Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) is well known as a Victorian novelist as well as an officer in the Royal Navy. His semi-autobiographical Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) and his later Masterman Ready (1841)—both naval adventures—are perhaps his most famous works, but he wrote a total of 26 novels beginning with The Naval Officer in 1829. His final two novels—The Little Savages and Valerie—were published posthumously in 1848. It is interesting to note that Marryat spent time in both the USA and Canada, and in fact took part in the British defense during the 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada. His novels set in North America thus exhibit far more authenticity than those of, for example, G. A. Henty’s later “Boys’ Own” style Imperialist adventure tales.
Published in 1847, The Children of the New Forest was the last novel released while the author still lived (see the comments for a bit more about editions). Unlike his more swashbuckling naval and military adventure novels, Children of the New Forest is historical, set during the English Civil War and Cromwellian rule in England. A Victorian historical novel appeals on a number of grounds, but I must admit that I had long put off reading Children of the New Forest, thinking that it would be a significant investment in time and energy, Victorian boys’ novels being what they are: wordy and often unnecessarily pompous or overly didactic in tone. Those that are not, I have found—per Henty and Haggard—are often almost offensively Imperialist. This renders them fascinating to study, but not so enjoyable to read. Still, when I was at a loss for what to read on the bus coming home from the office a few weeks ago, I pulled Marryat’s novel off the shelf and began at the beginning. By the time I reached home an hour later, I was a quarter of the way through the book and thoroughly engaged. I finished it within three days.
The story tells of the four children of the loyalist Colonel Beverley, who is killed defending King Charles I against the Cromwellian army in the Battle of Naseby in 1645. His home is subsequently destroyed, and the
children presumed dead. To keep them safe, however, a loyal retainer has taken them to his woodsman’s cottage deep in the New Forest, where they grow to semi-adulthood before his death of old age. The eldest son takes a post as secretary to a sympathetic Forest Warden, and eventually becomes embroiled in the Royalist plans to restore the monarchy. Hidden identities, love affairs, politics, loyalties and legalities: Children of the New Forest has it all, presented in prose that is fluid, with descriptions that are lush and poetic. Perhaps it is because I do start out liking Regency and Victorian novels—when I have the leisure to devote to them—but despite expectations I found The Children of the New Forest a lively, entertaining, yet informative tale that I strongly recommend to any modern reader—of any age—interested in British history, childhood studies, or just a well-written tale of honour, loyalty, and survival in hard times.