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.
‘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.