While Jim Hawkins was sailing westward, a young contemporary was on a treasure-hunt of his own ‘in agro Dorcestrensi’ among the Mohunes of
Tears flowed apace
not all that long ago in the fourth year classroom of a South London girls’ comprehensive. Even the school librarian, reading aloud the shipwreck of John Trenchard and Elzevir Block on Moonfleet Beach, broke down and wept.
may be hard for the youth of our more cynical times to credit, but it betokens a continuing resilience in John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet over the decades since its first publication in 1898. After all, for many years it existed chiefly as a drab-looking ‘class reader’ (with its mild cuss-words toned down so as not to offend sensitive teachers) and even in that unprepossessing form it enjoyed an eager readership.
is the category into which the book is thrust by pigeon-holers, but, like all great fiction, it has the quality of being simply itself. Certainly it is historic in its mid-eighteenth century setting; certainly it is a romance in its adoption of such conventional elements as rumours of ghosts in churchyards, secret passages for smugglers, coded messages of the whereabouts of the Mohune diamond, miserly squires and bonny publicans, and betrayals and sacrifices.
But the craftsmanship is something else.
Falkner may take some of his materials from the stock-box, but the articulation of these into a felt narrative is the work of a master storyteller. He gives the voice to an ageing John Trenchard, reflecting on the dramatic events of his youth, and formulating descriptions and explanations without marring the steady pace of the story. As incident follows incident with increasing tension so one finds them to be cunningly dovetailed into each other and matters seemingly irrelevant emerge as vital components in the drama.
The characters too want for nothing
– even John’s girl Grace, who has been called ‘a stick’ and might be thought present for reasons of inclusivity if such a bright idea had existed in 1898. Rather she, along with the schoolmaster, the Rev. Glennie, fills a necessary role in counterbalancing the dubious morality of almost everyone else: her own villainous father, Ratsey the smuggling sexton, and Elzevir Block, the true hero of the tale.
The precision of John Trenchard’s address
does much to reinforce the immediacy of the story. There is a graphic quality to his descriptions: the ‘lattice of folds’ in the paper carrying clues to the hidden treasure, the ‘swealing of the parchment under the hot wax’ at the end of the auction-by-candle, and such things give life to what might have been tired conventions. Through this, the reader is implicated. You know that calamities are bound to follow that auction, or the botched landing of contraband under Hoar Head, or the getting of Blackbeard’s diamond and the naive attempt to sell it (‘evilly come by and bringing evil with it’). But how can you climb into the book to give due warning?
The graphic quality
is present too in Moonfleet’s topography. The village itself is an imaginative extension of the actual Fleet which lies above Chesil Beach to the west of Weymouth, and the whole area from there to the Isle of Purbeck is so portrayed as to endorse the truth of the action – most completely in the climax with that gulp-provoking scene on the lee shore of Moonfleet. These places were well-known to Falkner whose boyhood had been spent in Dorset where he acquired a profound sense of the history within the landscape.
How come then that he wrote so little else?
For although he lived for thirty-five years after Moonfleet appeared, dying in 1932 at the age of 74, he published only one other work of fiction, a fine novel: The Nebuly Coat (1903 – a rather obsessive ghost story, The Lost Stradivarius had preceded it in 1895). The slightly astonishing explanation is that, soon after graduating from Oxford in 1882, Falkner had become tutor to the children of Andrew Noble of the Newcastle armaments firm of Armstrong Mitchell (later Whitworth). From this modest position he moved into the company and eventually became its chairman during the crisis-ridden time of the Great War. Strange fate for a sensitive novelist, and strange too that he ended his days as Honorary Librarian to Durham Cathedral (beside which he had his home) and as a fabled collector of medieval manuscripts.
The illustrations by F R Exell are taken from the Puffin Classics edition, 0 14 036704 7, £4.99 pbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times. He has edited Moonfleet for the ‘World’s Classics’ series published by Oxford University Press (1993, but now vanished beneath the tides).