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- The Battle Of The Strong [A Romance of Two Kingdoms], Volume 1. - 1/12 -
THE BATTLE OF THE STRONG
[A ROMANCE OF TWO KINGDOMS]
By Gilbert Parker
ELEVEN YEARS AFTER
IN FRANCE--NEAR FIVE MONTHS AFTER
IN JERSEY FIVE YEARS LATER
DURING ONE YEAR LATER
IN JERSEY--A YEAR LATER
This book is a protest and a deliverance. For seven years I had written continuously of Canada, though some short stories of South Sea life, and the novel Mrs. Falchion, had, during that time, issued from my pen. It looked as though I should be writing of the Far North all my life. Editors had begun to take that view; but from the start it had never been my view. Even when writing Pierre and His People I was determined that I should not be cabined, cribbed, and confined in one field; that I should not, as some other men have done, wind in upon myself, until at last each succeeding book would be but a variation of some previous book, and I should end by imitating myself, become the sacrifice to the god of the pin-hole.
I was warned not to break away from Canada; but all my life I had been warned, and all my life I had followed my own convictions. I would rather not have written another word than be corralled, bitted, saddled, and ridden by that heartless broncho-buster, the public, which wants a man who has once pleased it, to do the same thing under the fret of whip and spur for ever. When I went to the Island of Jersey, in 1897, it was to shake myself free of what might become a mere obsession. I determined that, as wide as my experiences had been in life, so would my writing be, whether it pleased the public or not. I was determined to fulfil myself; and in doing so to take no instructions except those of my own conscience, impulse, and conviction. Even then I saw fields of work which would occupy my mind, and such skill as I had, for many a year to come. I saw the Channel Islands, Egypt, South Africa, and India. In all these fields save India, I have given my Pegasus its bridle-rein, and, so far, I have no reason to feel that my convictions were false. I write of Canada still, but I have written of the Channel Islands, I have written of Egypt, I have written of England and South Africa, and my public--that is, those who read my books--have accepted me in all these fields without demur. I believe I have justified myself in not accepting imprisonment in the field where I first essayed to turn my observation of life to account.
I went to Jersey, therefore, with my teeth set, in a way; yet happily and confidently. I had been dealing with French Canada for some years, and a step from Quebec, which was French, to Jersey, which was Norman French, was but short. It was a question of atmosphere solely. Whatever may be thought of The 'Battle of the Strong' I have not yet met a Jerseyman who denies to it the atmosphere of the place. It could hardly have lacked it, for there were twenty people, deeply intelligent, immensely interested in my design, and they were of Jersey families which had been there for centuries. They helped me, they fed me with dialect, with local details, with memories, with old letters, with diaries of their forebears, until, if I had gone wrong, it would have been through lack of skill in handling my material. I do not think I went wrong, though I believe that I could construct the book more effectively if I had to do it again. Yet there is something in looseness of construction which gives an air of naturalness; and it may be that this very looseness which I notice in 'The Battle of the Strong' has had something to do with giving it such a great circle of readers; though this may appear paradoxical. When it first appeared, it did not make the appeal which 'The Right of Way' or 'The Seats of the Mighty' made, but it justified itself, it forced its way, it assured me that I had done right in shaking myself free from the control of my own best work. The book has gone on increasing its readers year by year, and when it appeared in Nelson's delightful cheap edition in England it had an immediate success, and has sold by the hundred thousand in the last four years.
One of the first and most eager friends of 'The Battle of the Strong' was Mrs. Langtry, now Lady de Bathe, who, born in Jersey, and come of an old Jersey family, was well able to judge of the fidelity of the life and scene which it depicted. She greatly desired the novel to be turned into a play, and so it was. The adaptation, however, was lacking in much, and though Miss Marie Burroughs and Maurice Barrymore played in it, success did not attend its dramatic life.
'The Battle of the Strong' was called an historical novel by many critics, but the disclaimer which I made in the first edition I make again. 'The Seats of the Mighty' came nearer to what might properly be called an historical novel than any other book which I have written save, perhaps, 'A Ladder of Swords'. 'The Battle of the Strong' is not without faithful historical elements, but the book is essentially a romance, in which character was not meant to be submerged by incident; and I do not think that in this particular the book falls short of the design of its author. There was this enormous difference between life in the Island of Jersey and life in French Canada, that in Jersey, tradition is heaped upon tradition, custom upon custom, precept upon precept, until every citizen of the place is bound by innumerable cords of a code from which he cannot free himself. It is a little island, and that it is an island is evidence of a contracted life, though, in this case, a life which has real power and force. The life in French Canada was also traditional, and custom was also somewhat tyrannous, but it was part of a great continent in which the expansion of the man and of a people was inevitable. Tradition gets somewhat battered in a new land, and even where, as in French Canada, the priest and the Church have such supervision, and can bring such pressure to bear that every man must feel its influence; yet there is a happiness, a blitheness, and an exhilaration even in the most obscure quarter of French Canada which cannot be observed in the Island of Jersey. In Jersey the custom of five hundred years ago still reaches out and binds; and so small is the place that every square foot of it almost--even where the potato sprouts, and the potato is Jersey's greatest friend--is identified with some odd incident, some naive circumstance, some big, vivid, and striking historical fact. Behind its rugged coasts a little people proudly hold by their own and to their own, and even a Jersey criminal has more friends in his own environment than probably any other criminal anywhere save in Corsica; while friendship is a passion even with the pettiness by which it is perforated.
Reading this book again now after all these years, I feel convinced that the book is truly Jersiais, and I am grateful to it for having brought me out from the tyranny of the field in which I first sought for a hearing.
A list of Jersey words and phrases used herein, with their English or French equivalents, will be found at the end of the book. The Norman and patois words are printed as though they were English, some of them being quite Anglicised in Jersey. For the sake of brevity I have spoken of the Lieutenant-Bailly throughout as Bailly; and, in truth, he performed all the duties of Bailly in those days when this chief of the Jurats of the Island usually lived in England.
There is no man living to-day who could tell you how the morning broke and the sun rose on the first day of January 1800; who walked in the Mall, who sauntered in the Park with the Prince: none lives who heard and remembers the gossip of the moment, or can give you the exact flavour of the speech and accent of the time. Down the long aisle of years echoes the air but not the tone; the trick of form comes to us but never the inflection. The lilt of the sensations, the idiosyncrasy of voice, emotion, and mind of the first hour of our century must now pass from the printed page to us, imperfectly realised; we may not know them through actual retrospection. The more distant the scene, the more uncertain the reflection; and so it must needs be with this tale, which will take you back to even twenty years before the century began.
Then, as now, England was a great power outside these small islands. She had her foot firmly planted in Australia, in Asia, and in America-- though, in bitterness, the American colonies had broken free, and only Canada was left to her in that northern hemisphere. She has had, in her day, to strike hard blows even for Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. But among her possessions is one which, from the hour its charter was granted it by King John, has been loyal, unwavering, and unpurchasable. Until the beginning of the century the language of this province was not our language, nor is English its official language to-day; and with a pretty pride oblivious of contrasts, and a simplicity unconscious of mirth, its people say: "We are the conquering race; we conquered England, England did not conquer us."
A little island lying in the wash of St. Michael's Basin off the coast of France, Norman in its foundations and in its racial growth, it has been as the keeper of the gate to England; though so near to France is it, that from its shores on a fine day may be seen the spires of Coutances, from which its spiritual welfare was ruled long after England lost Normandy. A province of British people, speaking still the Norman-French that the Conqueror spoke; such is the island of Jersey, which, with Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm, and Jethou, form what we call the Channel Isles, and the French call the Iles de la Manche.
In all the world there is no coast like the coast of Jersey; so treacherous, so snarling; serrated with rocks seen and unseen, tortured by currents maliciously whimsical, encircled by tides that sweep up from
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