Book Review: Roger Trewinion by Joseph Hocking

Posted: June 22, 2012 by Peter J in book review, fiction
Tags: , ,

Since Cornish Lit blog started, we’ve not yet had a “classic” Cornish novel review. Fleur Fisher’s review of Ivy by Silas Hocking prompted me to dig out Roger Trewinion, by Silas’ brother Joseph, one of a couple of J Hocking’s bowing my shelves (the other’s Heartsease).

A murderer ?

Oh! The terror of that thought. Even now, after long years, I trembled at what I then realised. I, Roger Trewinion, trained by a godly father, surrounded in my early life with every good influence, was a murderer.

Here’s the gen. An unnamed novelist, the narrator, is on a walking holiday with a trainee barrister about 15 miles SW of Wadebridge, at “Trewinion”, and thereby sets up the novel’s framing method: the novelist barges his way into Trewinion manor house, accosts the old duffer within and badgers his ancestor’s autobiography out of him. Thus, excepting the opening and closing chapters, the novel essentially consists of said Roger Trewinion’s memoirs (c. 1750). Therein’s a problem, in that the novelist proceeds to tart-up Roger’s racy manuscript in his own plummy tone of voice (the same mincingly arrogant whine which makes Heartsease almost insufferable) – ironically the blacker-than-black villain of Roger Trewinion is an Oxford graduate – I wonder what J Hocking’s motivation for that was – a tributer’s sly dig at excessive deference perhaps, or a discreet encouragement to the self-improving unwashed ?

A weakness of autobiographies of course is that they slide into the partial – particularly if you’ve an axe to grind – you can impugn whoever and however you choose – and here in Roger Trewinion there’s not much light-and-shade. The villain, as noted, is a villain, end of. The protagonist is no paragon, but clearly the main man in a bildungsroman of trials and travails, after Esau and Jacob – J Hocking’s novels feature moral improvement as integrally as correct spelling and punctuation. Although Roger accordingly reacts to ethical dilemma, in a Beau Geste/knight-errant, OTT, bizarrely-teetotal-pirate kind of way (twice, actually), the novel as a moral work does not, in my view, work.

The problem with this attempt at moral improvement is that the hero, Roger, behaves in such a queer mix of super-human beneficence and cold-blooded avarice that disbelief cannot sufficiently easily be suspended. Moreover I doubt that anyone’s morals would have been much improved by acting on some of this novel’s moral precepts. At one stage, for example, Roger feels terrible because he has just slain a close relative: “I feel for you Roger,” you think to yourself as you read on, “you must be cut up something awful … oh hang on, you mean you feel teasy not because you slew a blood relative, but because by doing so you yourself messed up your own chances of getting rich and getting laid ?!” – a while later Roger rides his horse hard for miles across country, and then regrets that he has time only to dab down its lather of sweat with a handful of hay – “Well,” we start to sympathise, “at least you did that for the poor beast, which in your straits shows a noble …. oh wait, what ? You only regret not doing more because you wish you had a better way of hiding your tracks ?!“. Roger oozes the grasping, amoral hubris of pre-WWI Empire – he is (like many an author, or reviewer) a self-regarding … so-and-so from start to finish. Harsh judgement ? Maybe, but I see the narrative larded with scripture and allusions to principles, their spirit ill-indicated in the principal’s attitudes (rendering them (blasphemously!) mere platitudes!). He persists, but does not noticeably redeem himself or anyone else, nor is he redeemed, he does not grow, and thus remains resolutely self-interested: pompous and miserable by turns, while making few decisions (most of them irrational and with perfunctory deliberation) – meanwhile the female love interest, a rich orphaned heiress, is as willowy and swooningly catatonic a damsel in distress as any young brave of la belle époque could desire, so it’d be unwise to expect any redemptive kicks to the shin from her. When Roger takes to the high seas, 8 years of maritime adventure are dismissed in 7 paragraphs of maudlin self-pity and introspection – red-blooded and rough & ready a novel this isn’t. There is, at the beginning of the novel, a great deal of atmospheric and convincingly written reference to folk-magic, which, although a trope of Cornwall’s reputation at the time, may at least in its detail be authentic – in an encouragingly reflective preface to the novel, J Hocking writes a measured introduction thereon, sadly in contrast to the overblown, melodramatic, melancholy novel itself.

Trewinion, which the novel attempts to tie into the historical Trevanion family, is a name whose linguistic provenance I eye doubtfully, along with many names in this book (e.g. Polcoath, “pol coth”, “old pool/bay”, an old …. pool ?? really?? it sounds very like Dolcoath; Pendugle, could be “pen du ughel”, “high black head” ??, um, but sounds like Bugle). There are a few historical footnotes and bracketed translations: the editor, whoever that was, confidently asserts that croust derives from carouse, which is an interesting theory, and makes reference to the lady Florence Wyndham legend of Somerset, coyly and inexplicably without naming names. The period and local detail of Roger Trewinion is unimpressive: more often than not, the extras of the novel are bumpkin-esque caricatures, but occasionally in flashes of cognition, persons of interest are glimpsed, such as the dairymaid definitely not called Mary, who scoffs at the idea of accepting money for giving a thirsty stranger a jug of milk. Juxtaposed oddly with the stilted narrator’s prose, Cornish vernacular is, in places, rendered well.

I will not portray the life we led: how by sheer brute force and will power I fought my way up until I was next in power to the captain himself. I could fill a volume in narrating the battles we fought and the hairs-breadth escapes we had, but whoever reads these lines must imagine for himself how we dreaded being taken, and how we vowed a terrible vow to die the most awful death rather than be conquered by a vessel, of whatever nationality.

Joseph Hocking wrote his debut novel Ortho Harry Penhale in 1887 and continued for another fifty years – one hundred and fifty of his novels, or nearlybout, are shelved in the Cornish Studies Library, along with another hundred and fifty by his brother Silas and several by their sister Salome. Understandably, Alan Kent, who hails from near the Hocking siblings’ mid-Cornwall homeland, has written a book entirely on the lives and literature of the Hockings (Pulp Methodism, 2002, Hillside – read it: chatty & informative, IMHO) and even features Joseph’s pro-war oratory in his 2009 play, Surfing Tommies (from 20:30 in the video).

If you want an uplifting work of moral encouragement, Roger Trewinion‘s not it; if you want a bracing tale of robust adventure, Roger Trewinion‘s not it; if you want an authentic weaving of Cornish culture in an absorbing narrative, Roger Trewinion‘s not it; if you want a melodrama containing a disappointing attempt at all three, Roger Trewinion might be what you’re looking for. Joseph Hocking no doubt produced many works which do not disappoint the demanding reader – I look forward to some of them getting their due review on Cornish Lit.

This review is dedicated in memory of S B Brown, my grandfather, a straight thinker and courteous speaker, and whose copy of Roger Trewinion (1935) this review used.

Roger Trewinion was first published in 1905 by Ward, Lock & Co., London.

  1. Lee says:

    You’re a brave man Pete – I’ve long been wary of reading any of the Hocking books and I’m afraid your review has made me even more so!

    I am planning an Enys Tregarthen review at some point though, so nineteenth century Cornish lit will continue to live on on here.

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