A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys
‘The Flight to Varennes,’ ‘The Railway Raid in Georgia,’ ‘The Escape of King Charles after Worcester,’ ‘From Pretoria to the Sea,’ ‘The Escape of Prince Charles Edward,’ ‘Two African Journeys,’ ‘The Great Montrose,’ ‘In Flight of Lieutenants Parer and M’Intosh across the World,’ ‘Lord Nithsdale’s Escape,’ ‘Sir Robert Carey’s Ride to Edinburgh,’ ‘The Escape of Princess Clementina,’ ‘On the Roof of the World’
Twelve chapters tell the stories of various escapes and adventurous journeys – some well-known incidents, others less familiar. The stories cover the unsuccessful attempted escape of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; an episode in the American Civil War in 1862 when a train is stolen; and the famous escape of Charles II after Worcester. Commenting on Charles’ subsequent Restoration, Buchan remarked: ‘So began a reign which was scarcely worthy of its spirited prelude. In one matter, indeed, the King was beyond criticism. No one of the people, gentle or simple, who had assisted him in his wild flight from Worcester died unrewarded’.
Two escape stories from the South African War come next – one of them concerning Winston Churchill. We can also read of the famous exploits of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Another chapter tells of Lord Nithdale’s escape from the Tower of London, disguised as a woman. (I have read elsewhere that this is one of only three escapes ever successfully made from the Tower.) Yet other chapters tell of Montrose, and of how Sir Robert Carey rode to Edinburgh to inform James VI of the death of Queen Elizabeth. These are just some examples of a good many tales of true adventure.
In his preface Buchan assures us that: ‘I have retold the stories, which are all strictly true, using the best evidence I could find and, in the case of the older ones, often comparing a dozen authorities’.
Duncan Johnstone, 2001
‘The Escape of the Princess Clementina’
The tale is set in 1718, three years after the Old Pretender’s unsuccessful attempt in the Jacobite Rebellion to succeed to the British throne after the death of Queen Anne. He was in exile in Rome. His friends, despairing of any prospect of military success, decided that a suitable marriage for the bachelor prince would encourage waning Jacobite hopes and might raise up an heir to the cause.
The task of finding a suitable bride fell to Charles Wogan, a long-standing, devoted and trusted friend of the Old Pretender. He negotiated a diplomatic marriage with the Polish Princess Clementina Sobiesky, only to be frustrated when she was held under strict surveillance in a castle at Innsbruck. He continued his diplomatic efforts to secure he release, but to no avail. There followed a daring escape from the castle, across the Alps to the Venetian Republic and safety from pursuit. At last the wedding took place but, alas, despite producing an heir to the Cause, the marriage ‘did not fulfill the romantic promise of its beginnings’.
As ever, John Buchan conveys a keen sense of time, place, period, atmosphere and character. We are far removed from our own time, yet the political world and mores of the period after the 1715 Rebellion come across clearly. We are given just enough detail about the background, context and purpose of the marriage for us to appreciate its significance and the determination of the Jacobites to bring it about. The atmosphere and pace of the narrative can change quickly but subtly from the patient diplomacy needed to secure allies for the Old Pretender, to the decisive, split-second actions to effect the escape from the castle, the anxious waits on the journey, dismay when something went wrong and relief at the end. Buchan enables us to enter into the fugitives’ state of mind through sparing but telling detail, whether it is in the castle where the Princess was held, across the Brenner Pass or in any of the inns where the party found shelter and rest.
Despite the brevity of the account, Charles Wogan’s qualities come across strongly both in the descriptions of him and in the ways in which he carried out his mission. He is very much the hero of the tale. The Old Pretender remains a shadowy and passive figure in the background. The Princess presents as an accomplished, determined and courageous young lady for whom, one is left to feel, the marriage was one of lost opportunities.
John Buchan’s purpose in this tale was not, however, to excite his readers’ thought about the ‘what ifs’ of history, but rather to share, as he put it in his preface, ‘the efforts of men to cover a certain space within a certain limited time under an urgent compulsion, which strains to the uttermost body and spirit’, and to know that life can indeed be ‘sharpened, intensified, idealised’ when the twin categories of time and space under which we live our lives come into conflict.
The little-known ‘winter comedy’ of Princess Clementina achieves all these ends, and provides some further insight into the romance of the Jacobite Cause.
Deirdre Fordham, 2001
Available to read at https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/n00003.html