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Derwent Water, Lake District – Image lifted from Wiki

**No, this post has absolutely nothing to do with “Star Wars”

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

I can’t find it now, but regular friends of the decanter may recall my posting some time back that I had long been curious about the fact that John Cleese’s Cheese Shop customer character from Monty Python had been skimming Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole while seated in the public library in Thurmond Street before suddenly becoming peckish.  Esurient.  Y’e were ‘ungry-like!  To this end, I wrote that I was going to buy and read the book myself.

Well, my friends, I’m happy to report that although it lay around neglected for months after I ordered it from the devil’s website, I finally sat down and read this 700+ page opus this past week.

When the book was first published in the 1920’s, John Buchan called it “the finest English novel since Jude the Obscure“.  To me? It’s trash. Glorious, entertaining trash, but trash nonetheless.

Rogue Herries is the first of four novels chronicling the fortunes of the Herries family, stout English gentry from Cumberland, from the 18th through the 20th Centuries.  The “Rogue” involved is Francis, youngest son of his generation, and the book picks up his story in about 1730 when, disgusted with the imperfections of the world around him, he removes himself and his young family back to the ramshackle Herries manor house in the Lake District.  He’s called “Rogue” by the locals because he is willful to the point of violence, eccentric, and notorious for such things as humiliating his wife, selling his mistress at a fair, and harboring a suspected witch in his household.  The story covers the next thirty-odd years of his and his family’s life.

I call the book trash because the plot is complete soap-opera. (Without looking it up, I wonder if it has been dramatized? Should be if it hasn’t.)  Some of it, for instance Francis’s interactions with his boy-wonder son David, is quite moving at times.  On the other hand, most of the story about his relationship with his second wife, the Gypsy-girl Mirabell Starr, had me groaning and occasionally muttering “Oh, come on!”

Not that trash is a bad thing, mind you.  I’m reminded of the passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Unconditional Surrender in which the literary critic Edvard Spruce is discussing a new novel, The Death Wish, by a rising (but insane) WWII British Army officer:

“You’ve read The Death Wish?” Spruce asked.

“Bits.  It’s pure novelette.”

Novelette? It’s twice the length of Ulysses.  Not many publishers have enough paper to print it nowadays.  I read a lot of it last night.  I can’t sleep with those damned bombs.  Ludovic’s Death Wish has got something, you know.”

“Something very bad.”

“Oh, yes, bad; egregiously bad.  I shouldn’t be surprised to see it have a great success.”

“Hardly what we expected from the author of the aphorisms.”

“It is an interesting thing,” said Spruce, “but very few of the great masters of trash aimed low to start with.  Most of them wrote sonnet sequences in their youth.  Look at Hall Caine – the protégé of Rossetti – and the young Hugh Walpole emulating Henry James.  Dorothy Sayers wrote religious verse.  Practically no one ever sets out to write trash.  Those that do don’t get very far.”

(I hope that Miss Sayers hunted down Mr. Wu and clocked him one for that, by the bye.)

Anyhoo, there it is.

Two other things about the novel, both of which are plusses to Ol’ Robbo.

First, as I say, the story picks up about 1730, and while it’s largely at a distance, the history of the period does make occasional appearances.  There are mutterings here and there of Jacobite and Hanoverian politicks, and Francis in fact meets Bonnie Prince Cherlie in Carlisle during the ’45.  The troubles with the American Colonies also are mentioned.  And there are also hints of the changes beginning to sweep 18th Century Britain with the onset of the Industrial Revolution (which I strongly suspect will have a more prominent part in the next novel in the sequence).

Finally, Walpole’s descriptions of the English Lake District – its geography, its changing seasons, its people – is straight out of a Tourist Board’s dream:  One’s overwhelming feeling upon reading them is the desire to go see the place oneself.  Walpole doesn’t attempt to distort or camouflage anything, either. He’s no Thomas Hardy inventing a region of Wessex or E.F. Benson setting a Mapp & Lucia story in the town of Rye but calling it Tilling.  Instead, he lays out a precise geography – Keswick, Grange, Rosthwaite, Barrowdale, and the River Derwent.  If you dial up Gurgle-Maps, you can pinpoint exactly where each bit of his action takes place.  Ol’ Robbo used to own a book of Lake District photography.  Maddeningly, I can’t seem to find it anymore.  Too bad, because I’d bet a considerable sum that it covered many of the locations described by Walpole.

So overall, a satisfying exercise, I think, although I’m not sure I’ve gained any illumination as to why Cleese mentions it in the Python sketch, except maybe to emphasize the character’s eccentric half-intellectualism.  At some point, I probably will re-read it, too.  A quick glance at the devil’s website shows that the other three volumes of the Herries Chronicles are also available.  Put it this way: I’ll probably eventually buy them because I now know they exist and, frankly, I want to see what happens next, but I doubt I’ll read them (or this one again)  until I’m flopped on a beach somewhere or sitting on a porch in Maine overlooking Casco Bay.  This is pure vacation-reading, so it is.

 

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