I have not just one book but two to tell you about today. Dora Greenwell McChesney is an author from the late 19th/early 20th century whose work I discovered a few months ago when I read her Richard III novel from 1913, The Confession of Richard Plantagenet. I love reading about Richard III, but I also enjoy reading about the English Civil War, so when I spotted reissues of two of her Civil War novels on NetGalley recently I was curious to see what they were like.
Rupert, by the Grace of God, originally published in 1899, was the first one I read. I was attracted to this book by the title; it refers, of course, to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I and commander of the Royalist cavalry. When I read a biography of Rupert earlier in the year, I said that I was interested in reading more about him (and was given a few suggestions in the comments, which I will get around to reading eventually – I promise!) so that was definitely part of the appeal of this particular novel for me.
The story is narrated by Will Fortescue, a young man who has defied his father to join the Royalist army. Taking refuge in a church to hide from enemy soldiers one day, Will finds an unusual golden coin on the floor and picks it up, unaware that in doing so he is changing the whole course of his life. The coin is recognised by Cosmas, an elderly man whom some say is a wizard, and Will finds himself drawn into a secret plot to put Rupert on the throne in place of Charles. Rupert himself, however, is loyal to his king and wants no part in such a treacherous scheme!
There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t really what I’d been expecting. Being part historical adventure novel and part gothic melodrama, it was entertaining at times, but I have to admit, I can see why it was allowed to go out of print for so long. I was interested in Will Fortescue’s personal story and in his involvement in the battles and key moments of the Civil War, but there was too much focus on secret conspiracies and black magic rituals for my taste and after a few chapters I felt my attention starting to wander.
The second McChesney novel I read was Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse, published several years later in 1903. This is a different sort of story, concentrating on the relationship between two soldiers within the Parliamentarian army: Nathan Standish, a young captain, and Reuben Strong, who is promoted to the rank of cornet after capturing Prince Rupert’s banner. Throughout the novel, Strong and Standish cross paths on several occasions with a young Irish Cavalier, Roy O’Neil, and his sister, Eileen.
Strong is a dedicated, inflexible person who believes very strongly in carrying out God’s work. When another character tells him “we are all somewhat more than mere engines of soldiership,” Strong answers “I am no more! I am a sword, a sword tempered to this work and to no other use.” Standish is a more likeable character and plays such a prominent part in the story, I wondered, at least for a while, why the author had chosen to put Strong’s name in the title.
Of these two books, I preferred Cornet Strong. Although it was still quite reliant on coincidences, chance encounters and last-minute escapes, it felt like a more ‘serious’ historical novel, telling a more straightforward story. Instead of the magic and mystery of Rupert, by the Grace of God, this one deals with battles, military campaigns and army life. Again, though, I never really felt fully absorbed – not until near the end, when something was revealed which made me think differently about everything I’d read up to that point.
Dora Greenwell McChesney’s writing style won’t appeal to everyone – the language used in her dialogue is archaic and her prose in general feels old-fashioned, even for books published in 1899 and 1903. These two novels haven’t won a place on my list of favourite Civil War books, but they were interesting in parts and were fairly quick reads, particularly the shorter Cornet Strong, so I did find them worth reading.