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The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions

Penguin, 1954, 200 p. First published 1945.

The Story of Ragged Robyn cover

This is a historical novel set sometime after or during the Commonwealth in which Robyn Skyrme has grown up on a farm in Unthank, not knowing who his mother was. One night he is seized upon by a gang of masked robbers, told to bring the farm’s four best horses to a certain place and not to breathe a word to anyone or else suffer the consequences. In the presence of his father he whisper his dilemma to his horse, leading to the robbers’ plans being thwarted. The shadow of this incident, for a long time backgrounded, is however really never far from Robin for the duration of the book. The other main thread is his fascination for the visiting girl he glimpsed on a trip to the church in nearby Mixton.

Not long later, on reaching the cusp of manhood the man he thought was his father tells him his real father is dead and he is in fact Robyn’s uncle but that Robyn will still inherit the farm. This puts Robyn in a spin and he resolves to leave and make his own way in the world, partly to avoid the reprisals the bandits promised.

On the road Robyn falls in with Hendryk Maas, a stonemason with wide experience in Germany, the Netherlands and Brabant but who has contempt for the guilds and all they stand for (and who finds work more difficult to secure as a result.) Robyn becomes his apprentice. They eventually end up with a job at a house called Maske. It is here that a coincidence appears, leading to a tale of star-crossed lovers and the impossibility of crossing class boundaries. This throws Robyn back onto the road and on to his destiny.

Onions certainly wrote well, he evokes his milieu with convincing verisimilitude. The Story of Ragged Robyn is a chronicle of one of those quiet lives lived to the best of someone’s ability – but no less worthy of record for that. It is a little Hardy-esque in its dénouement, though.

Pedant’s corner:- “his handful of books were in” (his handful … was in,) Sim Dacres’ (Dacres’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) bye and bye (by and by,) I have never seen chidden as the past participle of chide before but – fair do’s – I doubt I’ve seen anything as a past participle of chide before, a missing start quote mark before a piece of direct speech, “when the master-mason shook their heads” (master-masons.)

Widdershins by Oliver Onions

Penguin, 1939, 244 p.

Widdershins cover

This is a book of eight short stories – well, one is a novella – first published in 1911, by Yorkshireman Onions. He wrote well, each of the stories holds the attention and his characterization is good. All have at least a hint of the strange or unnatural. They stand up even a century after writing.

In the combined ghost and horror story The Beckoning Fair One a writer takes a flat in an otherwise empty house and finds he can no longer continue the novel he has been working on, nor the enthusiasm for much else. I was reminded a bit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
Phantas is the story of the captain of a becalmed – and sinking – galleon out of the port of Rye, who dreams of a means of propulsion which would enable ships to avoid such a predicament. Out of the mists looms a grey, steam-driven modern destroyer.
Rooum is one of those unlettered men who has a natural flair for competency in his trade. He questions our unnamed narrator about molecules and osmosis as he feels he is occasionally subject to a kind of interpersonal merging.
The register in which Benlian is told is a familiar one to readers of Fantasy or Science Fiction, a realist depiction of a weird phenomenon. Benlian is a sculptor whose essence is increasingly opaque to photography, a man passing away, into his sculpture. The possibility that the narrator is mad rather spoils things though.
In Io a young woman who is convalescing tries to remember the dreams she had during her illness so as to enter their reality.
The Accident occurs when a man about to meet an old adversary in an attempt at reconciliation has a vision of how the encounter will – must – turn out.
The Cigarette Case is one of those shaggy dog stories of the “as told me by a friend” variety.
In Hic Jacet a successful author of detective fiction – a thinly veiled model, this – is asked to write the “Life” of an artist friend (who did not compromise his integrity for commercial success) and finds the gods of writing are against the project.

Pedant’s corner:- accidently (accidentally,) a missing end quotation mark. “But an effort of will he put them aside” (either ‘By an effort of will’, or, ‘But by an effort of will.’) “I seemed so natural” (context also supports ‘It seemed so natural.’) “whiskys and soda” (whiskies; but at least we weren’t subjected to ‘whisky and sodas’.) “ A group of scene-shifters were” (a group was,) plaintains (plantains,) pigmy (I prefer pygmy,) “penumbia of shadow” (penumbra,) “I confess that the position had effect of the thing startled me for a moment” (I can’t parse this phrase at all,) “his position involved a premium on which the rich amateur, he merely replied…” (seems to be missing a word after “amateur”, besogne (besoin,) “the abiquitous presence” (ubiquitous, I suspect.)

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