Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck – #1929Club

It’s always interesting, when an author has become famous for books written later in their career, to go back to the very beginning and read their earliest work. Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s first novel, was published in 1929 and is my second choice for this week’s 1929 Club hosted by Simon and Karen.

I’ve previously only read two of Steinbeck’s books (East of Eden and The Pearl) and hadn’t even heard of this one until I started to look at options for 1929 Club. I was intrigued because it sounded so completely different from his other books – not the sort of plot or genre I would have associated with Steinbeck at all. It’s also a short novel (just over 200 pages) so I could easily fit it into my busy October reading schedule!

Cup of Gold opens in 17th century Wales where a fifteen-year-old boy, Henry Morgan, lives on a farm with his parents and his grandmother, Gwenliana, who claims to have second sight. Growing up in a remote part of the Welsh countryside, Henry is growing restless to leave home and see more of the world. When Dafydd, an old farmhand who left many years earlier to go to sea, returns to the farm to tell the family of his adventures, Henry becomes determined to do the same. His mother, who still considers him a child, tells him not to be ridiculous, but his father accepts that this is something his son must do and sends him off with his blessing.

Before leaving, Henry consults the wise, white-bearded poet known as Merlin, who lives alone with his red-eared dog in the hills above the Morgans’ valley. Merlin makes the following observation, words Henry will remember for the rest of his life:

“You are a little boy. You want the moon to drink from as a golden cup; and so, it is very likely that you will become a great man – if only you remain a little child. All the world’s great have been little boys who wanted the moon; running and climbing, they sometimes caught a firefly. But if one grow to a man’s mind, that mind must see that it cannot have the moon and would not want it if it could – and so, it catches no fireflies.”

Arriving in Cardiff – the first time he has seen a large town – Henry secures passage on a ship to Barbados, where he finds himself indentured to a plantation owner. This is not what Henry had been hoping for, but he knows it will only be for a few years and then he’ll be free again to achieve his dream of becoming a buccaneer and making his fortune.

If the name Henry Morgan is familiar to you, then you’ve probably already guessed that this is the story of the notorious pirate of the Caribbean, a real historical figure (and the inspiration for Captain Morgan rum). In fact, the full title of the novel is Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History. ‘Occasional reference’ is not an exaggeration because it seems that very little of Steinbeck’s account has anything to do with historical fact – although, to be fair, there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of Morgan’s early life and career so plenty of scope for an author to use their imagination. It’s unclear whether I should even be referring to Morgan as a pirate; many sources describe him as a privateer, although the only difference I can see is that one is declared ‘legal’ by the government who stands to gain from their raiding and pillaging and the other isn’t.

The ’cup of gold’ of the title, which Merlin compares to reaching for the moon, refers to two things – Panama, which Henry sees as the ultimate prize just waiting to be captured from the Spanish, and a beautiful woman known as La Santa Roja (the Red Saint). Henry’s yearning for both of these is what drives him – and the narrative – forward. Yet I found this book to be neither the swashbuckling adventure novel nor the romance I’ve seen it described as and it’s certainly not as much fun as Georgette Heyer’s Beauvallet or Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. It’s a more serious novel than either of those and never loses sight of its central themes: the quest for happiness and the question of whether we can ever be truly content with what we have or will go on searching for something that’s always out of reach. However, I discovered that I didn’t really care about Henry’s happiness as I found it so difficult to relate to somebody who deliberately set out on a life of piracy and committed so many terrible acts! That was a bit of a problem with so much of the story told from Henry’s perspective.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and the sections set in Wales – or Cambria, as Steinbeck usually calls it – feel mystical and dreamlike. The inclusion of Merlin in the plot is intriguing: are we supposed to believe that he is really the legendary magician, alive in the 17th century, or is he just an eccentric old man who believes he is Merlin? Either way, Arthurian legend is obviously something that interested Steinbeck and he would later go on to write The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which was posthumously published in 1976.

I wouldn’t describe this as a must-read classic, but it’s worth reading if the subject or setting appeal or if you’re interested in experiencing the work of a famous author at the very start of his career.

I’m also counting this as book #57 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Fool Errant by Patricia Wentworth – #1929Club

This week Karen and Simon are hosting 1929 Club, the latest of their biannual events where we all read and write about books published in the same year. 1929 turns out to have been a particularly great year for publishing, with lots of tempting titles to choose from, but I decided to start with a book by an author I had never read but had been intending to try for a long time.

Patricia Wentworth is better known for her Miss Silver mystery series, but Fool Errant is the first of four novels featuring a different crime-solving character – Benbow Collingwood Horatio Smith. Named after three famous British admirals, the mysterious Mr Smith lives in London with his very talkative parrot, Ananias, and carries out some sort of espionage work for the Foreign Office. We learn little more than that about him in this book – in fact, he only makes two or three brief appearances and remains an eccentric, shadowy character in the background.

The novel opens with a nervous, stammering young man, Hugo Ross, arriving at Meade House, the home of the inventor Ambrose Minstrel. He is hoping to apply for the position of secretary and is surprised when Minstrel immediately offers him the job despite his lack of qualifications and experience. Before he even starts work, however, he has an encounter with a young woman in the street who is running away from home to avoid marriage with a distant cousin. When she hears that Hugo is planning to join Minstrel’s household, she is horrified and advises him to leave at once, but rushes off to catch her train before Hugo can ask for an explanation.

Taking up his new position as Minstrel’s secretary, Hugo soon begins to feel that something is not quite right at Meade House. Following a series of strange occurrences – and another warning from the young woman, whose name he discovers to be Loveday Leigh – Hugo decides to consult his brother-in-law’s uncle, Benbow Smith. It seems that he has stumbled upon a plot that could have serious implications for the government – and for his own safety if Minstrel finds out that he has guessed the truth. With the help of Smith and Loveday, Hugo must try to foil the plot while convincing Minstrel and his accomplices that he really is the timid, gullible idiot they believe him to be.

Fool Errant turned out to be a good choice for my first Patricia Wentworth novel; I expect it’s quite different from the Miss Silver books, being much more of a thriller than a mystery, but it was fun to read and the exciting plot kept me turning the pages. My only real problem was with the ridiculous characterisation of Loveday Leigh who, although she saves the day on one or two occasions, behaves like a child, is unable to have a serious conversation and expects kisses at the most inappropriate moments. Women like Loveday are quite common in books from that era, of course, but she has to be one of the worst I’ve come across!

This probably isn’t a book I’ll want to read again, but I did enjoy it and will look forward to reading the other three Benbow Smith novels…eventually!


Other 1929 books previously reviewed on my blog:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

Dickon by Marjorie Bowen

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie


This is also book #6 read for R.I.P. XVII