Wednesday, February 7, 2018
'Children of the New Forest' by Captain Frederick Marryat
In The Children of the New Forest, Marryat describes the trials and triumphs of the four Beverley children, orphaned during the English Civil War and forced to take refuge with a poor woodsman in the New Forest. This is the first annotated edition of a great children's classic, which has retained its popularity since 1847.
I chose this title to fit into the category called a re-read of your favourite classic, for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I adored this book when I was in Year 9 at High School. I read it through several times, daydreamed about it, recommended it to others, and even tried to draw pictures of the main characters. But I never read it to my own kids since they strongly objected to the title and cover design. (More about their assumptions here. Throughout this review, I'll share several alternative covers I found, but I'm sure none of them would have impressed my fussy mob any more.) So this was my first read since childhood. It made me a bit nervous, as it's a sad let-down when things don't live up to our rosy memories. But I was relieved. Whew!
It begins with a huge event that draws us right in. The time period is the English Civil War, and the king's troops, known as the Cavaliers are fighting against Parliament and the supporters of Oliver Cromwell who want to overthrow the monarchy. An old park ranger named Jacob Armitage overhears a plot to burn down a gracious old mansion named Arnwood, where the fugitive King Charles is suspected to be hiding. It was the home of a deceased war hero named Colonel Beverley, whose young children will surely burn to death if nobody intervenes. Jacob sneaks them out that very night, with a plan to bring them up as his own grandchildren. So Edward, Humphrey, Alice and Edith must learn to live a rustic lifestyle and fend for themselves in the New Forest, since Jacob believes it's far too dangerous to reveal their true identities.
The bulk of the book is all about how they manage to get along after Jacob's death. It includes defending themselves against scoundrels and cutthroats, and concealing their identities when Parliament hijacks the running of the forest, which hurts their royalist hearts. The oldest boy Edward chafes against the lie he's compelled to live, and longs to strike a few blows for the king on his own behalf. It's easy to feel his frustration as he and the others grow into their latter teens.
My biggest turn-about is the brother I most admired. When I was a teenager, the restless and adventurous Edward stole my heart. But this time round, I noticed how he seems to walk around with his head in the clouds, dreaming of being a hero, while Humphrey is busy making practical improvements in the short term to keep them all alive. The younger bro seems by far the more intelligent, humble and creative of the pair. He gets ideas from books and improvises with whatever's on hand. In fact, lack of resources is just a fun challenge for him. He revolutionises the cottage, figuring things out from personal observation, trial and error. And above all, he's content to be overshadowed by his brother, and not the sort to be seduced by promises of glory. Humphrey, I've got to say, you're the man!
I was still fond of Edward though, because in all his crusader's zeal and getting people's backs up, he's so human. A couple of other reviewers commented that he's a bit of an idiot at times, which is fair enough, since even his best friends agreed. They expressed it a bit less bluntly though.
'You have been more bold than prudent, Edward.'
Or, 'For these times, you are much too frank and impetuous. This is not the time for people to give vent to their feelings and opinions.'
Or, 'Do you not see you do your cause more harm than good?'
Or, 'Be no longer rash and careless in avowing your opinion.'
In Edward's defense though, he isn't arrogant, and is quick to recognise wise advice and take it on board, even when it comes from younger siblings or men supposedly on the other side of the political spectrum. It's written so that even if you think he's an idiot, he grows on you, and you still want the best for him. (And you can't go past the girl he falls in love with for foolishness, notably in a decision she makes towards the end. I felt like shaking her. But she's a product of her time.)
A couple of other characters they met along the way were among my favourites. The kids accidentally trap a gypsy boy named Pablo, who proves to be a staunch friend and honorary family member, and adds comic relief with his matter-of-fact comments and occasional efforts to shirk intense labour. But one of the best characters by far is Mr Heatherstone, the Parliamentarian who's been appointed superintendant of the forest. Edward and the others must learn to trust him as a friend, even though he presents as an enemy. But Heatherstone is playing a most daring and clever double agent game. It's worthy of Severus Snape, and he grows really fond of Edward as a bonus :)
I noticed that some of the most critical reviewers dissed this book based on 21st century ethics, which we could hardly expect an author from Captain Marryat's era to share. Sure, the girls tend to be sidelined by the boys, and there seems to be a fixed mindset that the quality of a person corresponds with the class into which he's born. ('Edward appeared as he was, a gentleman born, and that could not be concealed under a forester's garb.') Yet I believe it's unfair to label the author as a chauvinist or social snob, when he was probably one of the most open-hearted, generous and liberal thinkers of his time. I think the best way to get the most out of this book is to suspend our modern scruples and approach it as an eye-opening step back in time when people thought differently. Then there's all sorts of treasures to pick up.
The courteousness of everyday speech is a highlight for me. I love it that these teenagers throw around such cool words in normal conversation as importunity, assiduity and inimical, and it flows so naturally without seeming at all forced. Even when they're insulting their enemies or teasing each other, the language is just beautiful. It made me a bit sad for the woeful deterioration of young people's vocabularies. Maybe it takes reading a book like this to show how low it's sunk.
I love the simple faith of their time and place. There was evidently no church service, but Jacob's first thought was, 'I can't teach them much, but I can teach them how to fear God. We must get on how we can, and put our trust in Him who is father to the fatherless.' And the Beverley kids keep up their private devotions after his death, remaining devout in their youthful way, without being overly pious.
The parts about the four of them adapting to their rural lifestyle are fun, interesting, and arguably the best thing that could have happened to them. Learning to be self-sufficient rather than waited on by servants for all things is a great advantage. For Humphrey and Alice in particular, being self-taught opens up a whole range of fantastic talents they might never have tapped into in their old lives. The lifestyle is described in one place as 'Arcadian.' In our fast-paced digital age, reading about four teens who live a hidden, quiet life, mainly concerned with subsisting adds a perspective that's probably good for us.
There's a bit too much about acquiring venison for my personal taste. I'd obviously forgotten how many times deer and other animals were simply wounded rather than killed outright :( But overall, I couldn't put the book down when it came to the last few chapters, which is the sign of a great storyteller in any era. If a conventional handsome, strong, ambitious and plain-spoken main character like Edward isn't enough to tempt you, I'd encourage you to read it for the sake of the hidden heroes, Humphrey, Pablo and Heatherstone.
Now, I can't resist adding a few good quotes.
Edward: You certainly were not born to be secluded in this forest.
Humphrey: I rather think I have found that I was born for it.
In attempting to free ourselves from what we considered despotism, we have created for ourselves a worse despotism, and one that is less endurable. It is to be hoped that what has passed will make not only kings but subjects wiser than they have been.