Wednesday, February 4, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
When I lived in Richmond, I made frequent trips to the main branch of the public library downtown, where one could find, in the lobby, a large array of books for sale. They consisted not only of discarded library books, but of books that had been donated throughout the year. Occasionally I would see a volume that looked interesting, but whose author was unknown to me, and at fifty cents (for hardcover books), I often took the plunge - and rarely with better success than when I purchased a novel of historical fiction, Jenkin’s Ear, by the father-and-son team, Odell and Willard Shepard.
Published in 1951, the novel is in the form of a narrative penned by the 18th century writer and antiquarian, Horace Walpole, (son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole) and is an epic tale of the War of Jenkin’s Ear. This conflict took its name from a Captain Robert Jenkins, who claimed that his ship had been boarded by arrogant Spaniards who had severed his ear. This was one of the sparks that set off a war between England and Spain that raged between 1739 and 1742, and that was ultimately subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession, which did not end until 1748. The action in the novel sprawls across the globe, from Europe to North and South America, and the book is filled with sub-narratives provided by the participants, including, among other things, a nearly-successful Jacobite scheme for driving George II from the English throne. We encounter a number of historical personages besides Walpole: David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, Kitty Clive, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the curious figure of Robert Jenkins himself.
Here is a brief description by “Walpole” (in the light and ironic style that characterized the real author’s writing) pertaining to the war in North America, where the Spaniards had enlisted the aid of the Indian tribes against the English. The author draws some amusing parallels between the generational differences shared by the elders of both the Creek Indians and the English political scene:
“Creek politics are not hard to understand if one keeps in mind the situation here in England when a raucous group of Young Whigs and the whole baying pack of the Tories were assailing my father’s policy of peace. On the one hand there is always the party of older, wiser and better established men who already have enough scalps in their possession to assure them of political power and social respect for the rest of their lives. Almost invariably their vote is for peace, if only because they know that every fresh scalp brought in by a younger man reduces in some degree their own preeminence. For scalps newly taken they feel an abhorrence not wholly unlike that of an English gentleman for “new money.” Their notion seems to be, indeed, that scalp-taking is a brutal business which ought from henceforth to be prohibited, and that every one should be contented with the trophies he has already acquired.
Now, this attitude, enlightened as it seems to us, is deeply resented by those who have comparatively few scalps, or, in cases of extreme destitution, none. Asserting that the motives of the peace-keepers are wholly selfish, they do not scruple to revile them in public speech…with a ferocity that goes beyond even William Pitt in his fire-eatingest days.”
In its fidelity to the style of Horace Walpole, and in its description of myriad exciting scenes of battle and shipwreck, plus the weaving into the narrative of the clever machinations of the Jacobites, the authors have created a work of fiction that is an exuberant page-turner with an authentic flavor of the times (and incidentally, it includes an astounding twist toward the end). The book, unfortunately, is out of print, but there appear to be plenty of copies available on the internet, and this one is well worth chasing down.