Harry Revel starts off as a murder mystery and ends as a historical novel, with the divide coming in Chapter XX. The last four chapters relating to the Peninsular War, bring a moral resolution, but at a distance of time and place from the original moral conflicts. The first ten chapters are set in Plymouth, although it is the Plymouth of the early nineteenth century when the present day districts were separate towns. The second ten are set in the Rame peninsula – Antony area of Cornwall, which has changed far less. In the preface to the first edition of 1903, Q warns against too close an enquiry into location. However, most named locations accord reasonably well with the O.S. Map, and such a map is invaluable in helping the reader follow the plot, especially as it is complex, possibly unnecessarily so.
The preface also mentions Q's intention of dedicating the novel to the Devon storyteller W.F. Collier, had he not died in the year of publication. William Collier was an associate of the Bodmin storyteller William Hicks. Hicks died a few years after Q was born but would certainly have been known to Thomas Q. Couch, Q's father. It might well have been Thomas who introduced Q to Collier. The story of a boy climbing a church spire and the murder of a Jewish moneylender were probably taken from Collier's recollections.
Other elements of the novel derive from elsewhere, particularly The History of Polperro, written by Dr Jonathan Couch, Q's grandfather, and edited by Thomas Q. Couch in 1870. No doubt there are other sources now inaccessible to us. We know enough, however, to realise that Q was frequently fictionalising fact. The Peninsula War chapters keep closely to the information provided by W.F.P. Napier in his History of the War in the Peninsula, Vol IV, Book VI. In describing the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812, the novel focuses on the campaign which started with the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in January and moved on to the capture of Badajoz in April. This battle Q describes in 'Three Men of Badajoz' from The Laird's Luck of 1901. There are no characters appearing in both the novel and the short story.
There are characters, however, that appear in Harry Revel, The Mayor of Troy, and the short story 'The Merry Garden', namely Bill Adams and Ben Jope. Amelia Plinlimmon, Lydia Belcher and Captain James Brooks appear in Harry Revel and also in the following novel Poison Island. Poison Island is also about a young lad, but it is not Harry Revel. In the preface to Harry Revel Q suggested further adventures involving Harry Revel, Ben Jope, Bill Adams and Amelia Plinlimmon. Presumably, Q was intending a sequel to the novel. This was not fulfilled.
A feature of Harry Revel, as with all Q's novels, is detailed planning. He keeps the characters to the plot; they are not permitted to develop a life of their own, determining the plot as they progress. Character is revealed in action, not in reflection or self-conscious questioning. This looks back to folk story in general and the Cornish 'droll' tradition in particular. It also looks sideways to the writings of R.L. Stevenson and others, whose aim was pace and incident rather than psychological exposition. Q was particularly dismissive of certain Russian novels where characters lack motivation and direction. In the preface to Poison Island he terms himself an admirer of Stevenson, 'our master', while castigating those Russian novels where 'talk' and 'self-exploration' lead to 'stagnation'. Nor does he have any time for novels informed by psychoanalysis or Marxist materialism.
The weakness of this approach for a novelist such as Q is twofold. Firstly, it led him into over-complex plots where peripheral details hold the key to the understanding of central events. A ring and a cuff in Chapter VII identify the murderer a hundred pages further on. How many readers can remember such fleeting details? Secondly, it limits Q's greatest gift, his descriptive ability, as seen in the Lerryn Water section of The Mayor of Troy and the Corsican scenes from Sir John Constantine. Such a self-denying ordinance is self defeating.
Q wrote Harry Revel as a member of the Cornwall Education Committee and at one level the novel is a study of childhood. A number of novels, such as Poison Island and The Ship of Stars, have children as central characters. Q believed, as did certain Fathers of the Church, in a doctrine of original innocence. Nor did Q necessarily equate experience with corruption, as do many writers today. He says elsewhere that a little knowledge is not a dangerous thing if it is the right kind of knowledge. Whether the violence and sexual irresponsibility of contemporary secular culture would approximate to the right kind of knowledge is doubtful. Harry Revel has the good fortune, even though an orphan, of mixing with virtuous people, namely Amelia Plinlimmon, the Trapps, and Isabel Brooks. By implication Q saw adults as morally responsible for children.
Q's characters fall roughly into three groups: those like Isabel Brooks and Amelia Plinlimmon who retain goodness in the face of wrong; those like the Rev. Scougall and Archibald Plinlimmon who are morally ambiguous; and those like the Rev John Whitmore and Sergeant Letcher who are morally insidious. Q does not over-emphasise evil, yet its destructive power is detailed in the murder of Isaac Rodriguez and the sacking of Ciudad Rodrigo. Unlike many contemporary historians and novelists, Q presents the reader with a moral and a material universe where the evil suffer as they have brought suffering to others. This is not a popular doctrine today, where the evil are often presented as superior to the virtuous, and innocence inevitably leads to disillusionment and defeat. This shows the scriptural basis to Q's thought. Although he was reared steeped in science, he did not see materialism as a total explanation of the human condition.
A central problem for readers of Harry Revel today, when even the Second World War is receding into the mists of history, is the absence of contextual information. Few people have much knowledge of the Cornish smuggling industry of the Napoleonic period, leaving the average reader floundering to understand what is happening in the middle chapters. Even the Napoleonic War is probably insufficiently known to access all the references in the text. Even fewer will be acquainted with the geography of Plymouth and the Rame peninsula of two hundred years ago. Whether the plot is exciting enough to carry the reader through these difficulties is doubtful. As a result, some will find Harry Revel a tedious experience. When we realise however that the novel is accurate history and the history is accessible, the work takes on a different complexion and is worth the effort. It may not be the best of Q's novels but it possesses its own virtues.
A problematic area for commentators is in identifying the debt Q's novels owe to his classical training. The influence of R.L. Stevenson is clear in a fast moving adventure story like Harry Revel, more so than classical writings. Yet looks can deceive.
In 1886, 17 years before Harry Revel was completed, Q received his classics degree and spent a year tutoring in the subject at Oxford. When Q was elected Professor of English Literature at Cambridge in 1912, it was nine years after the novel's publication. In his inaugural lecture of January 29, 1913, much of the lecture was centred on reading English Literature back not to the Anglo-Saxons but to the classical past. While the English language owed something to the grammatical forms and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon, English literature looked to classical civilisation for its forms, style and ideas. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly that in the lecture 'The Horatian Model in English Verse'. England itself he saw as a 'palimpsest' where even the cultures of its earliest inhabitants can be discerned through the later.
Q's mind revolved around a classical axis, with this axis remaining when he came to write his novels. This is obvious in novels such as Sir John Constantine. Q's lectures are full of classical references: Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Horace and Virgil all appear in 'Patriotism in English Literature'.
What underlies Q's thinking is the Greek belief in the universe and human society as being a harmony threatened by conflict and chaos, particularly by ideas of conflict and chaos. Marxism, Darwinism (as popularly understood) and the rest he saw as invidious ideas. The antidotes were religion, in his case Anglicanism, democracy and education. This informed his work for the Cornwall Education Authority following the Balfour Education Act of 1903, his work for the South-East Cornwall Liberal Association and Fowey Anglican church. Harry Revel was intended as a popular novel, but one that refuses to pander down and endeavours to inform and elevate, both through its style and its content. Disorder is symbolised by John Whitmore and George Letcher; order by Amelia Plinlimmon, Isabel and James Brooks, and when they are enlightened, Jack Rogers and Lydia Belcher. However, in Amelia Plinlimmon and Isabel Brooks there is also the Christian idea of redemptive suffering. Q saw Christianity as an extension of the classical past, allying himself with Early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, as against Tertullian and 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' The conclusion of Harry Revel shows order and harmony restored, although at a considerable cost. While Q can be called a Christian humanist, he cannot be called a secular humanist.
Maybe it is possible to identify another element of Greek thinking in the novel. In Egypt, Greece and Rome by Charles Freeman, there is a quotation from Peter Conrad, 'The lyric protagonist is not a man who does things but to whom things happen.' This is certainly true of Taffy Raymond in The Ship of Stars, Sophia and Tristram in The Blue Pavilions and Amyot Trestane in Castle Dor. It is generally true of Harry Revel, except for two contradictory instances: the climbing of the church spire and the joining of the army. (Freeman, 1996, p. 112). This shows a development in Q's thinking from his earlier novels, leading on to Harry Brooks of Poison Island.
It is important to see Q's thinking as a consistent whole, whether he is expressing it in the form of novels, short stories or lectures. There is none of the compartmentalisation common in academics today, enabling them to hold contradictory opinions in line with received wisdom and political correctness.