Review: JOHN HERRING by Sabine Baring-Gould

Praxis Books, ISBN 978 09559517 01 – paperback £12.50

In these pages I tend to review more modern books, specifically crime – but I am changing. This is a case in point. 

What is different about this book? Well, for one thing, the cover is a fabulous, really fabulous photograph. I have to say that – I took it! I even got the credit inside. 

But this is a different type of book for me. It was written by the Sabine Baring-Gould in 1883, a very strong Victorian gentleman of a deeply religious nature, unsurprisingly, since he was in holy orders. 

I know of him because he was a keen collector of folk music, and there is an annual event (usually) held near here at Lewtrenchard Manor, where he lived, to celebrate his life. But he was also a very prolific writer, and this is one of his stories.

It begins with quite a bang. A terrible accident befalls a coach on the way from Plymouth to Exeter, and it overturns, killing one of the occupants. 

The man himself was wealthy, after many years dealing in diamonds in South America, and he was in the carriage with his beautiful daughter, and a companion who joined them for the journey, the John Herring of the title. The daughter, the Countess Mirelle Garcia de Cantalejo, whose mother was a Spanish aristocrat, is very aware of her position in the world, especially as it compares with the rough and ready folk she meets in Devon and Cornwall, especially the Battishalls, Trampleasures and Trecarrels. 

She is fortunate to have been in the carriage with John Herring, who is a military fellow, and very aware of the duties of a gentleman. 

Unfortunately, she is less lucky in the way that her father’s will has been written. Herring sees to it that she and her father’s body are taken speedily to the nearest habitation, the home of the Battishalls, father and daughter. There they are fed and looked after. But the will is soon discovered – it arranges for her to be “protected” by her nearest relations in England – the Trampleasures. But these are not the sort of folk whom she or her father would have wanted to look to her small fortune of seven thousands of pounds. 

In fact Trampleasure is a wily con man. He makes money by persuading people to invest in his scams, taking their money and keeping it. His latest venture was in a tin mine, a dead certainty, in which he has persuaded Battishall to invest, to the extent that Battishall has now lost everything. His home is mortgaged to the hilt, and Trampleasure holds the deeds. 

When Trampleasure sees Mirelle, and hears of her inheritance, he immediately decides to take it for himself. And she has no choice – not that the unworldly young woman has any wish to contest matters. As far as this innocent is concerned, her father would not have put her in a difficult position, and Mr Trampleasure has her full confidence. 

Matters are confused rather when she meets Trampleasure’s children. The son is a rough, cowardly, bullying sort, very rough and confident, who assumes he can win her affection with boasting. He is wrong. The second, Trampleasure’s daughter Orange, is willing to be Mirelle’s friend until she sees that her lover, Trecarrel, is very tempted by the beautiful guest. That forces Orange to fierce efforts to win him back, and she uses every wile and vicious snubs to hurt Mirelle until she wins back her man. Not that this is the end of the tale by any means. I’ve given nothing much away.

This is a brilliant story, of scam artists, bankruptcy, and the nasty, petty viciousnesses which the “gentle” middle classes could use against each other. The characters are all – not only the leading cast members, but all the individuals who barely gain a mention – beautifully portrayed, with all their vile little insults and cruelties brought out. But it’s more than just a story of middle-class and snobbery. Baring-Gould had a clear understanding of the people. I suppose it’s the nature of the job; a man who was so closely embedded in his community must be fully aware of the natural weaknesses, the greed, and the devastating reality of bankruptcy in Victorian England. 

For all that, there is one other aspect which particularly attracts me to this story, and that is the way that it is so solidly rooted in Dartmoor and the lives of those who lived on it or at its periphery. His descriptions of mining, and of the harsh lives of the peasants who scraped a living, betrays an affection for them, I think. 

Is there anything I didn’t like about it? My only comment would be that the style is slightly Dickensian. Not to the same extent as other books of the period. I think it is as approachable and easy to consume as, say, a Jane Austen. It has the same manner of attacking characters and showing their nastier sides with subtlety and, I would say, charm. It may put off some people, I suppose, but personally I’d say it is well worth reading – it’s worth the slight effort.

In any case, in summary, this is a book that merits reading. It was by turns amusing, delightful and shocking. I really loved it. Fortunately I have other books by Baring-Gould to consume.

Highly recommended.

One word of particular warning: I have seen only copies of John Herring on Amazon which are simple scanned versions. There is no formatting and make for a frankly lousy experience. I would very strongly recommend that you buy the version available from Praxis Books instead! You can order books from the publisher here: – or go to your favourite local bookshop, of course!

Full disclosure: I am a friend of Rebecca Tope, who owns Praxis Books. However, this review is based on my own reading of the book – which is why it has taken me a distressingly long amount of time to write this review!

2 Responses to “Review: JOHN HERRING by Sabine Baring-Gould”
  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    I read the book title and wondered what a rather good photo was doing on a book about the equine artist. Ooops – not THE John Herring but a fictional one!


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:


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