Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

Because George J. Whyte-Melville’s works have been cataloged as sporting fiction, they have never been given their rightful place in the history of English literature, and most scholars pass them by completely. Although Whyte-Melville wrote particularly for the sporting world, his novels, especially CAPTAIN DIGBY GRAND (as it was originally titled), interested wider audiences in their time. His writings have an air of liveliness, a note of authenticity, and an ineffable freshness. DIGBY GRAND was Whyte-Melville’s first novel, and it was truly termed by the novelist an autobiography, for the author’s own early career as an officer in a Highland regiment and the Guards is mirrored in the novel. Digby Grand is, in fact, partly young Whyte-Melville. Considered in his time an authority on fox hunting, the author refers to the sport frequently in DIGBY GRAND, as in his other novels.

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The values and traditions of Eton play a significant part in this rambling tale of “old boys.” The horseman and huntsman (the two aspects of the “gentleman” considered most important, aside from perfect grooming and decorum) are the models that the motherless hero aspires to emulate. His interests are as narrow as those of the people around him; lacking intellectual drive, he is content with a physically active but superficial existence. The military is considered the only acceptable career for a gentleman or sportsman such as he early considers himself. Cigars, sherry, and horses are the main interests of the men in the book except for brief encounters with a tepid form of romance.

The preparations for a career in the Guards are detailed with humor and enthusiasm, and the six-week voyage of the young soldier across the Atlantic is exhaustively presented. The author tends to overwhelm readers with unselective details, but the enthusiasm of the telling carries readers over the dull spots; the unusual facts and novelty of some of the events are often interesting in themselves, although they contribute to no pattern or plot in the book. The novel, like a genuine “autobiography” (as the book is subtitled), simply recounts one event after another. The life of the Guards, on duty in Canada is described with as much indefatigable detail as everything else in the narrative. The narrator-protagonist devotes much space to describing the scenery he encounters in his travels, from Niagara and Lake Erie to the northwoods sites of hunting parties to the fields and streams of England. In England, America, or wherever the hero is, horses, horse racing, and hunting play the major part in both his thoughts and actions.

The book is not subtle in either its humor or its efforts for effect. The names of most of the characters suggest caricatures rather than efforts to create fully developed personalities: for example, the reader encounters Admiral Portfire, Mr. Stubble, Arabella Ramrod, Lawyer Sheepskin, and Mrs. Mantrap. The heroines are all conventional, pale maidens with little personality of their own; they are merely mannequins of ethereal beauty upon which Digby can shine his admiration and devotion.

The strengths of the novel lie in the density of the narrative and the variety and vividness of the boldly sketched characterizations. Some of the characters are overdrawn, but others are humorous, colorful, and often entertaining. The accounts of the activities of the class portrayed (gambling, hunting, racing) are described with authenticity. As a record of the mid-Victorian period and the attitudes and occupations of its people, the book presents an interesting, if limited, portrait. The book is greatly flawed by the highest, most objective standards, but it has a place in literary history as an example of a type of popular novel and in social history as a document of a bygone era.

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