The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Britannia rules the waves?

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Carruthers, finds himself having to stay on at his job in the Foreign Office while all his fashionable friends depart for country house parties, apparently managing to cope with his absence with less difficulty than he’d have liked. Released at last for his annual holiday, he finds himself with nowhere in particular to go, so when an old friend writes inviting him to spend some time on his yacht duck-shooting in the Baltic, he decides to take him up on the offer. He’s expecting a well-appointed leisure yacht complete with crew, so is taken aback to discover that the Dulcibella is tiny, strictly functional and manned only by his friend, Davies. Throwing off his initial grumpiness, Carruthers settles in to learn the art of sailing under Davies’ expert tutelage. But he soon discovers that Davies has an ulterior motive for wanting him there – Davies suspects that there’s some kind of German plot being developed along the Baltic coastline, and wants Carruthers to help him investigate…

The beginning of the book is a lot of fun, filled with self-deprecating humour as Carruthers first realises that his fashionable world can survive quite happily without him and then discovers that, rather than swanning about on a nice, clean deck in his natty sailing outfit, he’s expected to share a tiny cabin with Davies, eat off a paraffin stove, and work for his passage. He’s very likeable – the archetypal patriotic gentlemanly hero beloved of English fiction of that era. (And still beloved by this Scot today, I freely admit.) Davies is a little rougher around the edges, but is also entirely decent and honourable.

When they start to sail, the book doesn’t stint on nautical facts and terminology. My Oxford World’s Classics edition contains a glossary of terms as well as the usual informative introduction and notes, which tell a bit about Childers’ life – an intriguing story on its own account – and the literary and historical background to the book. There are also charts! Sea charts! And charts of the various coastlines. I know some people will find it a little odd, but I can’t resist a chart, map or plan in a book, so to have an abundance of them added immensely to the fun.

A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping — steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels — now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

The story gradually takes on a more serious tone, though, once Davies reveals his suspicions. The book was first published in 1903, and I thought it casts a fascinating light on the attitudes of the British ruling classes to their counterparts in Germany at that point in time. Were we more European then than now? Perhaps. Our public service was populated with the younger sons of the lower aristocracy, all public school* educated and many of them well-travelled in Europe and passably fluent in more than one language. Our Royals across Europe were all related to each other, and I imagine the same was probably true of a lot of the aristocracy. Today Germany is our friend; in my childhood, it was still perceived as our enemy; back at the time of this book, there’s a perception of it as being a kind of family member, a cousin perhaps. Not altogether surprising, given that our Royal Family is German, as was Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert (and hence all their thousands of offspring).

Book 40 of 90

But Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)

The emphasis of the book is on the growth of Germany as a naval power, and it becomes ever clearer that Childers’ real purpose in writing it was to send a warning to the powers-that-be in Britain that we shouldn’t take our naval supremacy for granted, especially in the North Sea. Unfortunately, as the rather polemical message grows stronger, the entertainment side of it gets somewhat sidelined, and I didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much as the first. Childers goes into far more detail on the potential naval threat and how Germany might use this bit of coastline to launch a future attack on Britain than makes for a good adventure story – at points it feels more like a report to the Foreign Office. And, since his purpose was to warn of a growing threat, it couldn’t have the kind of enemies-destroyed-rip-roaring-success-hurrah-for-good-old-England ending that this type of novel normally goes for.

Erskine Childers and his wife Molly sailing in the Baltic in 1910

However, there is plenty of adventure along the way, danger and derring-do, and a rather understated (and unnecessary) romance element, which the introduction informs me was more or less forced on Childers by his publishers. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Carruthers’ development from fashionable young man-about-town to patriotic amateur spy, and the intriguing look at the British-German relationship of the time more than made up for the shortcomings of the adventure story in the second half. This one undoubtedly deserves it status as a classic of espionage fiction.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

*Public school means posh private school in Britain, just to be confusing.

26 thoughts on “The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

  1. I have to confess, I’ve heard of this book for years, and never read it, FictionFan. What a great look at that time and place, though, and an interesting perspective on the politics of European relations. I’ve always thought that sometimes, authors can sound warning bells like that with those stories. People don’t always pay attention, but it’s interesting when it happens. It also sounds as though it’s also an adventure story in its way, which can work quite well. And sea charts! That’s a great touch.

    • I was the same, and actually it wasn’t at all as I’d been expecting – there’s a lot more humour in it than I thought. I loved the insight into the British/German relationship, and there’s actually an afterword form Chiders explaining that the British government did in fact put in place some of the changes he’d been suggesting to protect the North Sea in the event of war, though he stopped short of claiming it was as a result of this book. I suspect it probably did have some influence though…

  2. I’m not sure this is for me – I think I’d get a bit bored in the second half. I do like a map in a book though, and a sea chart is even better! Will you be doing one of your Film of the Book posts for this one?

    • The second half did drag a bit, I admit, but at least I had charts! I couldn’t track down an online version of the film, and it’s got very mixed ratings, so I’m not sure – if I can get a cheapo DVD I might… 😀

  3. I love maps (and geography) and always enjoy having them for reference in a book. Same for charts, especially genealogy. It’s one of the drawbacks for me when reading on my Kindle, that it’s hard to thumb back when I want to consult the map/chart!

    • Ha – I know! I definitely prefer paper when it comes to books with charts or pictures in general. These charts are great because they’re actual real ones as used by sailors and governments – it made me feel like I was a real spy too… 😉

  4. You know, they saw a picture is worth 1,000 words, so charts, graphs, maps, and so on could be beneficial in a book like this. Not sure the storyline is one I’d enjoy traveling along, but you’ve done a great job making it its most tantalizing!

    • The charts made such a difference – I spent ages poring over them following the route of the Dulcibella! It is a good adventure book, but I must admit it feels very British – I can see why non-Brits might not find it nearly as fascinating.

    • Hahaha! I’m not doing a good job of selling this one, especially to my American buddies! Can it really be that you’re not interested in British/German naval strategies of 1903?? 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 Haha – you could tell his heart wasn’t really in the romance – he kept forgetting about it for chapters at a time, and then kinda throwing a bit in to keep his publishers happy… 😉

  5. Now this piques, especially with the added delight of maps (me too!) And I loved the rustic matron skirt gathering.

    Mumbles crossly that Brittania is currently showing she couldn’t even manage to rule a ‘wave the pedestrians across the road and halt the traffic ‘ manoeuvre, or decide whether it wants to waive Brexit, wave Brexit goodbye, wave Brexit onwards, or, yes, perhaps just sink herself beneath the waves completely. Oof.

    • I’m glad you loved the maiden – I did too! His writing was great – I think I forgot to mention that, actually… 🤭

      Oh dear – it gets worse by the day, doesn’t it? My new theory is we should get rid of Parliament and let the Queen sort things out… she couldn’t feasibly do a worse job….

  6. Um what? Public school really means private? How does that work?

    Too bad this started to lag in the second half, I love when characters are self-deprecating! It makes any plot bearable…

    • Haha – it’s so British! What everybody else calls public schools, we call state schools, whereas our public schools are actually private, fee-paying schools for the wealthy – like Eton, where the Royals go. I think it probably dates back to the days when poor people weren’t educated at all, and rich kids were either tutored privately at home or sent to a “public” school.

      Me too – a bit of self-deprecation always wins me over… 😀

  7. Carruthers in the Foreign Office, that’s just so English! But despite my love for maps and charts I’m not sure this is for the tbr (thank goodness!)

  8. Sounds like an interesting perspective on German-English relations before the world wars. I’ve seen that attitude elsewhere of young men looking forward to war with the Germans, as if it were another competitive sport.

    • I suppose it’s similar to rival gangs getting together for a fight – all very odd! But it’s been amazing to see Germany morph into our best friend in my lifetime – we’re so similar, we really should get along…

  9. Great review! I bought this book years ago for my eldest son who was about 10 at the time & he loved it but I’ve never got to read it myself. I love anything in the British line when it comes to spy/crime. And speaking of self-deprecating humour, I’ve been reading James Herriott’s vet stories aloud to my 14 yr old daughter & it’s full of it. Greetings from a fellow Scot.

    • Thank you. 😀 If you love spy stories, then I think you’d thoroughly enjoy this one, and the characters are beautifully British of that era… true heroes (before all that pesky realism crept in and we realised the Brits aren’t actually superior to everyone else… 😉 ) I haven’t read any of the James Herriott books but I love the old TV series back in the day. Thanks for the recommendation – I must try them! And thanks for popping by – always good to meet a fellow Scot!

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