Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2018

The Captains and the Kings, by Jennifer Johnston

This catch-up review of The Captains and the Kings is the last but one of the books I read on Norfolk Island, so normal programming will resume soon!

I discovered Jennifer Johnston via Kim at Reading Matters, and since Kim has reviewed 13 of Johnston’s 27 titles listed at Wikipedia I am surprised to find that this is one that Kim hasn’t reviewed, though I bet she’s read it because it’s Johnston’s first novel from 1972 and winner of the Author’s Club First Novel Award.  It’s a fine example of a first novel that shows more than unusual promise, and reading this – only the second novel I’ve read by this prolific Irish author – I’m not surprised that she went on to have a significant career.  (She was born in 1930, and her last novel was in 2013 when she was 73 so perhaps she’s enjoying a well-earned retirement by now).

Although the story is set over fifty years ago now, it has a timeless quality.  Mr Predergast is an ageing Anglo-Irishman, living in small town Ireland.  His is a melancholy existence, living alone in his decaying mansion with only a drunken gardener called Sean for company.  His wife has died and he is estranged from his only child Sarah, and there is only an irritating Rector chivvying him about moving to London to be near his daughter.  His memories are no solace: his childhood was marred by the death of his brother at Gallipoli, and his mother made it obvious that the wrong child had survived.  His adulthood and marriage to Clare was a peripatetic life, never settling anywhere, making no friends, achieving nothing of note.

Into this loneliness comes Diarmid, a local lad whose awful parents want to offload him into work at the manor.  Mr Predergast is dismissive.  Apart from the fact that he can’t afford to pay Diarmid and he already has a gardener of sorts, he is ossified in his isolation.  Quite properly, he sends Diarmid packing, with advice to pay more attention to schooling than he has done so far, if he really wants to be in the army.

But Diarmid worms his way into Mr Prendergast’s solitary life, and soon the old man finds himself enjoying reminiscing about games of toy soldiers with his brother, and he likes introducing Diarmid to books and poetry and history.  This is all ok up to a point, but Diarmid’s parents still haven’t offloaded him and he’s still wagging school.  What turns out to be even more significant is that is Sean is jealous… and then Diarmid runs away from home.

Anyone reading this novel now, in the 21st century, when we have a much more sensitive awareness to child sexual abuse, will probably be reading it with antennas alert for what comes next.  But this is an innocent relationship, a genuine friendship between a lonely old man and a child who has piqued his interest.  Mr Prendergast is utterly unprepared for the way his actions are interpreted by Sean, by the Rector and inevitably by Diarmid’s parents.

The Captains and the Kings is only a short novella of 152 pages, but the characterisation of this small human tragedy is deft and perceptive.  This excerpt is from when Sean’s bitter spite has given Mr Prendergast a slight suspicion that Diarmid might not be wholly trustworthy:

Mr Prendergast left the dishes to soak in the sink with the tail-end of a bar of Sunlight soap to cut the grease.  He went upstairs to the old nursery and had his sleep in the chair by the rain-pearled window.  Swallows scraped and twittered under the eaves, coming to grips with their northern world.  He slept for a long time and woke stiff and melancholic. Slowly he tidied the soldiers away into their boxes and put the dust overs back over the furniture.  The room was asleep once more.  The child had, somehow, halted for a while the inevitable, dreary process of dying.  Now, as the last grey cover went over the last chair, he could feel the process beginning again.  He locked the door and went downstairs.

It was choir practice evening.  He put the nursery key back on its hook.  His legs and back ached from stooping. He couldn’t think of anything more disagreeable than playing hymns for an hour and undoubtedly being worked over by the Rector. (p.80)

I’ll always be grateful to Kim for introducing me to this wonderful author!

Author: Jennifer Johnston
Title: The Captains and the Kings
Publisher: Review Books, an imprint of Headline Book Publishing, 1998, first published in 1972
ISBN: 9780747259343
Source: personal library, purchased from Savers OpShop, $2.99


  1. I’ve been aware of this author for some time, but never got round to reading her. I like these Irish writers (maybe because of my own ancestry); Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor come immediately to mind.


    • Oh yes, I like their writing too. I’ve read a lot of Trevor after first reading The Story of Lucy Gault which nearly broke my heart.


  2. Thanks for the links, Lisa, and so pleased to hear you enjoyed this one. You are right; I have read it but it was when I was 18 and I don’t remember much about it. My younger sister studied it in her English class and gave it to me to read (she did the same with a The Well), but I didn’t really “discover” JJ until I picked up The Gingerbread Woman in a charity shop in 2006 (?) and then I went on to work my way through her ginormous backlist. What I really love is that she didn’t become published until she was in her 40s and she’s been churning them out every couple of years ever since. She is now 88! Surprisingly she’s still relatively active on the lit festival circuit and made an appearance at HomePlace, in Northern Ireland, in February. Cathy, who works at the centre and blogs at 747 Books, sent me a signed copy of one of JJ’s books! I was so thrilled!! I wish Headline would reissue all her work in nice livery; many of her titles look like sappy “women’s fiction” and her work is far from that. Yes, largely domestic, but she looks at how politics and events larger than oneself impinges/affects the personal and she does it in a kind of oblique work-it-out-for-yourself way.


    • Yes, I did notice that about the covers, this one is quite nice, but some of the others are really discouraging.
      I love the economy of her writing too. So much going on in, with such vivid images, and not a word wasted.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Haha, as soon as I saw Jennifer Johnston I thought Kim. And then you mentioned her in your first para. I have a Jennifer Johnson in my TBR – Two moons. I’ve been clearing out my TBR a bit, moving on books I don’t think I’ll ever read, but I’ve kept this – because of Kim!


  4. I, too, am a JJ fan via Kim. I think I have read (only) 3 of her books so far and I have another 6 on my shelves including this one


    • Isn’t that great, that one blogger can spread the love like that!


      • It’s great 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a couple of titles from this author on the shelf. I’ll have to see if I have this one.


    • It would be nice to read a review of her work by a man:)


  6. Hi Lisa, I do like her writing style, and you gave me the incentive to visit my daughter’s library today. I borrowed Grace and Truth. I think I have read it, but it will be good to revisit. It also made me think of Mary Wesley, whose writing style though different is also about characters and not plot driven novels.


    • Oh yes, I loved Mary Wesley’s novels. I discovered her when the ABC screened The Camomile Lawn, and I went on to read everything (I think). I have a LitBio of her life, which I must get to soon.


  7. I discovered her about a decade ago, read and enjoyed a couple of her books, and then kind of forgot. Will have to look for this one. Thanks for the review.


    • Hello Nicole, thanks for dropping by. I don’t think Johnston gets much exposure here in Australia… I certainly didn’t discover her until reading a review on Kim’s blog, and I’ve never seen a review in the local press (correct me if I’m wrong about that). But my local library has a few titles:)


      • I actually thought I already followed your blog! Have followed now. I encountered Johnston when I lived in London and again in the used bookshops around Coogee (full of British expats). I agree she hasn’t really gotten too much attention here from Aussies.


        • AH… I wonder whether we have an enclave of British expats here in Melbourne? It used to be down in Frankston, but that was a long time ago, and I think they were migrants rather than expats…

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I missed Rome (out the train window en route to Naples) because I was reading a book. How much have you missed of Norfolk Is.? Or do you manage all this reading at night.


    • Yes, mostly at night, though we did have one day where we just loafed about with books.
      Norfolk Island is *very* small. You can drive all round it in under an hour. I reckon we saw everything that I wanted to see.


  9. […] The Captains and the Kings, by Jennifer Johnston. […]


  10. […] But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too. […]


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