The Green Gauntlet by RF Delderfield

I loved the first two books in RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy and am sorry it has taken me three years to get around to reading the third book, The Green Gauntlet. It was lovely to be back in the Shallowford Valley and become reacquainted with Paul and Claire Craddock and their family, friends and neighbours.

If you’re new to this trilogy, I would strongly recommend beginning with the first novel, Long Summer Day, which is set in the Edwardian period and tells the story of how the young Paul Craddock buys an estate in the Devon countryside and becomes Squire of Shallowford, gaining the trust and respect of the other valley families along the way. The second book, Post of Honour, continues the story through World War I and finally, in The Green Gauntlet, we follow some of the same characters throughout World War II and its aftermath. By the time you reach this third and final novel there are a huge number of characters and storylines to keep track of, which makes it difficult to give a summary of the plot, so instead I will just pick out a few things that I particularly enjoyed.

First of all, there’s the conflict between the old ways of life and the new as change comes to the valley in the form of new technology, improvements to transport networks and differences in generational attitudes. Paul is disappointed to find that many of the younger people, including several of his own children, don’t share his love for their little corner of England and are only interested in the money they can make out of it. Although the book was published in 1968, some of the issues it covers, such as the over-development of land and destruction of the environment are still very relevant. There’s a sense that Paul himself belongs to a world that is rapidly disappearing and that the valley he remembers now exists only in his mind:

His patriotism, as she saw it, was at once more localised and more broadly based, drawing its strength from the books he read and the thoughts he thought. It had to do with Valley crafts and Valley loyalties, with the food they grew and the dialects they used. It reached back into the history of history books that, for most people, herself included, had no more reality than the stories of the Old Testament but for him had a message that had regulated the whole of his life since she had known him. If it brought him comfort now who was she to question it?

Another of the novel’s themes is the war, of course, and Delderfield occasionally takes us into the heart of the fighting where several of our characters – including Paul and Claire’s twin sons, Andy and Stevie, and their son-in-law Rumble Patrick are serving in various branches of the armed forces. The valley itself doesn’t remain unscathed either, with bombs falling, sea mines being washed ashore and a German pilot descending in the woods. Although there’s plenty of action and always something happening in the Valley, the story moves along at a leisurely pace and the focus is on the daily lives of the characters and the relationships between them. I was particularly gripped by the story of Andy’s wife Margaret, who finds herself married to one twin while in love with the other and with no guarantee that either of them would come home alive.

I do think this book could have been made a lot shorter without losing any of the plot and the last few chapters seemed to go on forever as every loose end was tied up. Despite this, I was still sorry to reach the final page and to have to leave the Valley and its people behind. Luckily, RF Delderfield wrote plenty of other novels which I can look forward to reading and I already have one of them, Farewell, the Tranquil Mind, waiting on my shelf.

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021. Obviously I’ve failed to complete my list this year, but I’ve almost finished two more books that I won’t have time to review by the deadline, so I’m not too unhappy with my result!

Post of Honour by RF Delderfield

Post of Honour is the second book in RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy which begins with Long Summer Day, one of my favourite reads of last year. For me, this second novel is not as good as the first, but still very readable.

As this book and the first one were originally published in 1966 as one very long volume, Post of Honour picks up the story just after Long Summer Day ends in 1911, dropping us straight back into the daily lives of the people of the Sorrel Valley. A few years go by with small dramas taking place – weddings, funerals, births, deaths, new friendships being formed and new romances beginning to blossom. And then, in 1914, war breaks out in Europe and life in the Valley will never be the same again.

Although I had allowed a whole year to pass between finishing the first book and picking up this one, I found that I had no problem remembering the characters and storylines. It was lovely to be reacquainted with old friends like the former street-urchin Ikey Palfrey, the wild, untameable Hazel Potter, suffragette Grace Lovell and, of course, our hero Paul Craddock, the squire of Shallowford. The first part of the book is devoted to the First World War, showing us how these characters and many others are affected, either directly or indirectly. One of the Valley men becomes a conscientious objector while others fight in the trenches and those left at home wait for news of their loved ones. It would be unrealistic for all of our much-loved characters to return from war unscathed – so, inevitably, there are some deaths and the next section of the novel looks at how the inhabitants of Shallowford and the Sorrel Valley recover from their losses and try to move on over the next two decades.

This book covers a much longer time span than the previous one and this, in addition to the number of deaths during the wartime chapters, means the introduction of lots of new characters from the second and third generations. One of the things I remember loving about Long Summer Day was the way Delderfield brought each character, even the minor ones, fully to life. However, I don’t think he does that quite as successfully in Post of Honour and I felt that many of the new characters were little more than names on the page. With the exceptions of two of Paul’s children – Simon and Mary – and Ikey’s son, the strangely named Rumble Patrick, I simply wasn’t very interested in any of the others.

By the end of the book, another world war has begun, and I do want to see how Paul and his friends and family will fare. I will be reading the third book in the trilogy, The Green Gauntlet, but after that I’m looking forward to leaving the Sorrel Valley behind and trying some of Delderfield’s other novels – probably beginning with the one I already have on my shelf, Farewell the Tranquil Mind.

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Long Summer Day by RF Delderfield

Long Summer Day was a long summer read, but I enjoyed every minute of it! First published in 1966, this is the first part of RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy (originally just two books rather than three, as this one and Post of Honour were intended to form one huge volume; the final book, The Green Gauntlet, came a few years later).

Long Summer Day begins in 1902, early in the reign of King Edward VII, and ends in 1911, shortly after the coronation of his successor, George V. The novel takes its title from the fact that this period of history, coming just before the horrors of the First World War, came to be looked back on with nostalgia and described as the ‘Long Edwardian Summer’. Set in rural Devon, it follows the story of Paul Craddock, a young man who is injured during the Boer War and, with his military career at an end, decides to use his inheritance from his father to buy an estate in the countryside.

At first the inhabitants of the Sorrel Valley are suspicious of their new Squire, but through his efforts to befriend and understand them, Paul quickly earns their respect and acceptance. As he gets to know each of the families who live in and around the valley, we, the reader, have a chance to get to know them all too. It’s a very large cast and at first it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but eventually each character, however minor, becomes a fully formed human being and is given a storyline of his or her own.

I can’t mention all of the characters here, but some that I found particularly memorable include Ikey Palfrey, the stableboy Paul informally adopts and sends to school; Will Codsall and Elinor Willoughby, a young couple whose marriage forms one of the novel’s first small dramas; the agent John Rudd who manages the estate and provides Paul with both advice and friendship; and Hazel Potter, the wild youngest daughter of one of the valley’s most notorious families. In such a tight-knit community, the stories of each of these characters and many more are closely intertwined so that the actions of one may have repercussions on the lives of the others.

As an eligible young bachelor, Paul attracts the attention of several of his female neighbours almost from the moment he arrives in Devon, but only two come to play an important role in his life. One of them is Claire Derwent, daughter of one of his tenant farmers, and the other is Grace Lovell, a cousin of the family who previously owned Shallowford, Paul’s estate. Grace is a fiercely independent person, a feminist who believes passionately in women’s suffrage. I felt that I should like her, but although I did admire her strength and courage, her prickly nature made it difficult for me to warm to her. Claire, though, I loved from the start – and my opinion of her never changed. Although she has little interest in politics and keeps herself busy with more domestic tasks, it’s clear that she is happy with this and that it’s her choice. I found her sensible, down-to-earth, kind-hearted and a strong person too, although not in the same way as Grace. To discover which of these women Paul chooses, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!

The personal stories of the characters are played out against a backdrop of events from Edwardian history: Edward VII’s illness and delayed coronation, the political conflict between the Conservative and Liberal parties (it’s plain to see where the author’s own political sympathies lie) and the beginnings of the suffragette movement. We also find out how the characters react when change and progress finally makes its way to the Devon countryside and they see their first ‘horseless carriage’.

Long Summer Day is one of my books of the year so far, without a doubt. It’s written in the sort of warm, comforting, old-fashioned style that I love, and despite its length I felt that the pages were going by very quickly because I was so absorbed in the lives of Paul and his friends – it’s one of those books where you truly feel as though you’ve escaped into another world for a little while!

A Horseman Riding By was adapted by the BBC in the 1970s, with Nigel Havers as Paul Craddock. Has anyone seen it?

This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.