By now, it’s probably clear that I’m not particularly interested in the adventure/crime aspect of the later Lone Pine Club books. It’s the relationships between the senior members that interest me, as they continue to grow and develop, and grow increasingly reluctant to get involved in matters that are not their business.
In this respect, Rye Royal, the seventeenth book, is both intriguing and disappointing.
I’ve already expressed my disappointment over Treasure at Amorys. We’ve seen David and Peter and Tom and Jenny overtly recognising their feelings for one another, and making promises about futures to be spent together, and I for one expected the same from Jon and Penny. But despite introducing an element of personal chaos into their lives, of a kind perfect to act as a catalyst, somehow neither made any real progress towards commitment.
Jon was a school year away from going up to Oxford, Penny had left school and was due to travel to India to live with her parents. Now, when Rye Royal begins, in November, Jon is at University and Penny is still living at the Gay Dolphin and studying Domestic Science (i.e. how to be a Housewife) in Hastings, with no explanation as to why the situation last time round has not turned out, but with her parents coming home for good to Xmas, to form a partnership with Jon’s mother to run the Dolphin and maybe even expand it.
And somehow, without making any overt gestures, you know, like kissing, or even saying anything to each other, Jon and Penny have become a couple. When Jon’s Uni colleague Henry Carter first meets with Penny, Jon describes him as trying to get off with his girl. But it’s like there’s a book missing, in which Jon and Penny talk and come to decisions, which they seem to have settled to their mutual satisfaction. Yet they do not treat each other noticeably differently in this book than they have before.
I’ve said before that, in this respect, Saville created something of a rod for his own back when he made the Warrenders cousins. For most of the Twentieth century, there was a general prejudice against cousins getting involved with each other, as their closer genetic ties were believed to make it certain that they would produce mentally defective babies. I don’t know when science first established that there were no grounds for this belief, but Saville grew up in an era when the idea of cousins marrying was frowned upon. Perhaps this limits how he feels he can treat Jon and Penny?
Thankfully, David and Peter are there to give us more to work with. The story begins in November, with Penny and Jon, before jumping to the week before Xmas, and at long last the Mortons have managed to get Peter to Rye.
It’s significant, and genuinely touching, that Peter’s first move, after arriving in Rye by train, is to single out Penny, and ask her to walk up to the Dolphin with her, through the town, on their own. Considering that Peter first approached Penny with vague suspicions about a) knowing David and b) being a girl, it’s a loving gesture of solidarity and trust. Peter is the stranger here, who’s heard so much about everything, but knows nothing, and she seeks out Penny to be her guide.
And Penny has no jealousy of Peter, who is being described as more beautiful by the book. Her hair is longer, she’s almost as tall as Jon (really?) and now we’re told that she really suits mini-skirts (no doubt she does).
Yet Peter is the outsider. She’s the country girl, and even such a little town as Rye, so old-fashioned and wonderful, is inimical to her. David is at her side, throughout, but there’s a telling scene later in the book when they’re in the Book Cellar, a kind of quasi-teenage club, and it’s crowded and noisy and David is being subjected to a lot of earnest discourse by two very earnest girls, and Peter cannot stand things and has to go out.
She’s followed by Judith Wilson, making a first reappearance as now the wife of reporter James, who understands that Peter is feeling overwhelmed, and is facing the fear that she can’t function properly outside of Shropshire. Judith sympathises, but reminds Peter that if her life is to be spent with David, it means spending it with him wherever he goes (this is only the late Sixties), and she must learn to accept that.
Within moments, David is there. He’s been no more enamoured of the two earnest girls than Peter is, and he already understands what affects her. David is following his father into the Law, doing Articles to become a Solicitor (no, he did NOT influence me in my career), which ties him to London for now, but once he is qualified, he plans to work in Shropshire, so as not to take Peter away from her natural home, and besides, he loves Shropshire almost as much as her.
But she, in return, promises that she will go with him wherever their lives take them. Peter has learned the courage to accept that she cannot confine them to just one county. This pair are in balance, and it’s a joy to see them so firmly on the same wavelength after so long a time.
I suppose I’d better reference the adventure as, if I don’t, the Twins won’t get into this review. It’s not very good, to be frank. Saville creates an interesting set-up: Mr Roy Royal has moved to Rye where he has opened a second hand bookshop, taking the town’s longstanding (but never previously mentioned) nickname for his shop, and his name since he’s a former criminal operating under a pseudonym.
Penny sometimes helps him in the shop, and more often in his sideline, the Book Cellar, a place for teenagers to meet and talk and drink coffee and play records, that isn’t profitable but which is serving a useful and progressive function.
When the book begins, Royal has two late visitors. One is Mrs Flowerdew, an elderly lady who, with her historian husband, lives at 39 Traders Street, next to the Dolphin. She is desperately short of money and wants to sell some of her books, which are of little value but which Royal buys for a lead. He is more interested in Professor Flowerdew’s library, which he suspects contains items of value, though Mrs Flowerdew is completely against anyone even seeing, let alone valuing it.
Royal’s other visitor appears to be one of Savile’s stereotypical Americans, calling himself Harry Purvis. Instead, he’s a criminal, a dealer in stolen goods, and he blackmails Royal into acting as one of his spotters, on the threat of exposing him to the Police.
Saville has a very rigid idea of criminals: once a crook, always a crook. It’s really awkward here: there’s no suggestion that Royal is actually still doing anything illegal, he’s served his time, and understandable changed his name (would you stick with Johnny Jones if you didn’t have to?). But there’s nothing to suggest that Jones/Royal is doing anything illegal, or has done, or that he would do unless blackmailed into it by ‘Purvis’.
Again, times have changed. This book is almost fifty years old, but I don’t think that we were necessarily so resistant to rehabilitation, or so insistent that once a criminal, always a criminal.
But its essential for Saville’s story that Royal believes this, and on Rye Fawkes night (a boat-burning ceremony neither Jon nor Penny have previously seen, having always been at school until now), someone breaks into Mrs Flowerdew’s house whilst she’s enjoying tea at the Dolphin.
We leap to Xmas. Professor Flowerdew has died, leaving his widow alone and penurious. Saville admits he’s been a poor husband, neglectful, self-obsessed, and insistent that his wife should not sell the house or anything after his death, despite the fact that such a sale is her only means of surviving. Mrs Warrender has become a close friend to Mrs Flowerdew, trying to help her, and not just because she hopes, eventually, to persuade the lady to sell no 39, as an extension to the Dolphin. Indeed, the Lone Piners, except for Jonathan, are to stay at no 39. and look after Mrs Flowerdew in the same manner as Major Bolshaw in Treasure at Amorys.
The Twins in particular adopt Mrs Flowerdew in their inimitable manner, which grows the more mature with each of the recent succeeding books. They’re present when she finds a message in very weak handwriting scrawled in the back of a book, that hints at something valuable hidden in the house, but which affects her most deeply because it begins: ‘My very dear wife’.
Mrs Flowerdew still doesn’t want to get involved, but it is notable that, when she fantasises about what might be possible if she does possess something of value, her thoughts are entirely of the kindnesses she could do to others: not merely Mrs Warrender and the Lone Piners who have made such an impression upon her, but even down to people who serve her in shops, and for whom a pair of gloves might relieve chilblains!
But the villains are determined to get their hands on what she has. Royal is summoned to a meeting with Purvis and his seeming sister, in which he is accused to trying to evade his duties to them. He is imprisoned and effectively disappears from the story. Purvis and his sister get into Traders Street and, by drugging Mrs Flowerdew, carry her off.
Yes, it’s the kidnapping, and for once it doesn’t involve any of the Lone Piners, and it doesn’t last long as James Wilson (poor sod, only here to have a Xmas break with his wife), Jon and David find Mrs Flowerdew, smash open the French windows and take her home, which shuts the crooks out of the story too.
In the end, it’s the Twins, of course, who find the treasure, an ancient document about Elizabeth I’s visit to Rye that is of great historical significance (without adding a single detail not already known). So all’s well that ends well.
And as for Penny and Jon, their final scene is of Penny’s parents arriving unexpectedly on Xmas Eve, home for good. They are virtually unseen, behind blazing car headlights, and Penny walks towards them and into a future she both welcomes and is understandably nervous of, and she’s holding hands with Jon. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do, but it’s significant that the final word is Peter’s, promising to go wherever David goes.
In the Twenty-First Century, that’s an ending that will have some grumbling. Why should Peter have to give up her desires, her life, her securities, to follow David? The answer is because she’s going to marry him, and that was what was expected of wives back then. It’s easy to be doctrinaire about rights and wrongs, but let’s not forget that this is a specific couple. Peter will follow David because that’s what’s expected of her, even by herself, but David will only lead her by reference to where she will want to go. It is not a sacrifice for him, though the life of a rural Solicitor will not compare to the life and opportunities of a London Solicitor (his Dad could afford to buy Witchend in the middle of the war, remember), but David is ahead of his time in respecting the woman he loves, and sharing lives the two want, instead of expecting her to conform to his wishes.
Tom has already determined that he wants to farm Ingles, and that he wants to farm it with Jenny at his side. He’s not consulted her, but he knows very well that this is her wish too, not just out of loyalty to him, but because she has been absorbed into Ingles by parents in law who love her and who have made this a home for her to come to: Jenny will follow Tom but he will never want to go anywhere but the place she wants to follow him.
But what of Jon and Penny? Penny’s post-school study is nothing but a preparation for marriage, but Jon is a scientist, and he is pursuing knowledge. The pair have an unspoken expectation that their futures will be in sync, but Saville has for a second time failed to show exactly how that might work. Penny as housewife? As the future manageress of the Gay Dolphin after she inherits it from her parents and aunt? Plausible as futures but neither really suits Penny, the volatile, excitable, emotional redhead who isn’t going to be happy except with her calm, quiet cousin.
There are only three books left in the series, and none of these will take place at Rye, or centre upon the Warrenders. I can’t help but see Rye Royal as as much a missed opportunity as Treasure at Amorys, although a better book in general. And, incidentally, it’s the only book of the series to go without a sketch map of the scene: even London fared better.
For the next story, it’s back to Shropshire, and the welcome reintroduction of Harriet.