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The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. my life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance. Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

Heidi’s Children by Charles Tritten

The two sequels to Johanna Spyri’s beloved Heidi, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children, were neither written nor endorsed by Spyri, but were adapted from her other works by her French translator, Charles Tritten, in the 1930s, many years after the Swiss author of Heidi died. Nevertheless, I read them both when I was a girl, wanting more Heidi, and I found them to be satisfyingly Heidi-like in style and substance.

I decided to re-read Heidi’s Children, after purchasing a used copy from a friend. It’s really a beautiful and intriguing story. In Heidi Grows Up, Heidi goes away to boarding school and then returns to Dorfli to teach in the village school. Eventually, she and Peter are married (as everyone who has read Heidi would know and want them to do). Heidi’s Children begins in the springtime with Heidi and Peter expecting their first child.

Several things about the ideas and perspective in this book impressed me.

Heidi’s and Peter’s attitude about marriage, unremarkable in the 1930’s when this book was published, seems charmingly antiquated in these oh-so-enlightened times:

“. . . with Spring would come one of the greatest joys that a young wife can experience. For both Peter and Heidi felt that no marriage was complete until it was blessed with children. Spring held this promise. Even at the wedding the great event had been prepared for and the cradle had stood ready. This was the custom. Often at a Grisons wedding, the cradle was prepared and a child walked with the bride and groom carrying wheat. This was a sign that the marriage would be fruitful, that there would soon be children.”

Who would think that almost a century after the time of this story, people not only would see children as a nuisance and even a curse rather than “one of the greatest joys” and a blessing and a promise, but would also devalue marriage itself to the point that it has become an unnecessary burden or a meaningless “piece of paper” to many?

I also like the way Heidi and Peter live with their extended family and in community. Heidi’s grandfather, the Alm-Uncle, lives with them, and so does Peter’s mother, Brigitta. Jamy, the village school teacher and a school friend of Heidi’s, boards with the family, and Jamy brings her little sister, Marta, to live with the family as well. Other visitors, such as Klara and Herr Sesemann, are in and out, and it’s just a wonderful picture of a loving community, several generations, helping and serving one another.

I also liked the themes of courage overcoming fear, forgiveness and understanding, visual images and stories as vehicles for knowing God and His love. Little Marta is a good replacement child character for little Heidi, and the grown-up Heidi is someone an adult reader feels as if she would like to have for a friend. Altogether, the Heidi series is a delight, even if the authors are two different people. Tritten writes of his justification for writing the sequels in his foreward to Heidi’s Children:

“I knew Madame Spyri as well as one human, even of a different race, could know another. Every book she wrote was a labor of love for the children she knew so well. Each was written in memory of that little ‘lost one’ who used to ask her to tell him what lay beyond ‘forever after.’ I know that she never refused to grant a child’s wish as long as she lived.”

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr.

I read Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, last year, but I never did review it here at Semicolon because I just didn’t love it the way everyone else did. It was OK, but I probably went into it with my expectations raised too high. So it turned out to be just OK.

However, I did like Mr. Doerr’s writing enough that when Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended Four Seasons in Rome to one of the guests on her podcast, I thought I’d give it a try. And I thought it was quite a lovely book. It’s short, about 200 pages, and sweet, all about the year that Doerr and his wife spent in Rome with their twin baby boys. The day after the twins were born, Mr. Doerr got a letter inviting him to be a fellow in literature at the American Academy in Rome. He will have a year work on writing anything he wants. He doesn’t have to produce anything or prove anything to anybody, just write, expenses paid. It’s too good an offer to turn down, even though the birth, care and feeding of their twins has thrown both Doerr and his f=wife, Shauna, for a loop.

Everyone thinks Doerr and his wife are crazy to take six month old twins and move to Italy, to Rome. But what an adventure! The author spends approximately equal time on the difficulties and joys of caring for twin boys, the beauties and treasures of Rome, and the characteristics and dilemmas of the writer’s life. It’s a good combination. Just as I became a little tired of reading about teething and toddlerhood, the narrative would switch to the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and then to Mr. Doerr’s studio as he attempted to work on his novel, All the Light We Cannot See, but was only able to write a short story plus the journal entries that formed the spine of this book.

On twins: “There is a circle of understanding, an unspoken fellowship, between parents of multiple babies. Two days ago a Roman mother grappled her twins onto the tram at Largo Argentina, one baby clipped to her chest and other in her arms. She flipped her hair out of her face and her gaze took in Henry and Owen, the stroller, me, and for a half second our eyes met. Something in my heart flared. I thought, Hang in there. You’re not alone.”

On writing: “I x-ray sentences; I claw away at a paragraph and reshape it as carefully as I can, and test it again, and peer into the pages to see if things are any clearer, any more resolved. Often they are not. But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.”

On Rome: “Something about this city exacerbates contrasts, the incongruities and contradictions, a Levi’s billboard rippling on the facade of a four-hundred-year-old church, a drunk sleeping on the tram in $300 shoes. Four mornings ago I watched a man chat with the baker for five minutes while half a dozen of us waited behind him, then climb into a Mercedes and tear off at fifty miles hour. As if he had not a single second to spare.”

Recommended, especially if you’re planning a trip to Rome anytime soon—or if you want to make a journey there vicariously.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The Ringed Castle, Book Five in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Checkmate, Book Six in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing, but I’m glad I did. I began reading this six volume series back in December 2013 with Game of Kings, the first book in the series. In this novel, a young Francis Crawford of Lymond, second son of a nobleman and landowner in fourteenth century Scotland, cavorts and carouses his way through wartorn southern Scotland and back and forth across the border with the enemy, England. Francis is a giddy young man with a facile and garrulous tongue, but also a leader in war and romance, with an undercurrent of danger and subversive rebellion running through his character. He’s a medieval/renaissance Scottish James Bond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one.

Queen’s Play and The Disorderly Knights deal with Lymond’s adventures in France and around and about the Mediterranean as he serves and politics the king of France, Henri II, the child Mary of Scotland, later to become Mary Queen of Scots, and the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitaliers. After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and his second in command, Gabriel, both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you’re sure to be hooked by this time, and the fourth book is the climax of the entire story, with a rather infamous human chess game forming the centerpiece of the action. In Pawn in Frankincense, Francis Crawford is at his most vulnerable and his most deadly. The chess game in the seraglio in Istanbul is unforgettable.

Books Five and Six are the ones I read this month as I made my impromptu trip to literary Scotland. In The Ringed Castle, Crawford of Lymond has exiled himself to Russia, the backside of the world in this time period and the land ruled by Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, later known as Ivan the Terrible. In this half-barbarian court of a half-mad tsar, Lymond becomes the Voevoda Bolshoi, supreme commander and advisor to Tsar Ivan. In the meantime, back in England, Phillipa, the teenager that Lymond married in in Book Four, only in outward form in order to save her good name and protect her and her mission, is serving in the court of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and investigating Lymond’s mirky and mysterious past and family background.

Checkmate brings everything in the first five books to a satisfying close, well, almost everything. With a great many starts and stops, hesitations and false starts, triumphs and tragedies, Francis Crawford of Lymond finally meets his destiny, finds his true parents and heritage, and becomes the man he was meant to be. If you have never read these books and you want to, I would recommend that you plan for a marathon reading of all six books in order over the course of a month or more and that you have an English dictionary and a French-speaking translator nearby at all times. A working knowledge of Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Scots dialect would come in handy also.

I have a theory that, after the events of these six books were finished, Francis Crawford of Lymond became the actual secret author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I will admit that it’s really difficult to write a realistic, compelling, and heart-warming story about an adulterous affair. Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and other greats nailed the first two adjectives, realistic and compelling, but no book that I can recall has managed to make adultery “heart-warming”.

Ms. Brockmole tries in Letters from Skye, but in doing so she loses the realism and and even makes the whole tawdry story a bit boring by the time this reader figured out that this novel was going to be a “happily ever after” story, after all. Elspeth Dunn, married to Iain, is a poet who lives on the island of Skye off the coast of Scotland. When she receives a fan letter from American student David Graham, Elspeth answers his letter with one of her own. And so the affair begins.

The story begins in 1912, just before World War I. Eventually, the story moves through the Great War and the time between the wars into the beginning years of World War II. These two wars form the background for this novel of a woman who “loves” her husband, a sort of flat character who never really takes shape as a real person in the novel, but loves her grand passion for David Graham even more.

I had little sympathy for any of the characters in this novel, and I found most of them a tad unbelievable. David, the American, is naive and worldly at the same time, if such a combination is possible. He comes to London to have an assignation with a married woman, but he is offended when his war buddies in France make ugly jokes about his affair. Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, who has never been told much about her background or about her male parent, goes off on a sleuthing spree to find out these details while her mother has disappeared without a trace. Margaret seems more interested in finding out about the letters her mother and David Graham wrote during the war than she is in finding her absent mother. Elspeth herself is “torn between two lovers, feeling like a fool.” I never had any sense of why Elspeth was willing to become involved with another man besides her husband. Nor did I understand why she married Iain in the first place. She seemed to be fond of her husband, but David just wrote such good letters?

I read this book as a part of my May journey through Scotland, but I wish I had skipped it. Not recommended, unless you can believe in a story of romantic adultery.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.

What a fascinating piece of narrative nonfiction history! I learned so many things that I didn’t know before:

The Treaty of Union between England and Scotland (1706-1707), according to Mr. Herman, was actually a huge boost to Scottish commerce, progress, and culture. As he writes the story, the Scots may have given up their independence, but they received innumerable benefits from the deal, including a paradoxical and practical independence from English interference in their affairs that enabled the Scots to “invade” London and indeed England and become leaders in government, education, and business for over a century.

Philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume, historians and biographers James Boswell and Thomas Babbington Macaulay, poets Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, inventors John Macadam (macadam roads), Thomas Telford (canals and bridges galore), James Watt (steam engine), and many other men, both famous and under-appreciated, were all Scots or of Scottish extraction.

Scotswomen, other than the Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, seem to have been quite unheard of and unremarkable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, at least. The dearth of women in the pages of this book reminded me of the scarcity/non-mention of dwarf women in The Lord of the Rings. You know there must be women, and every once in a while a “mother” is mentioned, but the women were not part of literary, educational, or polite society. (Scotsmen remind me of dwarves, or vice-versa, anyway.)

The whole Bonnie Prince Charlie thing and Highland kilts and bagpipes made the Highlands of Scotland a tourist attraction in the early 1800’s, mostly because of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Scotland’s literacy rate (boys and girls) was higher than any other country in the world by the end of the eighteenth century, and printing and book-selling were major industries in Edinburgh during that same century.

And lots more. I found this book fascinating, even if it was a somewhat one-sided view of the power, influence and sheer overwhelming greatness of Scotland and its culture. If everything good, especially in the eighteenth century, came out of Scotland, what happened in England, Ireland, France, America, even China? Another fault in the book, the author begins his story with the true tale of Edinburgh theology student Thomas Aikenhead who was hanged in 1697 for the crime of “obstinate blasphemy”. Herman calls Scotland “a nation governed by a harshly repressive Kirk; a nation of an unforgiving and sometimes cruel Calvinist religious faith.” However, the rest of the book makes little of the influence of the “Kirk” or of Calvinism or indeed of Christianity in general, even though most of the Enlightenment figures in Scotland who dominate the culture for the next two centuries were professing Christians, many of them ordained ministers. With the notable exception of atheist philosopher David Hume, it’s as if their religious beliefs were baggage to be hidden away or overcome and not an influence on their thinking at all.

I would have liked to read more about how the faith of men such as educator, theologian, and philosopher Francis Hutcheson shaped their theology —or perhaps how Mr. Hutcheson was able to reconcile his Presbyterianism with his belief in the innate goodness of man. In fact, the author, Mr. Herman, does highlight the Christian faith of Hutcheson, although with less of a explanation of how that faith was worked out in his life than I would have liked. But the faith of other men who are featured in the book would have been valuable to explore and in treating to read about.

Nevertheless, even if the book is biased in favor of Scotland’s influence and standing in the world, and even if Scots Calvinism is given short shrift in the building of that Scottish moral philosophy, How the Scots Invented the Modern World certainly was a good read. It made me want to look up and find the names and histories of some of my own Scottish ancestors so that I could claim a part in the Scottish heritage that Mr, Herman so ably extols.

The Marquis’ Secret by George MacDonald

In 1875, George MacDonald, Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister, published the novel Malcolm, the rags-to-riches story of a common fisherman who finds his identity as a (Christian) gentleman. The sequel to Malcolm, The Marquis of Lossie, soon followed in 1877. This was the era of Charles Dickens and the other great Victorian novelists, and MacDonald was following in their tradition, with a bit of a difference. First of all, MacDonald, a friend and mentor to Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), was a pioneering author of fantasy (The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, The Light Princess) as well as the realistic, romantic novels the Victorians had grown to love and read avidly. And MacDonald was emphatically a Scot. His novels almost all take place in Scotland or in a fantasy world that looks and sounds a lot like Scotland—–with all the heather and mountains and seas and kilts and bagpipes and thick Scottish brogue that such a setting implies.

In the 1980’s, Christian author Michael Phillips wanted to make MacDonald’s realistic fiction more accessible for a new generation. He edited the two volumes of Malcolm’s story and re-published them with the Gaelic language toned down and reinterpreted and with some of MacDonald’s long didactic passages either excised or edited to be shorter and more to the point. Phillips also gave the novels new titles, The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret. You can purchase these updated versions (or borrow them from Meriadoc Homeschool Library). Or you can read Malcolm and The Marquis of Lossie in the original language online at Project Gutenberg or other online book sites.

In The Marquis’ Secret, Malcolm, who has been secretly told of his true identity, must decide how to handle the information and the responsibility he has inherited. There’s a running analogy in the book between the taming of a wild horse and the growth of a man (or woman) and the “taming” of that man’s (or woman’s) sin nature. As Malcolm must discipline and guide the horse, so the Lord must tame and discipline His children to bring them into the fullness of what He has created them to be.

The two novels that make up the story of Malcolm are all that modern literature is required not to be: melodramatic, yes; didactic, absolutely; one dimensional characters, yes, that too. Malcolm is a hero, through and through, although he says he has had to allow God to tame his temper and his passion for justice. The bad guys are obviously evil, but in MacDonald’s near-universalist worldview there is much hope for redemption for each of them. Nevertheless, sometimes a dose of hopeful preaching through Victorian drama with characters who are recognizably either good or bad (until the bad repent and become good) is just what the reading soul needs. If you want an absorbing drama that will leave you encouraged rather than discouraged about mankind and the depth of God’s mercy, George MacDonald’s Malcolm is just the ticket.

And if you’re in the Friendswood/Clear Lake/South Houston area this weekend, the play, Malcolm, is being performed by Selah Arts at Trinity Fellowship in Friendswood, May 26, 27, and 28th at 7:00 pm each evening.

Come With Me to . . . by Gloria Fowler

Come With Me to Paris by Gloria Fowler. Illustrated by Min Heo.
Come With Me to New York by Gloria Fowler. Illustrated by Min Heo.

“Min Heo is an illustrator and recent graduate of the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.” (From Amazon)

The illustrations are what create interest in this series of books exploring the world’s cities. We have Paris and New York, soon to be joined in July, 2016 by a book entitled Come With Me to London. The pictures are simple, yet colorful and intriguing. If you like the cover illustration, you’ll get more similar pictures inside each book.

The text is rhyming, and although the rhythm or scansion is really off in most of the mostly four line poems that describe each site in either Paris or New York, they are readable, short and to the point. Again, I think the pictures are the focal point anyway. For example:

Along the Seine,
Where the bridges do cross;
From Pont Neuf, make a wish,
With a coin we can toss.

(I’ve no idea why there’s a semicolon after the word “cross” in that one?) It annoys me that the poetry is so poor, but the pictures make up for the lack of rhythm.

In Paris, we get a picture and verse for the Eiffel Tower, the Palais Garnier, the Louvre, Sacré-Coeur, Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Arc de Triomphe, Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and several other sites. For New York City, there are visits to Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Natural History Museum, the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park Zoo, Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, Times Square, and more.

If you’re taking a trip to either city, or to London in the future, these exciting picture books would be a good accompaniment to your vacation. Or if you live in New York or Paris, your child might enjoy getting to know the city through one of these books and then visiting the places that are featured.

Playground by Mies Van Hout

Originally published in the Netherlands under the title Speeltuin, this visually rich and colorful picture book is fun to look through, if a little confusing. The pictures are stunning, busy, and lively. The plot is almost non-existent: two children travel through the pages of this colorful world on their way to The Playground. The reader is invited to “take an exciting trip through this book! Find the way with your finger. These red arrows on each page show you where to start and where to go next.”

Maybe I just don’t get it, but the arrows seem unnecessary. If a child reader wants to run his finger over the double page spreads of rather abstract landscapes, I can’t see how the arrow on the edge of each page helps. But the adventure in art is enticing, and as the two children collect animal friends on each page to accompany them on their journey, the illustrations become more and more imaginative. I can see how this book would inspire children to create their own artistic journey-scape.

The ending is . . . disappointing. Perhaps the author/illustrator is trying to show that the journey is more interesting than the destination, or maybe I’m reading too much into it. At any rate, I would let children explore this book on their own and see what they come up with. Maybe start them on the adventure with the invitation, “Let’s go to the playground! Are you coming?”, but the text, translated from the Dutch, is fairly basic and dull. In fact, I can see this one as a wordless book, and it might work better that way.

Enjoy the color. (Did I mention that the book is very colorful?)

The Fisherman’s Lady by George MacDonald

This book is half of George MacDonald’s novel, Malcolm, as edited by Michael R. Phillips, prolific author of Christian novels. The story is continued in another Phillips-edited novel, The Marquis’ Secret.

The Scots dialect and the didactic passages are heavy going for modern readers, so Phillips tried to make the romance novels that MacDonald wrote a bit more accessible. And he was quite successful in this necessary endeavor; at least it was necessary for me. Take a look at the following few lines from the beginning of MacDonald’s original 1823 book, Malcolm:

“Na, na; I hae nae feelin’s, I’m thankfu’ to say. I never kent ony guid come o’ them. They’re a terrible sicht i’ the gait.”
“Naebody ever thoucht o’ layin’ ‘t to yer chairge, mem.”
“‘Deed, I aye had eneuch adu to du the thing I had to du, no to say the thing ‘at naebody wad du but mysel’. I hae had nae leisur’ for feelin’s an’ that,” insisted Miss Horn.
But here a heavy step descending the stair just outside the room attracted her attention, and checking the flow of her speech perforce, with three ungainly strides she reached the landing.
“Watty Witherspail! Watty!” she called after the footsteps down the stair.
“Yes, mem,” answered a gruff voice from below.
“Watty, whan ye fess the bit boxie, jist pit a hemmer an’ a puckle nails i’ your pooch to men’ the hen hoose door. The tane maun be atten’t till as weel’s the tither.”

If you get more than the gist of that dialogue, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. A whole book’s worth of deciphering that speech would be be a mighty task indeed.

Phillips begins with some description of the setting and the situation of the characters, and then he has Miss Horn say, “No, no. I’ve got no feelings, I’m thankful to say. I never knew any good to come to them.” Got it: Miss Horn prides herself upon having no feelings.

So, if you want to read the original, have at it; it’s available online at Project Gutenberg and probably elsewhere, too.. I’ll stick with the Phillips version, which has enough dialect and Scots flavor to keep me satisfied without confusing the reading too much.

Malcolm McPhail is a handsome and gentlemanly young fisherman with a mysterious past. Lady Florimel is the daughter of the present marquis, Lord Colonsay of Lossie. Duncan McPhail is a blind bagpiper and grandfather to Malcolm. As the story begins, a certain Lady Grizel has just died, and the Marquis is returning to his home near Portlossie on the Scottish coast where Malcom and his grandfather make their home.

I did think that some of the plot elements of MacDonald’s story were a little far-fetched, but then he was writing at about the same time as Dickens and the other Victorian novelists, and I don’t suppose MacDonald’s plot is any more unbelievable than some of Dickens’. (Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton practically twins? Oliver Twist just happens upon his long lost family in the middle of London?)

The Fisherman’s Lady ends with the death of one character and the revelation of a long-held family secret, but there is no real resolution to the dilemma of how to reconcile Malcolm’s fine and gentleman-like character with his lowly situation and class. The citizens of Scotland and England in the early nineteenth century were even more class conscious than those of early twentieth century Downton Abbey, and there’s wide, wide gulf between Malcolm the fisherman and the Lady Florimel. It remains to be seen, in The Marquis’ Secret, whether the author George MacDonald can bridge that gap with the revelation of secrets of parentage or the preaching of sermons about the equal standing of mankind before God.