Smuggling and skullduggery

Chesil2

J Meade Falkner Moonfleet
Puffin Classics 1994 (1898)

Chesil Beach in Dorset is a spectacular bank of pebbles stretching for nearly twenty miles along the Dorset coast, running in a north-easterly direction from south of Weymouth. Behind it for part of its length is a freshwater lagoon called the Fleet. I have happy memories camping near Fleet village with my young son in the early nineties, exploring the area and visiting Portland Bill and Weymouth. But it hasn’t always been known solely as a holiday area: in the 18th century smuggling was rife, as elsewhere on the British coast, and Moonfleet portrays — with only a little romanticism — the kind of activities in which smugglers were involved in this part of Dorset.

Written fifteen years after Treasure Island Moonfleet superficially resembles that earlier adventure story: both are set in the 18th century, both have a young protagonist falling under the spell of a charismatic father-figure, both involve a search for ill-gotten treasure — the location of which is indicated by the chance discovery of a document — and feature an inn and an overseas voyage, though one features pirates and the other smugglers. But there are differences: for example, while Treasure Island includes first-person narrative from Dr Livesey as well as Jim Hawkins, Moonfleet is told entirely from the point of view of John Trenchard, who is just fifteen when the story opens; and though Stevenson sets his tale in fictional locations (I don’t count Bristol because its description lacks any real local colour) Falkner bases his settings on real localities with fictional names — Moonfleet is East Fleet, the Snout is Portland Bill, the castle on the Isle of Wight is Carisbrooke — though I’ve not yet been able to discover if Ymeguen near the Dutch town of The Hague is entirely made up.

Orphan John Trenchard, brought up in Moonfleet village by his humourless aunt, forms an attachment with innkeeper Elzevir Block, whose own son has been killed during a smuggling operation. Attending lessons given by Parson Glennie, John is much taken with Grace Maskew, whose father had fired the fatal shot. We hear a lot about the ghost of local worthy John Mohune, nicknamed Blackbeard, who had been involved in the betrayal of Charles I a century before when the king was attempting escape from the Isle of Wight. John discovers that the noises from the crypt of the local church aren’t those made by Blackbeard’s unquiet spirit but by smugglers concealing spirit of a different kind. The crypt also holds the coffin of this same Blackbeard (not the Blackbeard, who was really Edward Teach from Bristol) and the secret of a missing treasure reportedly given to Blackbeard to allow the king to flee prison. Needless to say, our young hero gets involved with the smugglers, being himself forced to flee capture and undertake a journey that takes him to Wight, thence to Holland, followed then by a spectacular shipwreck.

Chesil1Moonfleet fully deserves it reputation as a children’s classic. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the narrator, who generally seems a good egg even when involved in illicit activities (and likely to profit from them). I also get the impression that the author invested much of himself in the characters: after all, he too is called John, Grace is a family name (borne by his sister Mary Grace and his mother Elizabeth Grace Meade) and the headmaster of his first school was called Ratsey Maskew (after whom two Moonfleet characters took their names). Falkner himself is a fascinating personage, incidentally, as a glance at his biography shows.

As well as a sympathetic lead, this tale of derring-do is gripping almost from first to last. We get a lot of circumstantial detail that creates verisimilitude, whether it’s a clear timeline, a sense of landscape or the manners and customs of the period. Life is shown as hard — the threat of flood or shipwreck due to bad weather, loss of livelihood from vindictive actions by third parties, death by misadventure, ambush or capital punishment, and even wrongful imprisonment. This being a traditional novel for juveniles there is a happy ending (a little too pat for my taste) and even the hint of young love, something Stevenson conspicuously avoided in Treasure Island. Roger Lancelyn Green reminds us (in Tellers of Tales: children’s books & their authors from 1800-1968, Kaye & Ward 1969) that Falkner made just one attempt to write “a boy’s book in the tradition of Treasure Island“, adding, rather grudgingly I think, that it “still has its admirers”. Perhaps Sky 1’s attempt to match their recent success in adapting Stevenson’s pirate novel for the small screen with their new production of Moonfleet will attract new admirers.

By the way, Fritz Lang’s 1955 film of the same name bears very little resemblance to Falkner’s novel, its noir look little compensating for its gross liberties with plot and characters; it seems to me to owe a lot to Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn novels (a character I remember from the 1963 Disney film Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow) in which a Sussex worthy is secretly involved in smuggling. As a further aside, the Doctor Syn smuggling scenario must surely have been an influence on Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree (1971), featuring as it does resourceful smugglers and local nobility and set not too far from Romney Marsh, Christopher Syn’s home turf.

Chesil Beach 1991
Chesil Beach 1991
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8 thoughts on “Smuggling and skullduggery

    1. Ignoring the double entendre for now (I’ll think of a suitable rejoinder presently) this is a book I’ve meant to read for a long time but only just got round to; but, before I get round to the good baroness, I’ve A Tale of Two Cities to revisit to re-kindle my interest in revolutionary France. Followed probably by Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And only then will the Scarlet Pimpernel beckon…

  1. I love the little coincidences in life. I’ve just read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (I loved it but I believe it is a bit of a marmite book) so I’ll put this down on my (very, very long) ‘to read’ list. I re-read Treasure Island a few years back and was pleasantly surprised how little I remembered and how much more of a rounded character Long John Silver was compared to many children’s books.

    1. Serendipity — a kind of ‘happy happenstance’ — is a wonderful thing, isn’t it! A less pompous word than synchronicity and much more personal than mere coincidence, serendipity is what makes so much of life even more pleasant. Hope Moonfleet does the same for you as for me.

      And your mention of Treasure Island reminds me that this year it is exactly 130 years old, so perhaps I’ll reblog an old review of that.

  2. How weird, I,ve just written a piece about John Mead Falkner in my blog. He lived for a while in the old Rectory in Weymouth, the family had only just moved there when disaster struck.

    1. Yes, your piece about Falkner’s family is fascinating, and it sounds as if we’re lucky he lived to tell the tale — in fact, any tale.

      I also wonder, as he was at school in Weymouth in 1872, if he not only heard about but also witnessed the 1872 wreck of the Royal Adelaide that you describe so vividly in the first of two posts.

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