I last read `Moonfleet' in my first year at secondary school. Half a century later, I wanted to see if the novel would impress me as much as I did then.
The book is organised around half a dozen highly dramatic episodes. Each has huge consequences for the central characters. John Trenchard, a 15 year old boy, is trapped in a church vault; one of the novel's `heroes' and the novel's arch-villain are in fierce competition for the lease of the Why not? Inn; an escape from the Revenue takes place by a seemingly impossible cliff path; hidden treasure is discovered; a desperate breaking and entry takes place in The Hague; and (most significantly) there is a fight for survival in a raging sea. In each, the pared-down intensity of the description never fails to engage. This, for example, is the climax of the auction: `The lump of tallow was worn down now; it was hard to say why the pin did not fall. Maskew gulped out £180, and Elzevir said £190 and the pin gave a lurch, and I thought the Why not? was saved, though at the price of ruin. No; the pin had not fallen, there was a film that held it by the point, one second, only one second. Elzevir's breath, which was ready to outbid whatever Maskew said, caught in his throat with the catching pin, and Maskew sighed out £200, before the pin pattered on the bottom of the brass candlestick.'
Did the novel impress me as much as it did? YES! Re-reading it I was struck by the pace of the narrative. No time is left wasted. For instance, John and Elziver's 10 years in Holland are telescoped into five pages. As I remembered the novel, `Moonfleet' was the quintessential smuggling story. It remains that, although re-reading it, one realises the novel is (much more importantly) a love story. Essentially, `Moonfleet' celebrates enduring love, the love kept alight by John Trenchard and Grace Maskew over their years of separation. Even more significantly, it is Elziver's lasting love for John that powers the events of the novel and brings them both to the novel's inexorable and highly memorable ending.
Read to many child, it lies in the memory only to leap out if you are fortunate enough to encounter it in later life. The crypt scene, the fight around the well, the heart breaking ending - it reads like book should. I have read this many,many times to my class of year 5 and 6 children over the years. A banker of a book. At all costs avoid the Fritz Lang film.
Atmosphere and Action. To my mind, these are the two principal ingredients that must combine seamlessly to make a timeless period adventure story. Very rarely is the balance achieved perfectly. A strong case can be made for Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ and Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’. Other classics – ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ to name but two -may now appear ponderous (in places) to a 21st century audiences used to the rapid-fire editing of the modern cinema. J. Meade Falkner’s ‘Moonfleet’ is surely a pitch-perfect blend of atmosphere and action. Although steeped in 18th century detail, the plot flows with pace and panache and can still move the reader, even after multiple reads.
The plot revolves around the coming-of-age of young John Trenchard, an orphaned resident of the Dorset village of Moonfleet. Spurned by his puritanical aunt and driven by youthful curiosity, John becomes embroiled in the misadventures of a gang of smugglers, led by local innkeeper, Elzevir Block. However, it is the lure of the notorious Blackbeard’s treasure (the location of which is hidden in cryptic clues of a locket found by John) that proves destructively powerful for our young hero. Clearly, this is boys’-own heaven. Hidden treasure? Check. A mercurial mentor? Check. Duplicitous villains aplenty? Check. Falkner also throws in a convincing love interest in the form of tragically-beautiful Grace Maskew. It is she who warns John against his fanatical fascination with Blackbeard’s booty: “Have a care…. It was evilly come by.”
The action scenes in ‘Moonfleet’ are frequent and memorable. The danger of moonlit smuggling is vividly portrayed, with one run-in with customs officials proving harrowingly perilous for John and Elzevir, leading to a brilliant series of men-on-the-run scrapes. A backdrop of real-life locations and events also adds a stylish veneer of authenticity to the story. The Isle of Wight’s Carisbrooke Castle is particularly well-employed. The countless visitors who drop a coin down the keep’s well every year deserve a knowing wink from all ‘Moonfleet’ readers.
The novel also drips with atmosphere. The early chapters set around (above and beneath) the village church are instantly memorable, be it the mysterious sounds from the crypt of the deliciously macabre incident involving facial hair! However, perhaps the most atmospheric character in ‘Moonfleet’ is the sea itself. Its power and changing moods are wonderfully captured and it becomes the bringer of life and death to so many of the protagonists. Indeed, in many ways it drives the events and accounts for the poignant bitter-sweet finale.
Some of my fellow reviewers have criticised the ending of ‘Moonfleet’, damning it on the basis of an incredible coincidence. However, how many other great novels have relied on a similar plot device? It can think of some similar “Would you believe it?” moments on both ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ that do not detract from the brilliance of either book. The same applies to ‘Moonfleet’. Yes, the ending is arguable contrived, but IT WORKS. Indeed, John Trenchard makes earlier reference to The Arabian Nights as if to remind us, “Don’t forget that my story is a fable.”
Thus, let us leave unjust grumblings aside and enjoy the fact that ‘Moonfleet’ is a bona-fide classic of its kind. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it packs so much action and atmosphere into roughly 250 pages. For those who have not read ‘Moonfleet’, book a week’s holiday in Dorset and grab a copy. For those who read it in their youth and think that it will not live up to the memories, dust down your old edition and prove yourself wrong. Here is a novel that still sparkles like the finest Antwerp diamond!
moonfleet is hands down my favourite book of all time..mystery, adventure, sympathy, atmosphere, high seas, smuggling, poverty and love. magnificent..read all his books! the prose is off the charts beautiful..first chapter and i was there with john...laughed, cried..amazing Elzevir block is a character i most wish in my life were to be real..
This story was read to me when a ten year old, at school on a Friday afternoon. The BBC produced a wonderful drama series of it. A tale of adventure, smuggling and ship wrecks. A must for your bookshelf.
This is the first review i have ever written despite being pestered to do so by the many 'e.shops' that i have bought from. This should be testiment enough. Words cannot describe the ammount of enjoyment i have had re-reading this book after 30+ years. The fact that i only had to spend £2 on the book and that the p & p was free only added to the pleasure of the purchase. I look forward to the day when my children are old enough to enjoy this book as much i have, again. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anybody, young or old.