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Friday, October 2, 2015

Charles Kingsley on Loving the Rose of Torridge

In Charles Kingsley's epic novel Westward Ho!, young Amyas Leigh is drawn to a local beauty named Rose. But he's only a young teen, with so many plans he wants to accomplish. Chief among those is going out to sea. Eventually he becomes a sailor, and the sea faring life turns out to be everything that he had dreamed. Yet every night he stands on watch, or walks the deck of his ship, he stares out across the ocean waves, and up at the starry sky. Always, his thoughts return to Rose. He meditates on her beauty. His admiration for her virtues increases. When he returns to Bideford after his first tour at sea, he has one plan: to win Rose's heart, and marry her.

Where Amyas is burly, strong, and boisterous, his brother Frank is slim, elegant, and refined. Frank has toured Europe, tutoring the children of aristocrats, and even served in the royal court. You could not imagine more dissimilar brothers. You might think that such different people wouldn't get along. Yet when he learns the celebration the townspeople of Bideford are planning to welcome Amyas back from his first tour out at sea, he begs permission to leave the royal court and return home to the family farm outside Bideford.

There, despite all the wealthy beauties he has known in London, he too falls head-over-heels in love with Rose. 

A house on a hill overlooking Bideford

Mrs. Leigh is a quiet, trusting woman, whom both brothers adore. When Amyas and Frank discover that each wishes to win the same woman, suddenly each views the other as an enemy. They take to fighting. Then they notice the pain they are causing their mother. So they decide to sit down and talk the situation through. 

Neither Amyas and Frank wishes to cause the other pain. Yet there is only one Rose, whom they both love! Despite Amyas' wealth of experience, and Frank's impressive education, neither can decide who has the best claim to Rose's affections. So they travel down to Bideford, to discuss the situation with their friends.

There they discover that their friends adore Rose too. They also desire her! Perhaps this should not surprise Amyas and Frank so. Such is her famed beauty, that she has gained a certain celebrity status. She is known as the Rose of Torridge, named after the gleaming waters of the river that passes through Bideford, and gives the town its link to the sea. 

The Rose of Torridge,
A restaurant along the riverfront in Bideford.

It was one thing to debate who had the better claim to Rose's affections, when Amyas and Frank imagined that they were her only two suitors. But as they learn how strongly each of their friends admire her, they realize they can not cause all their friends the pain of losing her. So instead of each insisting upon claiming his own happiness, they form the Society of the Rose, swearing together that none of them shall possess her, until each should, for whatever reason, relinquish his devotion to her.  

It's hard to imagine people making such a sacrifice for their family and friends. Most writers probably wouldn't even attempt to make the reader believe that their protagonists could be so admirable. But then, Westward Ho! is an unusual novel. And Charles Kingsley, a priest who consistently preached and wrote of the need for better living and working conditions among the English poor, seems a very unusual author. 

Dragon Dave

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