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The Midshipman Quinn Collection
by Showell Styles
Bathgate, North Dakota: Bethlehem Books/San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999
(598 pages; $19.95, paper)
reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon
As a check of the obituaries of major British and American newspapers over the past two years failed to uncover any account of his passing, this reviewer thanks God that Showell Styles is still with us. This check of the obituaries was rendered necessary, nonetheless, because as far as I can discern, Showell Styles did not publish a book last year. If that is indeed the case, then I believe it was the first year that he failed to do so during the past half-century and more. This most prodigious of writers, now into his 90s, has written more than a hundred books by my calculation, including travelogues, backpacking manuals, military histories, detective stories, studies in Welsh poetry and folklore, children’s books, and just about anything else you care to name.
Styles proves himself a voracious reader, to be sure, in order to write all those books, but he has also written a great deal on the basis of personal experience. He had already begun tramping around Europe in the 1930s, served in the Royal Navy (on a torpedoed ship) in the Second World War, led a Himalayan expedition and then two Arctic expeditions, climbed every mountain in Europe, and heaven knows what else. He wrote of it all. Let us just say that few men are sufficiently leisured to read everything that Showell Styles finds time to write. It is also worth mentioning that he writes extremely well. Alas and alack, however, among the 94 published works of Styles that are listed as “rare, second hand & out of print” on the Barnes & Noble webpage, many are declared to be available in only one or two copies, a dreary statistic fortifying the impression that we are on the brink of an ice age.
What a singular blessing, then, suddenly to have a brand-new paperback edition, in one volume, of all four novels in Showell Styles’s Septimus Quinn series: Midshipman Quinn, Quinn of the Fury, Midshipman Quinn and Denise the Spy, and Quinn at Trafalgar. The cover of this thick, superb volume of marvelous, hair-raising adventures describes it as suitable for those who are “ages 12–up.” Ha! One is happy that there are no limits placed on this “up” after age 12. The present reviewer, already more than a half-century over age 12, can think of no age to which he might live and not enjoy some new Septimus Quinn adventure. This is truly a volume for all ages.
Manifestly written for boys (and their dads), it is also a book that, like most books written for boys, will forever make a strong appeal to girls (and their mothers). Indeed, after finishing it, I turned this volume over to a very intelligent young friend in our parish, female and 13 years old. Inasmuch as the 15-year-old Septimus Quinn, diminutive, modest, bookish, with his eyeglasses sitting up on his nose as he ponders his next improbable exploit, combined in his frame the rich and varied merits of Percy Blakely, Sydney Carton, Quentin Durward, Horatio Hornblower, with a touch of Tom Sawyer and others, I had no doubt that he would likely win the heart of this young lady also. He did, after all, capture the heart of Denise de St. Aulaye, his comely and enterprising companion in various intrigues through France and Spain and on the high seas.
The re-publication of these novels, which first appeared between 1956 and 1965, gives rise to two further reflections. First, it is instructive to note that this volume was jointly produced by the efforts of two specifically Christian publishing houses. This fact may seem strange, since none of these stories contains a single line directly supportive of Christian doctrine. Nonetheless, I applaud the initiative of both Bethlehem Books and Ignatius Press in undertaking this project, thereby supporting my persuasion that proper Christian sentiment must value the humane and humanizing qualities encouraged by stories of this sort: a deep sense of honor and duty in the hearts of the young, a selfless devotion to heritage combined with an imaginative curiosity about new possibilities, fierce courage tried in the cause of principle, loyalty to truth and to friends, the serious pursuit of study and disciplined thought as the right preparation for accomplishing great things.
Second, while the exploits of Midshipman Quinn surely surpass all normal and realistic expectations of 15 and 16 year old boys (or darned near anybody else), it is useful to recall that there were boys of this age serving as midshipmen in Nelson’s navy, and that those boys really did use their ingenuity, ply their courage, and risk their lives out of a love of liberty and a holy, noble hatred for the likes of Napoleon. In the face of our current phenomenon of “teen culture,” where adolescent boys are encouraged to remain boys, having fun and “hangin’ out,” while learning little of labor and less of courage, and where gaining the manly respect of men has been replaced by making a favorable impression on girls, books of this sort can remind us of healthier times, when there was a children’s world and an adult world, and not much in between except study and hard work.
And sometimes, also, bravery with much sacrifice. One such example known to me is a dear lady about a decade older than I, a very devout and gentle woman whom one may see quietly lighting her candle and crossing herself in front of the icons in church on any given Sunday. I would never have known about the teen years of this woman had I not asked a few innocent questions about her youth one day, when I came to bless her home during the Epiphany octave. She modestly described for me how she spent her thirteenth and subsequent years working in the Greek underground resistance against the German occupation of her homeland, engaged in such activities as blowing up bridges and destroying barracks, her life in constant peril. After being shot during one of those exploits, she was captured and completed her teen years in a Nazi prison camp, eventually to be liberated by the Allies. One of the liberators, an Italian-American, brought her to this country as his wife. Denise de St. Aulaye would be so proud.
Anyway, now that Septimus Quinn is once again available, would someone please take in hand a reprinting of the works of Rafael Sabatini. I say “Please!” I am tired of sending weary, bewildered librarians down to the basements of their establishments to find me those rare and ragged copies of some of the world’s most marvelous adventures. Oh, how nice it would be to own an inexpensive paperback edition of the complete works of Sabatini. And after that is accomplished, I will have some other publishing suggestions.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.