Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2019

Rogue Herries, (1930, The Herries Chronicles #1), by Hugh Walpole

Apart from its soporific qualities, I really don’t know what possessed me to read this book! I was browsing at the library when my eye fell upon the spines of the Herries Chronicles, each one of them 4cm wide — which meant that the author’s name was in very large font and I recognised it as Hugh Walpole, the author so wickedly lampooned in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (which I’d read recently courtesy of the 1930s Club). So it’s not as if I didn’t know what I was in for, all 736 pages of it…

Yet the book was widely praised.  Walpole was a best-selling author in his day (and he was astonishingly prolific).  This is the blurb from Fishpond:

Described on its first publication by John Buchan as the finest English novel since Jude the Obscure, Rogue Herries tells the story of the larger than life Francis Herries who uproots his family from Yorkshire and brings them to live in Borrowdale where their life is as dramatic as the landscape surrounding them. Proud, violent and impetuous, he despises his first wife, sells his mistress at a county fair and forms a great love for the teenage gypsy Mirabell Starr. Alongside this turbulent story, runs that of his son David, with enemies of his own, and that of his gentle daughter Deborah with placid dreams that will not be realised in her father’s house. ‘As a feat both of knowledge and imagination the book is huge‘ (The Observer); ‘A superb work of fiction. There is not one tired listless page‘ (J.B. Priestly, The Graphic).

For me, the problem is that the characterisation is set in stone.  Francis Herries is proud, violent, impetuous and spectacularly stubborn when he’s young, and he’s just the same when he’s old.  He takes offence at his brother’s criticism of his decision to live in Borrowdale and never crosses the threshold again.  The love of his life, Mirabell is devastated by the death of her gorgeous young lover Harry, and she never gets over it.  David, Frances Herries’ son (by his long suffering but *surprise!* devoted wife Margaret who conveniently dies when she’s in the way of the plot), takes a childhood dislike to a cousin and is still nursing this grudge in his forties, to the dismay of his wife who *surprise!* gently rebukes him for it and *surprise!* he takes no notice.  Nobody changes, nobody grows in maturity or wisdom.

The setting is the Lake District, so there are dramatic views and dreary fogs, and the story begins with the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 which probably meant a lot more to British readers of the 1930s than it does to those of us with a weak grasp of British history and its succession squabbles.  What did surprise me as an aficionado of Outlander was that there were no consequences for Herries and his failure to support the winning side, but no, Herries is left alone to continue being a rogue as per the title.  Actually, I suspect that Walpole forgot about the mysterious priest who surfaces on and off during the rebellion, because we never find out if he was a spy or what he was up to.

Did Walpole’s English readers from the 1930s like his generalisations about their national characteristics?

Herries did not care for property; they were too proud to think it worth while to amass it.  They cared so much for family, for their own standing, their own importance in England, that no vulgar amassing of wealth could do anything but damage their self-approval.  But then again their family pride was so unself-conscious, so completely taken for granted, that they never thought of it, talked of it or defended it.  The English have always had this quality of confident security, and this makes them remote from the rest of the world  and will always isolate them whether their island continues to be an island or no.  It accounts for their universal unpopularity, for their insular stubbornness, their hypocrisy and their profound calm in a crisis.  It accounts also for a generous warmth of heart hidden under an absurd armour of frigid suspicion of strangers.  It accounts for their poetry, their lack of imagination, their peculiar humour, their irritating conceit and ignorance in foreign countries [including the ones they colonised], and a certain naïve youthfulness which is both absurd and attractive.  (p.606-7)

As family sagas go, this one is probably no better or worse than many others, but it’s just a story without any particular theme and it’s often repetitive. Somerset Maugham had a point after all…

Author: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941)
Title: Rogue Herries (The Herries Chronicles #1)
Introduction by Eric Robson
Publisher: Frances Lincoln, London, 2008, first published 1930, 736 pages
ISBN: 9780711228894
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Rogue Herries (Herries Chronicles)


  1. Oh, I think Maugham had the measure of him! And doesn’t that description of the English somehow fit in with how certain people like to present themselves nowadays?


    • *chuckle* I’ll ‘fess up, Marina… I had inserted various bits of commentary into that excerpt, referencing for example, colonisation in the context of Brits keeping themselves remote from the world, but I thought better of it. I knew my Bolshie Australians friends would appreciate it, but I wasn’t sure that my English ones would!


  2. There’s obviously a reason he’s slipped into obscurity…. ;) Having said that, I *do* have a couple of his books to be read, though not this one, and I hope they’ll be better….


    • Yes, if you see Simon’s comment below, I suspect that he was a popular novelist like the popular novelists of today, and they have a limited shelf life, basically because they are reliant on marketing and the loyalty of their fans. Once that’s gone, so are they…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve long been aware of this famous sequence of novels, but had always had the impression that Walpole was a dud. I’ve a feeling Forster had a low opinion, but I might be misremembering. If this had been by a woman of that time it would be dismissed as ‘chick lit’; as usual there’s no male equivalent that’s equally derogatory (like ‘master’ and ‘mistress’, ‘governor’/’governess’) – a linguistic asymmetry of the usual discriminatory sort. There’s a sociolinguistic term for this kind of language-gendered absence or lack of equivalence but I can’t think of it, dammit.


    • LOL Simon that would be a very useful term to know!
      Poor Walpole, Wikipedia says that he was very sensitive about criticism, in the way that so many contemporary popular authors are defensive about their work.
      I don’t understand it: they have popular acclaim, sales, film adaptations, all that money and fame—but they’re not happy with that, they also want the admiration of the small group of readers who don’t read their work, it’s bizarre. Why should they care?


  4. 700 pages of a book where nothing much happens, it doesn’t have a distinctive theme and is repetitive sounds like torture to me…. I’ve picked up a Walpole in the past (can’t even remember what it was) but didn’t feel engaged enough to even finish it


    • #JustWonderng Have you ever read Scott? According to the sages at Goodreads, if you like Sir Walter Scott you might like Walpole…
      I’m sure I read Ivanhoe as a girl, but I don’t remember it.


  5. I spotted a copy of this years ago in a secondhand shop at uni, and nearly bought it (I have a weakness for fat tomes and for the eighteenth century; both together seemed ideal), but didn’t at the last minute (I was short of cash even for cheap secondhand books, back in those days). Now I’m thinking I had a lucky reprieve! (Also, what you say in the comment above about Walpole’s similarity to Scott confirms this thought—I’ve only read one of Scott’s books, Ivanhoe, and thought it dreadfully dull.)


    • In Scott’s defence, there were not so many books for people to read in his era, and he was offering adventure in place of ‘improving’ works with a heavy-duty moral message.
      But Walpole was writing this in the 1930s, amid the Depression and the emergence of fascism. Maybe escapist lit was what people wanted and perhaps that is why he was popular back then?
      Though then again, I don’t suppose unemployed people during the Depression had any money to buy his books, second-hand or otherwise…
      It’s awful to want a book and not be able to afford it.


      • No, I can quite see how it might have been cutting-edge entertainment—I just found the cod-medievalism a trifle wearying, and unleavened by much in the way of humour. Quite possibly his Waverley novels are better, or more varied.

        When I finished university I had no money, at all, of any kind, for anything. At some point during that first post-graduating year, in a rather Victorian turn of events, a close school friend’s mother became what you might call my benefactress: she sent me a box of books (I got to choose the titles, then she’d order them) every month. It was an extraordinary arrangement and one I’ll never be able to repay her for.


        • Yes, I had a long period of time when I couldn’t afford books, and I didn’t have access to a library either.
          I’ve certainly made up for it since then!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I think Scott’s terrific (I’ve never heard of Walpole). I’m on holidays. Time I reviewed … Waverley or Ivanhoe, I’m torn.


    • Yes, please do, that would be great:)
      How long are your holidays?


      • This week (gone) and next, then a week I suppose for christmas and new year.


        • It’s a good time to be off the road IMO (all those drunken Xmas parties).


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