Micah Clarke
by Arthur Conan Doyle

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Longmans, Green: London, 1889
421 pages

April 2014

Raising a rebellion, but not quite a war

Micah Clarke is a historical novel of the Monmouth Rebellion in England in 1685. There's plenty of color including English countryside and military mustering, some sharp military action and striking related adventures, and interesting characters. Still, I do not think the novel accomplishes quite what A. Conan Doyle set out to do. It's a careful, engaging novel with plenty of snap-and-crackle but which misses fire at the boom.

The problem, really, is built into the historical period and especially the episode which gives the book its subject and focus: late Seventeenth Century England, and the Monmouth Rebellion. After the upheavals of the English Civil War in the 1640s and the Interregnum of the 1650s, the Restoration of the monarchy heralded a stressed but relatively peaceful time. The political and religious tensions that existed were largely resolved in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. So Monmouth's rebellion can be seen either as delayed aftershock, or as premature misfire.

Doyle's foundational thesis is that extreme passion in politics and religion are bad and destructive; moderation and toleration and good-will are better and healthier for all. This is a reasonable thesis — except that he has not chosen a sufficiently wide spectrum of major characters. In Micah Clarke scarcely anyone marches off to anticipated war because he is deeply committed. Many are epigones, lesser sons of greater fathers who had fought in the Good Old Cause for Parliament and Protestant freedom during the Civil War: mild sons volunteering because their fierce fathers had, and the fathers expect it of their sons now. Or they are happy opportunists, looking to be on a winning side for likely social and monetary rewards. Or they are dedicated soldiers of the King, who resist rebellion because that's their profession and assignment.

This is all realistic enough for a rather small rebellion which soon failed. Perhaps the lack of deep commitments doomed it to failure. Partly by choosing this period and campaign, Doyle finds only minor opportunities to let patriotism and religious fervor truly show their mettle — so necessarily, without strong opposition, moderation scarcely gets to show its own mettle. Perhaps the true victory of the moderate men is that the Monmouth Rebellion more resembles a personal squib than a national-religious upheaval, so that's not so bad. But with only traces and echoes of great issues and passions, and the almost accidental volunteers, we may wonder why anyone turned out at all. We would not learn more than hints as to why their fathers went to war and toppled the kingdom.

For adventures during the Monmouth Rebellion, though, such as it was; and England and ordinary English countrymen in 1685, Micah Clarke is a vivid and enjoyable novel:

Our road lay through Castle Carey and Somerton, which are small towns lying in the midst of a most beautiful pastoral country, well wooded and watered by many streams. The valleys along the centre of which the road lies are rich and luxuriant, sheltered from the winds by long rolling hills, which are themselves highly cultivated. Here and there we passed the ivy-clad turret of an old castle or the peaked gables of a rambling country house, protruding from amongst the trees and marking the country seat of some family of repute. More than once, when these mansions were not far from the road, we were able to perceive the unrepaired dints and fractures on the walls received during the stormy period of the civil troubles. Fairfax it seems had been down that way, and had left abundant traces of his visit. I have no doubt that my father would have had much to say of these signs of Puritan wrath had he been riding at our side.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

Project Gutenberg online & ebooks:
Micah Clarke

Monmouth Rebellion at Wikipedia

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