The Continuing Story of Ortho Penhale: Proud Cornishman and Bold Adventurer.

I’ve written about Crosbie Garstin, a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life, before, when I read the first of his three novels about the life of Ortho Penhale; and when I caught sight of a new biography of the author I remembered that I had never written about the second and third books of the trilogy, and I thought that I really should.

The author was the son of a noted artist, and he was born in Newlyn, late in the reign of Queen Victoria. He traveled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, fact and fiction, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-three years old.

I say this again because, while Ortho Penhale’s story is fictional, it is clearly deeply rooted in Crosbie Garstin’s own experiences, and it draws on both his love of travel and adventure and his love of his Cornish home.

‘High Noon’ opens in the West Indies, late in the 18th century. Ortho had been press-ganged by the Royal Navy when he went down to see what was happening in a small cove not far from his home. At first he had been philosophical; delighted to be at sea again and earning good money, but chafing a little under the restriction and at having to take orders from younger and less experienced men.

When his ship reached St Lucia, Otho decided that he’d had enough, and that he would jump ship and find his own way back to Cornwall. He wondered if he had made a bad mistake when he was drawn into a trap laid by a seductive woman, who he slowly realised was terribly dangerous; and it was only by using all of his charm and experience that he managed to get away.

The atmosphere that Crosbie Garstin created was extraordinary. I loved the way that light suddenly turned to darkness and that he put me right there at Ortho’s side and had we wondering how on earth he could possibly escape this time.

When he got back to Cornwall, Ortho found that much had changed. His brother Eli told him that he couldn’t go on managing his farm as well as his own. The lovely girl he had planned to marry had married another man and was the mother of a young son. And his mother, Teresa, had died in strange circumstances.

Ortho understood his brother’s concerns, and he set to work straight away. He had always loved his home and the life he led there; and, though he and Eli were very different, they had a great deal in common and they understood each other well.

He realised why his lovely girl has married in haste as soon as he saw her young son.

And an encounter with a horse trader helped him to understand how and why his mother life had ended. John Penhale had rescued her, a gypsy girl, from a cruel master and she came to love him and to love the farm that she saw as a land of plenty. When he died she took comfort in rich food and drink, and in extravagant living. As she grew older that left her vulnerable, and one day her past caught up with her.

That completed a circle; there are a number of circles begun and completed over the course of this trilogy.

The story of Ortho’s return to Cornwall was wonderfully well told, firmly rooted in places I knew well; and I found it so easy to believe that the Penhale family lived and breathed and that the stories I read really happened.

He wanted a wife, and when he met Nicola, the daughter of a wealthy Penzance family he thought he had found her. She was bright and vivacious, she was brave and adventurous, and all of her family loved the tales that Ortho had to tell. They wouldn’t accept Ortho as a suitor though, and so they began to meet in secret and they ran away to get married.

Ortho realised too late that they should never have married, that Nicola would need to be cared for and protected for the rest of her life, and that her family had stood against their romance for the very best of reasons. He accepted that he had to accept the consequences of his actions, that he had to accept the responsibilities of a husband even though the woman he had married would never be a wife to him.

Though he didn’t always live within the law, Ortho had firm principles, he was a man of his word and he accepted that he had to deal with the consequences of his actions, for better and for worse.

He put arrangements in place, and then he went to sea because that was the only way he could earn enough money to pay for everything that was needed. Fate took him back to St Lucia, and a second encounter with the woman who might have been – who might still be – his nemesis.

This second volume of the trilogy built very well on the first volume and left interesting possibilities for the third.

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‘The West Wind’ was published just a year after ‘High Noon’ but it is clear from the start that something has changed. An elderly ship-owner tells his daughter stories of Ortho Penhale, who he knows has lost his own boat and hopes might come to work for him.

He accepts, and there are more adventures, but Ortho is aware that he is growing older too and that he must look to the future. While he remains married to Nicola he will never have a legitimate son, but he knows that he cannot abandon her. He would have happily left his farm to his brother’s son, but Eli’s wife lost a child after a difficult pregnancy. She had nearly died too, and she would never be able to conceive another child.

Ortho was pragmatic. He decided that he would intervene to make sure that his illegitimate son was educated, that his work would give him a chance to rise in the world. His plan worked, but it worked too well. The young man became an officer in the Royal Navy, and he was appalled to find that his sponsor was a rough seaman who was often at odds with the rule of law, whose friends were smugglers and horse- traders.

It seemed impossible that father and son would be reconciled, and that the son would accept his legacy.

As this story played out Ortho continued to run his farm, to play an active part in local life, and to travel when he could. He encountered old friends and old enemies, and he began to feel the consequences of the life he had lived and the choices he had made.

This is a more thoughtful book than the two that came before, the author considering his hero’s mortality, maybe because he was considering his own after his father’s death. ‘The West Wind’ is dedicated to the ‘dearest of fathers, wittiest of companions, best of friends.’

There is still room for high adventure, wonderful storytelling, and a great deal of Cornish colour.

In the end Ortho’s luck finally runs out. The parallels between the author and his hero have always been striking, and Ortho’s demise is a strange foreshadowing of Crosbie Garstin’s, just a few years later.

Eli and his wife Mary, who always had a soft spot for Ortho, are left to pick up the pieces and to encourage his son to accept his legacy.

It’s the right ending for this series of books, and the right ending for Ortho Penhale.

He was a man of his time, and there and there are some comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

That shouldn’t deter anyone from reading these books. That are full of wonderful stories, those stories are so vividly told, and I am still happy to believe that the Penhale family lives not so far away from where I am now and that we have walked the same streets and looked at the same landscapes. I read an old library copy but there are newer, cleaned-up editions available.

It’s a while now since I read the last page, but the story and the characters are still living in my head.

And I know that there’s a new biography of Crosbie Garstin out there. I really must find a copy, because I would love to know more about him, and about how much of his own life he used to tell the story of the life and times of Ortho Penhale.

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1925)

I remember, many years ago, falling in love with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing as I read every one of her books that Virago republished. Back then I read library copies, and years later I started to collect her books for my own library, secure in the knowledge that I could happily read them over and over again.

‘Love’ was one of the most elusive titles, and even though many of the details had slipped my mind I remembered that it was a particular favourite, that it had an especially striking cover, and so I was delighted when I finally found a copy to keep.

This is the story of a romance between a young man and a somewhat older lady, and I on the second time of reading my love for the story grew and grew.

The young man is Christopher, who works in an office and shares a London flat with a friend. His favourite pastime is visiting the theatre, and there is one play he loves above all others and goes to see many, many times. He comes to realise that there is a lady who must love the play as much as he does, because he sees her there often; and one day, when they are sitting on the same row, Christopher broaches a conversation.

8b8ccc28a2f44a1593544615651444341587343The lady is charmed, and the pair talk about the play and about many other things, but Christopher finds that she is reticent when it comes to talking about herself. All he learns is that she is Mrs. Catherine Cumfrit, and that she is a widow. He wishes she would say a little more, and that he could get to know her rather better.

When the perspective shifts it is easy to understand why Catherine is reticent. She had married a sensible, reliable man who was significantly older than her, and she had been a widow for a few years. He had been concerned that she might fall prey to fortune hunters when he was gone, and so he left his estate and his fortune to his daughter and just a small income to his wife.

His concern had been well-intentioned, but it had consequences that he hadn’t considered. He left his estate and his fortune to their daughter, rather than to Catherine herself, because he was anxious that Catherine might be taken advantage of by a fortune hunter. Catherine’s daughter, Virginia, had married at the age of eighteen; and that left Catherine in a rather uncomfortable position in the where she had once been mistress. She saw that her daughter was blissfully happy with the older clergyman who said that she made him feel young again, and she realised that it was time she found a new home of her own.

Her small income allowed Catherine to live modestly in a flat in London, with one servant to look after her. She missed her home, she missed the countryside, she missed having money to buy new things, but she told herself that she had to come to terms with a new way of life.

When Christopher came into her life, Catherine was flattered by his attentions, and she began to think that maybe she wouldn’t be a widow for the rest of her life. She was anxious though, because she knew that Christopher hadn’t really thought about how much older that him she was, and what the consequences of that might be. Not knowing quite what to do, she decided to escape to the country for a little while.

The household staff were delighted when Katherine arrived with two trunks, but Virginia and her husband, Stephen, were rather alarmed by the prospect of a long visit. They were too polite to say so, but their behaviour made their feelings clear, and Katherine was appalled to find herself considered of an age with Stephen’s mother when she was in fact a little younger than Stephen.

They completely forgot that Katherine had been mistress of the house for more than twenty years, until just a few months ago; and they didn’t give a thought to how she might feel. They were completely wrapped up in their own love story, and they were oblivious to anything else.

Katherine couldn’t explain why she had come to stay, and she began to realise that she was an unwelcome quest.

Then Christopher – unwilling to give up his pursuit – arrived with on his motorbike, with a sidecar to carry her back to London. Katherine was delighted, her family were scandalised, and the trip back to London put the relationship between the pair onto a new footing.

They married.

There would be drama in London as Katherine tried to keep up with her young husband and to be the kind of wife she thought he would want; and there would be drama in the country when the time came for Virginia’s first child to be born.

Would the relationship between come through the approbation of friends, family and society, AND all of that?

The answer wouldn’t come until the last pages, and I flew through the book until I got there, because I was so caught up with the characters and their stories. Those characters and their relationships are so well drawn; and there are many lovely reminders that love is blind, and that it can make us blind.

The juxtaposition of two relationships with age gap – one considered quite normal by society and one not – is particularly well done.

The plot is so cleverly constructed, balancing expected and unexpected developments, confirming some assumptions and overturning others, changing some things and leaving others just as they were. There are big questions and small questions to ponder, wrapped up in a wonderfully engaging story.

Best of all is the narrative voice. It has the warm, wry wit that is so typical of Elizabeth Von Arnim, and also has things it wants to say and points that it wants to make. I wasn’t at all surprised at all to learn that the author was inspired by a relationship of her own with a much younger man.

She really was inspired, and I really think that ‘Love’ is a marvellous novel.

The Trap by Dorothy Richardson (1925)

When I started to read this, the eighth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’, I found that the pattern of a new home and a new beginning at that start of each book, a pattern that had run through the earliest books of the series and then faded away, seemed to be beginning again.

Miriam was still in London, but she had moved from Mrs Bailey’s boarding house where she had been happily settled for some time to a very different home.

“An old little street. A scrap of London standing apart, between the Bloomsbury squares and the maze of streets towards the city. The light gleaming from its rain-washed flagstones gave it a provincial air and a freshness unknown to the main streets, between whose buildings lay modern roadways dulled by mud or harsh by grimy dust.

Whenever during all her London years Miriam had passed the spot where it opened into the thoroughfare, the little by-way had drawn her eyes; always stating its sequestered charm. Entering it now for the first time she had a sense of arriving nowhere.

 Yet she was an inhabitant of Flaxman’s Court. Up there on the upper floors of the house that remained so quiet before her claim, were room as quiet, her own.”

It wasn’t clear why she had moved, it was one of the many things in Miriam’s world that remained unexplained. I have learned as I read her story that was something I had to accept, and I have learned that it is important to observe passing observations as they often prove significant.

It might have been that she was uncomfortable with the relationship that had developed between Mrs Bailey and another boarder; it might be that she didn’t want to be there when the Canadian doctors who had thought so little of her that they left without saying goodbye, made a promised return visit; it might be that the letter that from her friend’s husband that she found when she returned home at the end of the last book caused her some embarrassment; or it might be that she simply felt it was time for a change, or that it was time she found somewhere a little less expensive …

I’m not trying to reach a conclusion; I’m simply trying to explain that with careful reading there is much to appreciate and much  that you have to think about in this series of books.

20160106_193046Even if the title of this book had been something other than ‘The Trap’ I would have known from the start of the book that Miriam would not be happy in her new home. She was sharing a room with another single lady, Miss Holland, and they had only a curtain dividing the room to allow them any degree of privacy. It wasn’t right for Miriam, who valued, who needed, her own space, and though she and Miss Holland were polite and got on well enough they had very different outlooks and were fundamentally incompatible.

Life went on.

Miriam continued to attend political meetings; she continued to work in Wimpole Street; she joined a women’s group; she visited friends; she was courted by Dr Densley, who she had met through Miss Dear ….

But always the story returned to that room in Flaxman’s Court.

There were moments when Miriam was happy, when she found the peace she sought in a space that she had been able to make her own, but there were too many things pulling her down. Her difficult relationship with Miss Holland; an intrusive landlord; noise from tenants in the room below ….

I felt for her, but I was also infuriated by her, because she was so rigid, so unable to accept the compromises that human relationships both require and reward.

I put the book to one side for quite some time.

I prepared to write that this was the weakest book in the series.

But then I began to think that there was something that Miriam was pushing to the back of her mind that was making her unhappy. Her relationship with her friend’s husband, the writer Hyppo Wilson – inspired by Dorothy Richardson’s long relationship with her friend’s husband H G Wells, went unmentioned, even though he had written that letter that she was so happy to receive at the end of the last book.

Was she troubled, was she feeling guilty, about that relationship?

Had something changed?

I doubt that I will ever have answers to those questions, but they made me curious to read more.

I was delighted to find that she did what single women still have to do to this day. She picked herself up, she told herself that she was responsible for her own life and her own happiness, and she set out to make a fresh start.

The writing was light and beautiful again; because Miriam was looking out into the world again.

Maybe it was the death of her sister Eve; maybe it was ending her relationship with Dr Densley; maybe it was seeing her sister Harriett emigrate with her husband and child; maybe it was taking her next steps as a writer; maybe it was seeing Wells – not Wilson this time, Wells – in the distance; maybe it was something else entirely.

Whatever it was that made Miriam decide that it was time for a change and to break with Miss Holland, it has me eager to continue reading.

I am sure that there will be times when she infuriates me; that there will be times when I find the gaps in the story and the things that remain unexplained maddening: but Miriam and her world are so very alive; Dorothy Richardson’s writing is like nothing else I have ever read; and I still want to follow this series of books to the end.