10th December 2021
In my last blog I described three books I found while working in the bookshop by authors I was familiar with but where the titles were entirely new to me. Such an incredible variety of works are donated to us that I have recently come across three books this time by authors unknown to me but writing on topics to which, in my view, their different approaches are rather unique. Their common theme is travel.
The first is The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain, a novel published in 1947. Costain was a Canadian journalist based in Ontario and New York. In his 50s he started writing historical novels. He also wrote history including a 4-volume account of the Plantagenet kings (which George Martin has described as his model for the Game of Thrones series). I found The Black Rose to be quite the page-turner.
It is set in the reign of Edward I and concerns a young aristocrat, Walter of Gurnie, dispossessed of his inheritance by the local rival family, who sets off on a journey to the Far East accompanied by his boyhood friend, Tristram, an archer. There is a touch of Marco Polo - and indeed Polo wrote about almost the same period, but as an observer rather than an activist in his own Travels of Marco Polo. Along the way Walter, meets an actual, though rarely written about, historical character: Bayan of the Baarin, Kublai Khan’s top general who was engaged in reducing the Chinese Southern Sung dynasty (and its breath-taking splendour is described in detail) to Mongol rule. Fortunately, both Bayan and Walter share an obsession with chess (so Walter wins Bayan's favour by playing him at chess - and losing).
He also meets (oh, he had to!) a beautiful young woman, Maryam, who proudly claims her father was an English soldier. She is being conveyed under guard to Kublai Khan’s harem but Walter and Tristram engineer her escape (I know!) and Walter marries her.
Back in England he recovers his land and comes under pressure from the King to marry the heiress of the rival family (a marriage contracted abroad by rites unknown in England or to the Roman Catholic Church was "obviously " void.). The book cries out for a sequel but it was never written.
There were several unusual features about this book. First of all, the historian in me observes that any attention to Edward I is pretty rare (and no good press when he appears e.g., the film "Braveheart"). Secondly, we have a hero who not only marries an essentially foreign woman, also a heroine in her own right, who is not of his class and according to foreign ceremony but remains faithful to her to the end of the story. Thirdly - and what I found remarkable about this book - especially in a novel of its time, was the detailed contrast between the luxury and sophistication of the East compared with the coarseness and poverty of the West. The West does not come out well.
Moving on: The Journeys of Celia Fiennes is an edited account by Celia Fiennes (who I take to be an ancestor of the acting Fiennes family) who as a young woman in the period between 1685 and 1703 made various excursions across all parts of England and even ventured into Scotland. It was also published in 1947. References to ‘we” show that she did not travel alone and suggest at least one servant and possibly two, one female, one male. Nevertheless, this was a bold enterprise, the roads being frequently impassable and infested with footpads and highwaymen. Celia’s descriptions are vivid and although she is plainly well-connected with access to aristocratic houses, she prefers to stay in simple lodgings to experience ‘real life’, avoiding the rituals associated with being a country-house guest.
Interestingly, Celia is also a dissenter in religion - i.e., she was definitely not a Roman Catholic, nor a member of the Church of England but of the Independent chapels (as was Mary Wollstonecraft in her day). Hence, Celia cheers the overthrow of the Catholic James II and the arrival of William of Orange and Queen Mary and always notes her pleasure when meeting others also of the dissenting persuasion. She is, however, a frightful snob and prefers her dissenters genteel, remarking on the population of a dissenting town that they were “of the meaner sort”. She is interested in food - being excited to purchase crabs as big as two fists for very little money in Hull. Also interestingly, she sees Richard III’s tombstone in Leicester (so it must have been apparent for some time that he was buried there, eventually disappearing under the carpark from which his remains were excavated 2012). Her descriptions often could apply today; much as Jane Austen did in “Emma” she describes Box Hill on “ a greate height “ above “a little town called Darken” (Dorking) and “the top is cover’d in box, whence its name proceeds, and there is other wood but its all cut in long private walks very shady and pleasant and this is a great diversion to the Company and would be more frequented if nearer Epsom town” (by the race-track crowd, presumably!?).
The scope of her travels, that she writes as a woman and a dissenter, and despite her class consciousness, that she journeys amongst the people, all make her account unique. This book is a pleasure.
Finally, Hiking with Nietzsche (2018) was written by John Kagg, a USA philosophy academic who was obsessed with the 19th century German classics scholar and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - most famous, or infamous, for having his phrases such as ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘the Superman (der Ubermensch)’, adopted by Nazi ideologues in the 1920s/1930s, and for ‘Thus Spake Zarasthustra’ which was set to music by Richard Strauss and features in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Nietzsche’s Nazi following, it is generally recognised now, was based on heavily adapted versions of his work by his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, a fanatic follower of Hitler, during his final illness. As the title suggests, the book is based on hiking trips that Nietzsche took in the Swiss Alps and our academic retraces his steps, carrying with him the books Nietzsche was working on at the time, stopping to read from time to time. Nietzsche hiked alone but our author takes with him his wife, Carol, herself an academic philosopher, but a follower of Immanuel Kant-as different from Nietzsche as chalk from cheese (or reason from instinct) - and their infant daughter. On one day Kagg sets out alone to re-create a walk he did as a student which ended with him spending a night on the mountain and suffering scarring from frost bite. This second journey does not turn out well though not so badly; he spends far too long in a reverie up on the slopes, loses his way and get a furious reception from his wife and daughter on his return.
The book is a fascinating blend of scenery, thought, biography and auto-biography. of a kind I have never come across before. But I must confess that having now read two books about Nietzsche, and several of his works, I am still not clear about what he has to say to us today.
These three books are a selection. There are other discoveries which I could have chosen to illustrate the journeys that can be made through the books we have in our little book cave. But I hope you enjoyed reading about these which I thought particularly special.
- David W, Volunteer