The Yellow Poppy by D. K. Broster (1920)

Review by Jane V:

I first discovered this book as a teenager in the school library (where Broster’s books had then come to rest) in the mid-fifties. D.K. Broster’s better known Flight of the Heron was also there and these books made a lasting impression on me.

The Yellow Poppy tells the story of the Duc and Duchesse of Trelan during the aftermath of the French Revolution when sporadic rebellions against the regime of Napoleon were beginning to occur in Northern France. Aristocrats were returning from exile, often funded by the aristocracy in England, to attempt to regain their former estates and standing. Both the duc and the duchesse are high minded, faithful to their class ideals and impossibly noble! The themes of honour, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice permeate the book which is fast paced and colourful and manages very well to convey an atmosphere of 18th century France from the point of view of the landed and titled gentry. Broster often uses French in the dialogue and the speech generally is archaic which furthers the portraiture of the many tortured, handsome young men in the story, with their bravery, their romantic notions and their intense soul-searching.

However, Broster is concerned to offer a good combination of historical accuracy to her reader. One is aware that a lot of research preceded the writing of this novel. In notes for a lecture she gave, Broster wrote:

‘It is not easy to make a good blend of history and fiction, when one does really care that the historical part shall be correct and that the story itself… shall have plenty of movement and not be overshadowed by the historical background …. The clash of character is far more vital than the clash of swords; but there is no reason why one should not, so to speak have both between the covers of a historical novel. I have always at least aimed at the conjunction of the two”.

Margery Fisher, critic of books for children, in an appraisal of another of Broster’s novels, argues convincingly that Broster is in a direct line of descent from Scott, Stevenson and Buchan . . . and uses some of the same adventure devices of fight, flight and misunderstandings; and inhabits their world, where fictional adventures overlap historical events. Certainly there are echoes of Orczy’s romantic historical fictions and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

Historical novels such as this one, now almost a hundred years old, may not be to the modern taste, but this one succeeds in taking the reader right into the heart of an idealised, lost and very romantic world. Goodness knows to what extent novels such as this one are responsible for planting unrealistic notions of high minded ideals in the head of a fifteen year old girl locked up in a boarding school in mid 20th century Britain! Real life never matched up to this. But still I defy any (perhaps female?) reader to get to the end of this book without the help of several good, strong paper handkerchiefs.

[Where the nobles are very noble, tall in stature with amazingly beautiful hair, fine features and long pale fingers but the peasants are short, course featured and have large, ugly hands – even when they are on the aristos’ side!]

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