A late entry to our run of Compton Mackenzie reviews…
Review by Helen C:
It is 1917, and young Dick Deverell has been invalided out of the army and posted to man a protective garrison on the islands of Roon and Carrackoon, off the coast of Lyonesse. There he meets the elderly Knight of Romares, whose ancestors have owned the islands for centuries, and his two daughters – and the farm-bailiff, the ferry skipper and various other locals who run the estate.
This seemed to me a fairy-story for grown-ups – handsome young hero falling in love at first sight with lovely, shy girl (who seemed to have far less character than her feisty tomboy of a younger sister); autocratic aristocratic father, who refuses Dick his daughter’s hand; rustic locals, speaking in local dialect, pompous and stupid Army captain, who orders Dick around. The islands, which are unspoiled and beautiful and steeped in fairy legend, with their cromlechs, towans, tors and ‘watchmen’ standing stones, seem as much the main characters as their inhabitants; the author describes their flora and fauna in strikingly vivid language (but sometimes, I felt, rather more often than required!) and we too are soon overtaken by the enchantment felt by Dick and the girls:
“Before her spread the dazzling sea out of which Carrackoon rose dark against the sun; behind her was the warm granite of the cliff’s face and its polychrome of lichens, eyed and dappled with pale yellows and dragon greens, rinded with old gold, husked with orange, ringed and targeted with black and shaggy with ashen-grey…”
The writing is detailed, with some brilliant descriptions and imaginative prose, mostly fascinating and often amusing, though I felt that in some parts the story lacked pace. The author spends too long, I thought, in the first half of the book, endlessly describing Dick’s love for Vivien and his anxiety about revealing it and its reciprocation (luckily, outspoken younger sister Venetia plays Cupid.)
In the second part of the story, when Dick has left the island under a cloud (but is still corresponding with his beloved) the action concentrates on quite a different subject – the desperate attempts of the Knight, a lifelong gambler, to raise funds to maintain his islands and their rustic staff.
A hidden cache of ‘fairy gold’ is found on the island, but quickly disposed of by Vivien, to placate the island spirits (just when we thought it might solve the problem!) The Knight then links up, in Monte Carlo, with a seemingly wealthy but smarmy “profiteer” who suggests a partnership/loan with the object of turning the islands into a tourist attraction for day-trippers – a proposal which horrifies the girls.
Negotiations drag on and on until it looks likely that this offer by Sir Caleb (nicknamed “the Cheshire Cat” by the girls, who consider him a ”greasy, hypocritical glutton”) will turn out to be ‘fairy gold’ too, and never materialise. The Knight is cleverly played like a fish on a line by Sir Caleb (though perhaps for too long to maintain our interest?) and finally, the Knight offers Vivien’s hand to Sir Caleb’s son, in a bargain to save the islands.
Will Vivien give up her real love? Or will some other ‘fairy gold’ appear to save her romance and the islands’ future? Is there a fairy-tale ending?
In addition to the romantic interest, a major thread, running throughout the book, is the threat to a sacred, private and unspoiled wilderness by the intervention of the ‘outside world’, beginning with Dick and his men, clearly unwelcomed by the Knight and his family – although Dick soon falls under the spell of the girls and thus of the islands too, with their luxuriant vegetation, their rock and sand formations, their natural beauty and their legends.
With the appearance of Sir Caleb and his entourage, and their proposals to modernise the islands, there is a feeling of danger both to the islands themselves and to the future happiness of the longstanding inhabitants. When the girls manage eventually to frighten Sir Caleb away by subjecting him to an ordeal-by-sand-and-tide, we are heartily relieved!
Original readers may perhaps have been more interested in the War references than the modern reader, and possibly in the class hierarchies of the characters? But the independence and confidence of the younger sister certainly appeals to us today, and the beauty of the prose makes it a worthwhile leisurely ‘holiday read’ – if you like fairy stories.