Saturday, April 23, 2011

Westward Ho! - Charles Kingslake

 Ah Easter!! Four days off from the mind numbing drudgery of slavery...oops, I mean my wonderful, pleasing job, full of excitement and opportunity...NOT!! I intentionally picked up Westward Ho! to read over the four days of Easter because it is a book I have started in the past but couldn't get into. I read the first few chapters but as work, and life in general interfered, its complexity became too much and I put it down for another day. That day arrived on Friday, and I picked it up again, and read its 694 pages in two days!!

 It is interesting to note that wikipedia has Charles Kingslake down as a children's author. I was quite staggered to read this because Westward Ho! is certainly not a children's book, and would be a challenge for many adults to read. The Water Babies is regarded by many as exclusively a children's book, but I have read differing views on that point as well. If Westward Ho! is a children's book then all I can say is the children of 1855 were far superior readers than the children or adults alike of our modern era!

 Charles Kingslake was an interesting character. His diverse life and attitudes are mirrored in his novels, as was the custom of the day. During his life he was a clergyman, professor, historian, and novelist. In Westward Ho! he uses all four of his vocations to write an historically based novel. It is based in the Sixteenth Century between the the mid-1570's until the Spanish Armada of 1588. In several reviews I have read of this novel it came to my attention that Kingslake wrote this during the Crimean War as a piece of patriotism at a time when things in the Crimea were not going well, ( see his reference on page 432 as an example).

 The whole novel smacks of patriotism and is very England, England, oi, oi, oi! There is nothing wrong with patriotism to be sure, but combine it with virulent anti-Catholicism, and anti-Spanish sentiment, it just becomes a bit of a drag. Westward Ho! isn't just patriotic it is nothing but down right propaganda parading as a novel. I'm pleased that I read up on this novel before reading it because to know something of Kingslake, and the compunctions behind his writing of the novel, is understand it more, and to take it on its face value.

It is an historically based novel and Kingslake refers to many works he has read on Sixteenth Century English history. Throughout the novel he describes the Caribbean Islands, and South American jungle from reading such works of those who ventured there. He names them as books the characters themselves have read to give credence to his own writings. Kingslake has been praised for his vividness of his descriptions of those said lands even though he never saw them himself. I must admit they are quite good and mirror those of Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe.

 Kingslake also shows, or maybe shows off about, his knowledge of history by constant references to events of the past. Salamis, Marathon, are mentioned as examples, as are historical, and mythical figures such as Saul and Hercules. He inter-twines them as examples of what is happening within the novel. He was certainly a well read man, but at times I felt he patronised the reader to the extent of not knowing any basic history. This again shows how Kingslake infused so much of his own thinking and prejudices into the whole novel.

 As it is the late 1500's then the enemy is Spain, and with it Catholicism. Kingslake himself was a church minister and Westward Ho! is virulently anti-Catholic. The text smacks of Kingslake's own feelings on Catholicism, and doesn't just mirror the feelings of the time the novel is based in. He goes in to several very harangues of the religion under the guise of one of the books characters. The whole novel is riddled with the evils of Papacy and the cruelty of the Spanish and the Inquisition. They are seen as heretics who plundered the Indians of gold, and subjugated them in the process. Such may be the case, but Kingslake isn't shy in coming forward in his condemnation. I honestly started to get sick and tired of his Catholic bashing as that is all it resorted to by the end. This isn't patriotism, it is his private views on a religion he dis-agrees with, and shows his inability to accept that others have the right to worship under which ever religion they choose to.

 He even goes as far to say that Catholics see woman as nothing more than trophies, and for nothing less than re-procreation!! This is an educated man who is writing this stuff!! It is quite despicable really and laughable now as to how he honestly be lived his own nonsense. The novel is riddled with such finger pointing and fault finding of other nations and their people, that the reader can't help but fail to see that this is not a novel per se, but a 700 page work of propaganda. All it does is praise the heroics of England's sea heroes Drake, Raleigh, etc, that one would think no other nation ever produced a mariner of any note.

 Kingslake was also a believer of Darwin. Westward Ho! was published before The Origins of Species but Kingslake does have two of his characters hold a dis-course on evolution and their belief in it. This coming from two Sixteenth Century characters!! That would have been seen as heresy to say the least, and is again Kingslake putting into the novel his own private views, without regard to historical accuracy for his own ends.

 Ireland also does not escape his roving pen! I'm not up on Irish history of the period but Kingslake is not shy on describing the Irish as, 'the children of wrath'. They are 'wild', 'untamed, 'unlawful', Papal heretics of little worth, and the English are there to provide law and order. Again Kingslake delves into his own opinions and justifications, ( he does attempt some smoothing of the waters later on by referring to the fact that Irish and English soldiers were fighting together in the Crimea).

 Over all Westward Ho! must be read in the context of the time and manner in which it was written. It is pure propaganda to make the English feel good about themselves during a war that wasn't going well. It is riddled with the greatness of England. It unfortunately delves off into some unpleasant territory as far as Spain, Ireland, and Catholicism is concerned, and has nothing to do with patriotism but is the ramblings of a religious bigot, and all but racist. Kingslake has written a great piece of feel good propaganda, but its manner galled me and by the end I was relieved to have finished because his opinions are severely out dated, and nothing but tiresome, mis-guided rhetoric. I admire his sentiments, and desires in writing this novel to lift flagging English spirits, but he could have written a more rousing novel without infusing his private prejudices into it under the mis-guided belief it was patriotic to be bigoted.

 I did like Westward Ho! believe it or not. It is deeply flawed by today's standard as far as many issues go. It must be seen in the light it was written in though. It does get a bit tedious after a while but it can be skipped if you wish. Kingslake makes a point of this at one stage when a long winded dis-course is about to begin writing to the reader, 'turn the leaf to find pasturage more to liking'. There are many long winded dis-courses throughout the book. I must admit to having read EVERY word even though so much was just waffle and totally unrelated to the story line. They were some tangentical I was going, 'what the...?' as I read them. They are indicative of the era and something that irritates me no end .

 Throughout the novel, for all the long windednes,s there are some great lines that only writers of the era could deliver. As examples:

'Grumbled like Etna', to denote anger. Etna of course being the well known volcano.

'Nether tackle', and 'throat tackle', to denote bum, and throat.

'The authority of her mirror', to denote a beautiful woman who knows she is by what she sees in her mirror.

'Fleshed my maiden sword', to denote having killed with a sword for the first time.

'The father of lies', to denote the Devil.

'One long kiss', to denote sex.

 And others like 'saucy fellow, and 'ogling the maidens'. They are all good literature and something I particularly enjoy from books of the era. Writers then used words and terms in away modern authors just cannot even begin to emulate. For all that I enjoyed it, but that enjoyment is tempered by the long dis-courses of tediousness and pedantry that were something of a curse. In War and Peace I was able to edit out Tolstoy's ramblings, but in Westward Ho! Kingslake inter-twined the ramblings with the narrative so I had to read them to find where one finished, and the other started. I found my mind wandering through out the waffle, but once the story started again it was fun and interesting reading. It is a great story of England and her mariners during the Sixteenth Century. It would be more enjoyable if it could have been skillfully edited and the waffle cut out. The propaganda angle would remain, but that isn't what degrades the novel. It is the author's views. If you read it in the light of the times and are able to ignore Kingslake's inherent bigotry, then Westward Ho! is a enjoyable and worth while read.

 Click here for Wikipedia's short biography of Charles Kingslake. It has links to Westward Ho! and his other novels. The link to Westward Ho! is worth looking at as it provides some interesting facts on the novel and its influences, such as on the naming of an English town, and the use of the phrase by the settlers of the American western frontier.

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