A Rock in the Baltic
by Robert Barr

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Authors and Newspapers Association
New York & London, 1906
321 pages

September 2013

Good adventure; slipshod romance

Robert Barr strikes a wrong note in the very first sentence of A Rock in the Baltic, but it gets better. The character with whose viewpoint we open this adventure-romance novel is a young British naval lieutenant, aboard a cruiser on a visit to America. The cruiser is named H.M.S. Consternation; I don't know why. Perhaps the author was recalling some anecdote about opening serious speeches with a joke. 1906 was the year the Royal Navy launched their revolutionary battleship H.M.S. Dreadnought — a name of quite the opposite meaning and intention.

The novel must survive several larger problems, all related to the author's deployment of character, before we sail into truly adventurous events which do make this an enjoyable novel. The determined conventionality of the British lieutenant and the American woman he falls for in the opening chapter, are likely to bore us before we become sufficiently involved. The Cinderella situation of the heroine as the story opens seems embarrassingly like the fairy tale; there are mitigating individualities for all the characters but some of them take a long while to emerge.

A bigger structural problem is that the author's character list is upside-down. There are two emergent or potential romantic couples: ashore are two American young women, friends; and from the British warship, they quickly meet the British lieutenant and a young Russian nobleman serving a hitch in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately for the plot and for the reader's interest, the female protagonist's sidekick is much more interesting than she is; although a girl may be shy, coy, cautious, prudent, or even somewhat passive, she ought not to be so determinedly reticent and disinterested that the reader wonders what is wrong with her. I cannot recall an equivalently non-forthcoming female romantic protagonist. Additionally, the young Russian prince, inventor, and chemist turns out to be notably more interesting than the British lieutenant. As with the women, the fellow we meet as a sidekick, after some chapters by force of mind and character begins to eclipse his friend.

The "rock in the Baltic" of the title is a lonely rocky islet which the cruiser passed some time ago; in the course of testing a prototype naval cannon aboard, the lieutenant took a shot at it, quite successfully. This was less successful for his career, however, as the Imperial Russian government formally complained to the British government. The lieutenant remains under a lingering cloud, which he proposes to lighten while on leave by going to St. Petersburg unofficially and explaining to the appropriate Russian officers and ministers, that since firing at the islet was an innocent and harmless gesture, good will should abound between the two governments and as regards himself.

One needn't be very thoroughly read in the foibles of autocracies, and of the centuries-long Russian reputation for uncertain official hospitality, to speculate that this is a really bad idea. But that's Robert Barr's plot mainspring in A Rock in the Baltic. Once we begin getting into the Russian events the novel becomes fast-paced, with some thoughtful surprises; and the emergent romances ring in some surprises, too.


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

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