Andromeda, an Idyll of the Great River

A novel By Robert Buchanan, published 1900

This novel was probably one of the last published by Robert Buchanan. Although published in 1900 the story is told in the 1850’s. It is partly based at the Lobstersmack Inn on Canvey Island. Below written and published in the Guardian in 1900 is a very good review of the book.

Robert Williams Buchanan 1841-1900

Andromeda: an idyll of the Great River from The Guardian (21 March, 1900 – p.3) NEW NOVELS.

To many of those who know Mr. Robert Buchanan in very different moods and in other characters it will be refreshing to meet him as the author of ANDROMEDA (Chatto and Windus, 8vo, pp. 413, 6s.), an old-fashioned romance of love, art, and mystery which carries us back to the early sixties by its plot, and still more by its manner and execution.

The heroine is a child of the sea, the nursling, ward, and wife of a truculent, open-handed, hard-favoured mariner who has not been heard of for many a long day when a weak-minded young artist falls in love with her on Canvey Island, near Gravesend. Charlie Somerset is engaged to a cousin, and an elderly comrade of the palette gives him excellent advice. He follows it for a little; but fate will have it that Andromeda receives, with news that her ferocious husband is dead or dying, a considerable fortune from Californian mines.

Somerset jilts his cousin, and the lovers are to be married; but just then, of course, Matt Watson comes ashore safe and sound. What happens then we shall not say, but it is very exciting, and though there is a little uncertainty about the end, Mr. Buchanan manages his plot with the hand of a master of suspense. There is no subtlety about the characters; in every feature and every phrase they are in the tradition of mid-century sentimentalism. But the story has more life and rapidity than half the psychological “studies” can show; there is some admirable landscape from the mouth of the Thames,  and the pictures of Bohemian Bloomsbury in the sixties have all the air of being done from life.

Reading the novel I found many passages very descriptive of the times and in particular how I imagine Canvey Island and the surrounding areas were like all those years ago. The book begins:

The plate inside the book showing Andromeda and her ‘husband’ Matt Watson

EARLY in the fifth decade of the present century, when the quaint fairy Crinolina was waving her wand over merry England and transforming its fair women into funny reproductions of their ancestresses under good Queen Bess; when young townsmen wore white hats and peg-top trousers, and when nearly every house boasted its dismal array of horsehair-stuffed chairs and sofas covered with that most horrible invention the antimacassar early, that is to say, in the married life of her Majesty Queen Victoria, there stood in the loneliest part of Canvey Island, at the mouth of the Thames, a solitary tumble-down inn, called the Lobster Smack.
      Its landlord was a certain Job Endell, who had once been a deep-sea mariner and, if report did not greatly belie him, a savage sea-dog and pirate; its patrons and customers, few and far between, were such fishermen, bargees, lightermen, and riverside characters as were driven in their various vessels by stress of weather or freaks of the tide into the little muddy haven close to the inn door. From time to time the little inn resounded with the merriment of such wayfarers, but as a rule it was as deserted as its surroundings, and the aforesaid Job Endell was the lonely monarch of all he surveyed.
      Now and then, however, Job had the privilege of entertaining a stray visitor from London, attracted thither by the chances of fishing in the river or sea-bird shooting in the creeks or along the sea-wall; and at the time when our story opens two such visitors, who combined the profession of Art with the pleasures of cheap sport, were occupying the only habitable guest-chambers in the inn. The little dark parlour was lumbered with their guns, their fishing-rods, and their nets, as well as with the paraphernalia of their profession easels, brushes, mahl-sticks, finished and unfinished canvases, sketch-books, pipes, and cigar- boxes.
      The owners of this flotsam and jetsam had been in possession of the place for weeks, and, as they gave little or no trouble, were satisfied with the simplest fare, and paid liberally enough for their board and accommodation, they were in high favour with the grim old landlord and his wife. They had arrived there one day during early summer in a small yawl-rigged yacht, which ‘took the ground’ at low water and floated at high tide, and they had lingered on, sailing, boating, fishing, sketching, until the summer was well advanced.
      Canvey Island exists still, and so, curiously enough, does the Lobster Smack; and even to-day, when the neighbouring shores of Kent and Essex are covered with new colonies and ever increasing resorts of the tourist, Canvey is practically terra incognita and its one house of public entertainment as solitary and desolate as ever. Flat as a map, so intermingled with creeks and runlets that it is difficult to say where water ends and land begins, Canvey Island lies, a shapeless octopus, right under the high ground of Benfleet and Hadleigh, and stretches out muddy and slimy feelers to touch and dabble in the deep water of the flowing Thames.
      Away across the marshes rise the ancient ruins of Hadleigh Castle; further eastward, the high spire and square tower of Leigh Church; and still further eastward, the now flourishing town of Southend, called by its enemies Southend-on-Mud.
      There is plenty of life yonder, and sounds of life; the railway has opened up every spot, and in the track of the railway has followed the cheap tourist and the Salvation Army; but down here on Canvey Island everything is still as silent, as lonely, and as gruesome as it was fifty or a hundred years ago nay, as it was a thousand years past, ere the walls of Hadleigh had fallen into ruin, and when the loopholes of the castle commanded all approaches of the enemy from the shore or the deep sea.

Another excerpt I thought was really descriptive of Canvey:

   It was now quite dark. The last dim gleams of the almost tropical sunset had faded from the western sky, and over the horizon, on a bed of dim greenish daffodil, the summer moon had risen, growing more and more luminous every moment, as twilight deepened into night. Gazing through the open window, through which the air stole warm and heavy with the scent of sea-grass and weed, Somerset saw the creek filled almost to over-flowing with the spring tide and glancing like mother-of-pearl in the brightening moon-rays. Black against the sky loomed the silhouette of the little yawl, now floating and swinging at anchor, and out beyond, in the shadow for the most part, but with here and there a glimmer of reflected moonlight, lay the Great River. All was completely still, save for the occasional cry of a curlew passing onward to join the flocks at rest on the marshes till low water. Brighter and brighter grew the moon, rising higher in the heavens, and shedding further ablutions of silver light, till all the skies seemed flooded with her beams, while the shimmering tide crept closer and closer to wash her radiant feet.

The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica has the following entry for Robert Buchanan:

“BUCHANAN, ROBERT WILLIAMS (1841-1901), British poet, novelist and dramatist, son of Robert Buchanan (1813-1866), Owenite lecturer and journalist, was born at Caverswall, Staffordshire, on the 18th of August 1841. His father, a native of Ayr, after living for some years in Manchester, removed to Glasgow, where Buchanan was educated, at the high school and the university, one of his fellow-students being the poet David Gray. His essay on Gray, originally contributed to the Cornhill Magazine, tells the story of their close friendship, and of their journey to London in 1860 in search of fame. After a period of struggle and disappointment Buchanan published Undertones in 1863. This “tentative” volume was followed by Idyls and Legends of Inverburn (1865), London Poems (1866), and North Coast and other Poems (1868), wherein he displayed a faculty for poetic narrative, and a sympathetic insight into the humbler conditions of life.

On the whole, Buchanan is at his best in these narrative poems, though he essayed a more ambitious flight in The Book of Orm: A Prelude to the Epic, a study in mysticism, which appeared in 1870. He was a frequent contributor to periodical literature, and obtained notoriety by an article which, under the nom de plume of Thomas Maitland, he contributed to the Contemporary Review for October 1871, entitled “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” This article was expanded into a pamphlet (1872), but he subsequently withdrew from the criticisms it contained, and it is chiefly remembered by the replies it evoked from D. G. Rossetti in a letter to the Athenaeum (16th December 1871), entitled “The Stealthy School of Criticism,” and from Mr Swinburne in Under the Microscope (1872). Buchanan himself afterwards regretted the violence of his attack, and the “old enemy” to whom God and the Man is dedicated was Rossetti.

In 1876 appeared The Shadow of the Sword, the first and one of the best of a long series of novels. Buchanan was also the author of many successful plays, among which may be mentioned Lady Clare, produced in 1883; Sophia (1886), an adaptation of Tom Jones; A Man’s Shadow (1890); and The Charlatan (1894). He also wrote, in collaboration with Harriett Jay, the melodrama Alone in London. In 1896 he became, so far as some of his work was concerned, his own publisher. In the autumn of 1900 he had a paralytic seizure, from which he never recovered. He died at Streatham on the 10th of June 1901.

The book is still available today in paperback.

More can be read here about the life and writings of Robert Buchanan

Comments about this page

  • Margaret Payne kindly leant me her old hardback copy of this book and it is excellent, I have never seen a copy for sale.

    By David Bullock (16/12/2008)
  • I know Margaret has a copy. They have it in Essex libraries but not to lend out.

    Amazon have hardcovered copies for sale from £23.56 and paperback at £16.67.

    You can also access and read the book online here.

    By Janet Penn (16/12/2008)
  • Re: Canvey in fiction
    What about “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad?
    Although set in Africa it begins off Canvey by the Chapman light.

    By Ralph (17/07/2009)
  • Why not do a review Ralph. I can’t read all the books

    By Janet Penn (18/07/2009)

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