River Journeys: Sporting and Fantastic

Notes on The Broads and Rivers of Norfolk and Suffolk by Harry Brittain. 1887

The Book of Dust. Volume 1. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. 2017

I listened to a fine LibriVox recording of the first book, and I read an early copy (plucked from an embargoed stock at a bookstore) of the second.

 What do a nineteenth-century sportsman’s account of a pleasure trip and a twenty-first century fantasy about an eleven year old boy have in common? Well, both take place on or near English waterways, and both protagonists love boats and know how to handle them in difficult conditions. Brittain and his sporting gentlemen friends have a large sailing yacht, the Buttercup, while Pullman’s Malcolm has only his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

Brittain sailed, and just as often, pulled his boat with a rope along the towpath, through the maze of rivers, canals, cuts and shallow lakes (broads) that were the waterways of East Anglia, some of which make up the Broads National Park today. Aided by his friend Jack and one experienced hand, they managed the difficult job of maneuvering an eight ton vessel through locks, low bridges, narrow channels and shoals, often against frustratingly contrary winds, and all the traffic on what was in the 1880s still a busy commercial river. As sporting men, they were most interested in the fishing and fowling that were significant parts of life on the Broads, but they also made detours, often overland, to visit historic sites, notable houses, inns, churches, etc. and to learn about the curious laws and charters that governed the rights and privileges of the people of the region for centuries. One thing I cannot imagine still being permitted was the use of complicated traps built into the banks of some of the broads, to collect hundreds of ducks for market.

During the voyage, visitors came and went on Buttercup, often arriving by train at some prearranged meeting point. The railroads also allowed them to make trips to and from the region’s major towns to acquire replacement parts for the boat and other supplies. A constant difficulty was to arrive at a designated rendezvous when contrary wind, a closed lock or drawbridge or a much tougher than expected run along a shallow, narrow canal held the Buttercup back. Brittain describes all these occurrences with humor and an eye for detail. I could have wished for more attention to the natural history of the country, but I guess I’ll have to make my own excursion.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is set a decade or so before the beginning of Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass. Malcolm lives in his parents’ inn near Oxford, and of course, that is where various agents engaged for and against Magisterium (the imagined, more sinister version of the Catholic Church) seem to stop for refreshment as they pursue their secretive missions to employ the alethiometer (the eponymous golden compass) and get hold of the infant Lyra. Malcolm becomes caught up in the goings on, and he shows great aptitude for clandestine work and practical boat-craft, which serves him well as he and a teenage girl who has worked in the inn suddenly must take Lyra  down the river to safety from the pursuing Magisterium during an epic flood. Supernatural forces are clearly behind the catastrophe, and manifest themselves in a variety of ways during the novel, but Pullman has a deft hand with his material, almost always keeping me believing in his fascinating alternative world. The true heroine of the story is La Belle Sauvage, the sturdy canoe and saves its three passengers but perishes in doing so. I’m looking forward to more of the story.

It occurs to me that I could add two more books about English rivers, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I don’t have a lot to say about either, except that both are as wonderful in their ways as the preceding pair.

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