Wessex in Fiction: Escape

Escape was a 1928 play by John Galsworthy, best known as the author of The Forsyte Saga. It tells of World War 1 veteran Captain Matt Denant, who in trying to protect a streetwalker from the attentions of a persistent Metropolitan Police officer, accidentally kills the policeman in a scuffle, and is sentenced to five years in Dartmoor prison for manslaughter. It has been filmed twice, in 1930 and 1948.

The 1930 film was one of Britain’s earliest talkies, and starred Gerald du Maurier as Denant. Much of it was filmed on location, including scenes set on Dartmoor when Denant escapes from prison. The film was a critical success, but a commercial failure, and barely got a release in the US, where it was supposed to benefit from a distribution deal with RKO.

The 1948 remake starring Rex Harrison updates the story to make Denant a veteran of the Second, rather than the First World War, and makes him an RAF squadron leader rather than an army captain. The film was directed by acclaimed director Joseph L Mankiewicz, who was praised for expanding it visually, beyond the constraints of its theatrical origins.

Escape is an examination of the British class system, through the various people Denant meets after his escape, who either aid or obstruct him. Much is made of the perception of Denant as a gentleman, which colours people’s perception of him.

Wessex In Fiction: The Oxford Murders

The Oxford Murders is the English-language title of the 2003 novel Crimenes Imperceptibiles (literally Imperceptible Crimes) by the Argentinian novelist and mathematician Guillermo Martinez. It was subsequently adapted into a 2007 film starring John Hurt, Leonor Watling and Elijah Wood.

It tells of a series of murders at Oxford University that use mathematical symbols as a key, which are solved by a professor of logic, played by Hurt in the film, with the aid of one of his students.

The book delves fairly deeply into mathematical topics, which can be offputting to the general reader. It is written in the Latin American magical realism style, so people’s perception of the book tend to be coloured by their opinions on that tradition.

The film, directed by Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, won several awards in Spain, though it was filmed in English, and changes the nationality of the student protagonist (played by Wood) from Argentinian to American.

The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, rated 15.

Wessex in Fiction: The Maid of Sker

The Maid of Sker is a romance by RD Blackmore published in 1872, although he had been working on it since 1847. Blackmore regarded it as his finest work, though it is little-remembered compared to his earlier novel, Lorna Doone. It was first serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine before being published in three volumes.

The plot tells of an elderly fisherman named Davy Llewellyn, who sails a ketch between Porthcawl and Barnstaple at the end of the 18th century, and who finds an apparently orphaned two-year-old girl named Bardie. The story takes place over the course of several years, as Davy tries to solve the mystery of Bardie’s origin. It includes a vivid account of the Battle of the Nile, in which Davy takes part while serving in the Navy.

The Maid of Sker is in the public domain, available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook from LibriVox.

Wessex In Fiction: The Butterfly Lion

The Butterfly Lion is a 1996 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo, which won the Smarties Book Prize for that year. It tells the story of a South African boy named Bertie who finds an orphaned white lion cub, but is forced to give the lion to a circus and leave South Africa for a boarding school in Wiltshire.

The book then follows Bertie’s life into adulthood and his service in the First World War. WIth his nurse girlfriend, and later wife, Millie, he tracks down the lion to a farmhouse in France, where it is living with the former circus owner after the circus closed. They bring it back to England, and when it dies, they memorialise it by carving a white lion into a hillside in Wiltshire. Morpurgo says that this was inspired by a glimpse of the white horse at Westbury through a train window.

Like Morpurgo’s earlier The War Horse, The Butterfly Lion has been adapted into a stage play., which uses puppetry to bring the lion to life. The stage play toured the UK in 2013.

Wessex in Fiction: Wolf Solent

Wolf Solent is a 1929 novel by John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), the first of his four Wessex novels, though he was living in New York City when he wrote it. It tells of the eponymous character, modelled on Powys himself, returning to his childhood home town of Ramsgard in Dorset, a fictionalised version of Sherborne, following a mental breakdown which had cost him his previous job as a history teacher in London. There, he takes up a job as a literary assistant to the squire of nearby Kings Barton, modelled on Bradford Abbas.The novel chronicles his inner turmoil as he comes to believe that the book he is working on is immoral, and the squire the embodiment of evil.

The novel was published to great critical acclaim. VS Pritchett, writing in The Spectator, called it “as beautiful and strange as an electric storm”. However, this strangeness has meant that Powys has always remained something of a cult author, and has never achieved the mainstream appeal of Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex novels provided the model for Powys’s.