in 1943 –he was only 46.

The MGM movie, Lassie Come Home (1943), was directed by Fred M. Wilcox and produced by Samuel Marx.  It had a powerful cast: Roddy McDowell, Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Crisp, Elsa Lancaster, May Whitty, and Edmund Gwenn.  Pal starred as Lassie.

Half a century later, in 1994, Daniel Petrie and Lorne Michaels directed and produced Broadway Paramount’s Lassie.  Unlike the earlier film, this one is set in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in a modern setting.  Actors included Thomas Guiry, Helen Slater, Jon Tenney, Brittany Boyd, Frederic Forrest, and Richard Farnsworth.

In television, CBS’s Lassie ran an astounding 21 years; the main series from 1954 to 1974.  During those years, its stars included Tommy Rettig, Jan Clayton, George Cleveland, Donald Keeler, Paul Maxey, Jon Provost, Arthur Space, Cloris Leachman, Jon Shepodd, George Chandler, June Lockhart, Hugh Reilly, Todd Ferrell, Andy Clyde, Robert Bray, Jed Allen, Jack De Mave, Ron Hayes, Skip Burton, Joshua Albee, Larry Wilcox, Larry Pennel, Pamelyn Ferdin, and Sherry Blucher.  The real heroes, of course, were the collies that starred as Lassie.  By the time the series reached its final conclusion, the dog had edged out almost all humans.  The setting was in America rather than England, and the immortalized epic thousand-mile journey of Lassie in the book, Lassie Come Home, was not depicted at all.Scan_Pic0061Scan_Pic0062

There was a later TV series, The New Lassie (1989 – 1991) that was memorable though low budget, starring Will Nipper, Christopher Stone, Dee Wallace Stone, Wendy Cox, and Jon Provost.

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Though the book has appeared in a number of editions, it was originally published by the John C. Winston Company.  Grosset and Dunlap thereafter took it into the mass market.  Whatever you do, make sure the book you purchase is unabridged.  The original runs 248 pages.  The Grosset & Dunlap runs 186 pages, with smaller print.  Avoid at all costs the many popular abridged versions.

Will be most interested in your reactions.