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.


‘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.

The Owl’s House by Crosbie Garstin (1923)

Crosbie Garstin was a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life.

He was born in Newlyn – my father’s home town – the son of an artist, late in the reign of Queen Victoria, he travelled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-tree years old.

His fiction is deeply rooted in his own experiences, and this book – the first of a trilogy – draws on both his adventures and his love of his Cornish home.

The story opens  1752, when John Penhale had just been told of an ultimatum in the will of his Aunt Selina: “Marry within the year or lose your inheritance.” John was the last of the Penhales, and had inherited the farm that tree generations before him had built up; and his aunt was proud of her family heritage and wanted that family to thrive and prosper.

7cdfa2be773b628597435586741444341587343 He didn’t want to lose his aunt’s farm, further up the county, but he was reluctant to marry. John’s face was horrible scarred; the result of an accident with a shotgun. An attempt at matchmaking by his aunt some years earlier had ended in tragedy and he had retreated from the world, throwing himself into the management of his farm.

Fate took a hand before John had time to think about what he should do.

On his way home he had to fight off an attack by a highwayman; and when he reached home he found that he had been followed by a gypsy girl, who told him that as he had enabled her to escape from her cruel master she had come to serve him.

He tried to send her away but she wouldn’t go.

Teresa, who’d had the hardest of lives, saw the farm as a land of plenty and she loved living and working there. John’s scars didn’t bother her at all; she came from a world were men fought for dominance; that they had scars was a fact of life.

John loved her vitality, and the joy that she found in farm life.

Teresa found a chest of clothes in the attic, and she loved to dress up.

“He stepped nearer, peered round an oak, and saw a sight which made him stagger and swear himself bewitched. There was a marvellous lady dancing in the circlet, and as she danced she sang, twanging an accompaniment on a a little guitar.

She was dressed in a straight-laced bodice, stitched with silver and low cut, leaving her shoulders bare; flowing daffodil sleeves caught up at the elbows, and a cream-coloured skirt sprigged with blue flowers and propped out at the hips with monstrous farthingales. On her head she wore a lace fan-tail, but her feet were bare. She swept round and round in a circle, very slow and stately, swaying, turning, curtseying to the solemn audience of tress.

If not a sprite, where did she come from?

There was not her like in the parish ….”

That was the encounter that made all the difference. John and Teresa were married, they found themselves very well suited, and she bore him two sons.

I was swept away by their story; it was so very richly told and so very engaging. And Crosbie Garstin captured my part of Cornwall – the people, the places, the speech patterns, the way of life, everything – absolutely brilliantly. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that he loved his world, his story and the telling of it.

Now, you may have noticed similarities between this and the beginning of a more famous series of novels set in Cornwall. Yes, there are noticeable similarities, and I don’t doubt for a moment that Winston Graham read and was inspired by Crosbie Garstin, but this is a very different story.

I had been looking forward to following their story, but I found that this wasn’t their story.

It was the story of Ortho, the elder of their two sons.

John died suddenly; struck down in his prime.

Teresa was shattered. In time she found comfort in playing the grand lady, going to market and shopping, entertaining her admirers in the local hostelries. She didn’t realise how they saw her, and it was heart-breaking to watch the coarsening of one who had been such a vibrant young woman with so much promise.

Meanwhile her sons ran wild. Only their love of their home and the world around it stopped them going off the rails too.

Ortho fell in with gypsy horse traders, and with local smugglers.

His brother, Eli, had a very different temperament. He was more thoughtful, and when his brother went out to look for practical solutions to their problems he looked for answers in books. They worked together well, managing their mother and managing the farm.

Ortho wanted more though. He wanted adventure. He wanted to see the world.

He got his wish. He fled from a raid on local smugglers and he fell into the hands of corsairs and was taken to be sold into slavery.

He had such adventures – as a slave, as a soldier, as a spy, as a sailor – before he made his way home again.

That story was very bit as vivid, every bit as real, as the story back in Cornwall.

It was a wonderful, swash-buckling story, but it is not without problems. some of the secondary character are a little stereo-typed and there are a few comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

There isn’t so much that it should deter you from reading the book, but you should be aware.

Incidentally, the main street in my town that Teresa often visits is called Market Jew Street and it derives its name from the Cornish “Marghas Yow” which means Thursday Market. Nothing do with Jewish people ….

(There is a ‘cleaned-up’ reissue available, but I read an older edition from the library.)

Teresa was heart-broken to lose her son. Ortho was her golden boy, and the steady, sensible Eli bored her. She really couldn’t see why everyone around her thought so well of him; she couldn’t see that he was keeping the farm going and that she would be lost without him.

When Ortho came home she was jubilant, and when she saw a chance to keep him close and send Eli away she took it.

But there were consequences to her actions that she didn’t foresee.

That set things up beautifully for the second part of the trilogy.

I have it on hand.