Longsword tells the story of William Longespée, the illegitimate son of King Henry II, who was married by his half-brother, then King Richard I, into the family of Salisbury, becoming the Earl of Salisbury. Published in 1762, this new edition from Swan River Press is its first appearance in print in over 30 years and in Ireland since its original publication 250 years ago.
Many of the characters featured in this novel were real people: Longespée (Longsword) himself, his wife, Ela, King John, King Henry III, Hubert de Burgh and others mentioned throughout the text. The story itself takes some licence with actual events, however, mostly towards the end, but this is in the service of telling what turns out to be an old style, page turning ripping yarn.
Set in England and France in the 1220s, the opening chapters see the Earl of Salisbury fetched up at the castle of Sir Randolph, an erstwhile vassal of Salisbury, and relating the story of his travails in France, subsequent shipwreck while crossing the Channel, sojourn on the Isle of Rhé, and eventual restoration to his homeland.
During his long absence, Salisbury is presumed conveniently dead by Hubert de Burgh, who sees an opportunity for installing his brother Raymond in Longespée’s place and thus enhancing the fortunes of his family and strengthening his position with the king. Raymond repairs to Longespée’s castle and, with the help of a trusted but devious advisor, Grey, sets about wooing Longespée’s supposed widow, Ela, into matrimony.
There follows a story of twists and turns, distress and heartache, suspicion and indignation, crosses and double-crosses, as Longespée battles against the cruel machinations of Raymond and Hubert in their attempt to dispossess him of everything he has and is.
Given that Longsword was written and published 250 years ago, there is an initial exercise for the reader in getting to grips with the style of the narrative, but it doesn’t take long to get into the flow of things and the flavour of the language used throughout is quite lyrical in tone.
While Albert Power, in his introduction to the novel, makes a case for Longsword containing elements of the Gothic and macabre and thus representing a forerunner to Horace Walpole’s Gothic The Castle of Otranto, the execution of the story is, I think, more in the tradition of Ivanhoe. It aches to be made into a swashbuckling movie. There’s plenty of intrigue and enough in the way of sword fights. The villains are properly dastardly and menacing and their comeuppance is suitably gratifying. All that’s missing, for a Hollywood treatment, is a full scale pitched battle with swathes of arrows darkening the sky, but Hollywood would have no problem tacking one on.
Longsword by Thomas Leland (Swan River Press, hb, 194pp, €30.00)
Interesting. but can you really say that Lonsword is “in the tradition” of Scott’s Ivanhoe, which is much later? Surely the other way round? Maybe Longsword is the earliest historical novel, or one of them?
Actually, that’s a fair point. I wasn’t thinking of the books in terms of chronological publishing order, more in terms of us looking back at them from today’s vantage point. Regarding historical novels, if we accept Robinson Crusoe as one of the earliest examples of what we now term the ‘novel’, then Longsword may well be a very early example of the historical novel.