You might never have heard of Bideford (pronounced Bid-E-ford), a town in Devon, England, but it's strongly associated with one author. His name was Charles Kingsley, a 19th century Church of England priest, whose sermons and service was so highly regarded that he eventually served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, tutored the Prince of Wales, and was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. But it was largely for his contributions to literature that he is remembered, and foremost of those is his novel Westward Ho!
Yes, you saw that right: there is an exclamation mark in the book's title.
Although he published it in 1855, the novel is set in the 16th Century. It's about Amyas Leigh, a young man who feels the call of the sea. After his father's death, he's overseen by a powerful local benefactor, who sends him out to serve under Sir Francis Drake. In time, he becomes a captain of his own vessel, searches for treasure and a city of gold, and leads his crew into battles against the Spanish. His military prowess is such that, in the novel's final section, Drake relies on him to help defend Britain against the dreaded Spanish Armada. It's an engaging read, if a little imposing at times, as Kingsley was a highly educated man, and his erudite prose makes the book anything but an easy read.
Still, the novel offers a little something for everyone: Christianity versus Witchcraft, Adventure and Intrigue, Love and Revenge, even if the Spanish and the Catholics (specifically the Jesuits) are the antagonists. In fact, Kingsley has come under fire in recent decades for his anti-Catholic views, but he was writing of a time in which people in Britain were highly segregated in their religious views, and people associated Catholicism not only with the Spanish Inquisition, but also how the Spanish and the Catholic Church (mis)treated the peoples they subjugated in the Americas. Then there's the fact that the Pope declared Queen Elizabeth unworthy of being Queen, and the manner in which the Catholics hence viewed her could hardly have warmed the British to their Spanish neighbors.
Kingsley's novel taught me a lot about 16th century England, and left me feeling as though I had gotten my money's worth. This proved especially true as I got it for free online, and it took me a couple months to read. Some say that you don't value what you get for free, but I'll be remembering Westward Ho! for a long time to come. Apart from the history, romance, sorrows and joys, thrills and drama, I'll remember Amyas Leigh's remarkable transformation from young teen to mature man. More importantly, it made me curious to see Bideford, that historic town along the River Torridge, and the other historic locales in North Devon that feature in the novel.
What an incredible gift to receive from a book of fiction written over one hundred-and-fifty years ago! Onward, David! Westward Ho!