Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ride With Me by Thomas Costain

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Thomas Costain was a prolific Canadian journalist and editor of the mid-twentieth century who, at the age of 57, published his first historical novel, and from then on became a prolific historical novelist. You are more than likely to encounter one of his books, or an anthology edited by him, in any library or at a used book sale. The Silver Chalice and The Tontine are two of his better-known works; The Silver Chalice was made into a movie that is notable, now, mostly for having been the late Paul Newman's debut vehicle.

In 1944 Costain published Ride With Me, a book meant not only to tell a good story but to draw obvious parallels between the dictator Napoleon who threatened England in the early 1800s, and the dictator Hitler who threatened England even as Costain wrote. Though the historic parallels are now many decades out of date, Ride With Me is still a pleasure to read, and that is largely because of its background -- an unusual one for a historical romance. The hero, Frank Ellery, is not a stock, brooding figure but a lame newspaperman in London during these Napoleonic wars. He sees it as his duty to publish articles urging a slothful Regency government to take a firmer stand against "Boney" before it is too late, and French troops and guillotines are already established outside a St. Paul's cathedral transformed into an English Temple of Reason.

Criticizing the government is a dangerous thing to do circa 1810, when even freedom-loving England, aghast at the regicides across the Channel, could still shut down unfriendly, chest-thumping newspapers at home. Frank's life is further complicated by his unrequited love for a beautiful, exiled French aristocrat, and by the machinations of his awful mother, who would prefer that he disappear somewhere and let his handsome younger brother lead the family.

Frank's adventures take him to Spain for a glimpse of Wellington's Peninsular campaign, and then to Russia to see Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. We are in Paris with him after Waterloo, while the city seethes with rage at defeat and occupation. Through minor characters we meet the social problems of the period, like discharged, wounded soldiers begging in London, child labor, prison conditions, and the eternal helplessness of single, impoverished women. The book is also wonderfully rich in those little details about meals and leisure activities which show the author has spent good time in the archives, researching his material.

It's a fine book, and was well-known enough for Costain to be able to bring out, twenty years later, another anthology of fiction -- punningly titled Read With Me.

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