The Hidden Hand by E. D. E. N. Southworth

Such an exciting cover, too.

Such an exciting cover, too.

The Hidden Hand
Author: Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (now that’s a mouthful!)
Pub Date: 1859
Pages: 584
Format: Kindle ebook

I had a bit of a scare reading this book. When I had first downloaded it onto my Kindle, I had been surprised at how short it was, but I shrugged and thought that then I could finish it quicker and get on to the next book on my list. So I read happily along, drawing closer and closer to 100%…and then it ended. Just ended. And there on the next page was the Project Gutenberg license. At that, I panicked. “Ack!” I thought. “What if the people at Project Gutenberg haven’t completed the book? What if they’ve abandoned the project? I’ll be left hanging FOREVER!” A terrifying thought, indeed! It’s certainly happened to me before. Once I started reading a book while visiting America and then had to leave before I could finish it, leaving me wondering the rest of the year.

So off I went to try to find the rest of the book. I checked the Amazon reviews of what I had got first, and there, indeed, multiple people were warning, “This is only the first half of the book! You’ll have to get the other half elsewhere!” Elsewhere? Elsewhere? Where elsewhere, I should like to know? I found all the free versions I could and checked them; no luck. I checked the plain text and HTML versions at Project Gutenberg, just in case the problem lay with the Kindle version. Nope. My future seemed dark indeed. Despairing, already miserably forming emergency plans of how I could get at the rest of the book by borrowing it from friends in another country in four or so months, in a hopeless whim I clicked on the name of the author at Project Gutenberg to see other works by her, to see if by any chance…Wait! There! Capitola the Madcap! Why, Capitola is the name of the heroine! Perhaps that’s it!

And indeed it was. In the front text it calls itself a “sequel” to The Hidden Hand. Sequel! A sequel to a book with no ending, that’s what. But at any rate, I was able to finish the book – phew! – and so in the end it was really twice as long as I had first thought. Anyhow! At this rate this review is going to be twice as long as I first thought.

So, The Hidden Hand. I first read it many, many years ago, maybe when I was 10 or so, and could distinctly remember a few scenes, a few paragraphs, even, but little else. And so I was happy when I finally came across it again with the recommendation of a friend. Trying not to spoil too much, it’s the story about a girl living on the streets who is discovered by her rich “uncle” and taken back to his estate, where she decides to set herself to capturing a local outlaw, Black Donald. There’s also an extensive subplot featuring a poor but noble widow and her son and all the good and bad things that happen to them. And, naturally, as you go, there are various revelations about how everybody’s related to each other and who’s going to inherit what and why who wants to kill whoever else.

Now, this book was first published in 1859, as I said. It definitely shows. This is such a very Victorian book: the evil villains, the noble heroes, the coincidences, the happily-ever-after perfectly-tied-up ending with the double wedding, the complicated family tree, the triumph of good over evil – it has it all. The fact is that I usually don’t go for books that tend towards the…well, clichéd side of the spectrum. I like books that play with old tropes, that take old themes and twist them in new ways, that surprise, that leave things a bit more mushy and complicated – and more realistic – throughout. But sometimes I just want to read a nice, neat book that entertains me and makes me laugh and then ties up everything neatly at the end. Particularly since I just got back from a trip to America that was filled with books that twisted tropes and were wildly unpredictable and left things unresolved, all leaving me with rather wracked nerves. Especially after having read eight books of the Series of Unfortunate Events in a row.

And the fact is that The Hidden Hand does what it does very well. For one, it does play a bit with those 19th-century archetypes – the heroine, for instance, is tomboyish, stubborn and independent, even if she does like to sew and embroider. (See, tough girls can do that sort of thing too. So if Capitola can sew and capture outlaws, I can knit and run Linux servers.) And some – some! – of the heroes have their flaws. But those differences are sort of beside the point – which is that this book is genuinely engrossing, exciting and satisfying despite all the stereotypes. It uses them well. So don’t expect some grand, unique, mind-blowingly creative brilliance of a work. Expect a fun, clever, exciting old-fashioned novel. And if you feel like that sort of thing, you would probably enjoy The Hidden Hand. I know I did, even if I laughed at some of the parts I was supposed to be crying at, and even if much of that enjoyment was due to too much of Lemony Snicket all at once.

Alright, now that I’ve explained that, let’s move on. How did I like the characters? Well, some of them were certainly amusing – I loved the scenes of Capitola and Old Hurricane’s arguments, for instance. And at least the central heroine and villain are pretty round and interesting as characters. But most of the people in this book are rather flat and don’t change much. Take that whole subplot I was mentioning – the noble widow, her noble son, her son’s noble love, her son’s noble friend, the vindictive villain looking for revenge – all flat, all unchanged by the end. Does that mean they’re no fun to read about? Certainly not! Indeed, one of the most memorable parts of this book for me was an incident involving that noble son, his noble friend, and his vindictive arch-enemy. They are definitely entertaining. But you are not going to get hours of mulling and analysis out of them. You are not going to spend whole meals discussing them because they’re so brilliantly new. (And yes, I have been known to do that with characters from other books.) Now, the main character, as I said, is more interesting, but (as far as I can see) there isn’t much change in her by the end. But she is still fun to read about. The whole book is this way – entertaining, but not that deep. And that’s okay.

As for the plot, again, definitely a very Victorian plot – if you don’t like coincidences, stay well away! And if it bugs you when good always triumphs over evil – stay away! But again, it’s very entertaining, and the book as a whole is surprisingly fast-moving despite the complexity of the plot. Now, I would say that some bits with the widow and her son do get a bit dull (I, for one, don’t mind, but I read fast…), but later on the plot thickens and things grow more interesting. Capitola’s exploits, on the other hand, are always great fun. Then the end, of course, is very neatly tied up, but even if part of me rolls my eyes and says “This is so overdone!”, another part of me wriggles in satisfied delight.

Now, one of my favorite parts of reading older books is learning really obscure words. Jane Eyre, for instance, taught me “confabulate,” which basically means “chat.” “Confabulate.” It is just so long. It amuses me tremendously. Anyhow, this book certainly has its share of weird words. There are a few ones that actually seem that they would be surprisingly useful – one (which I forgot, perhaps with bad implications for its usefulness…) meaning a marriage motivated by money, and another, “contumacious,” meaning “stubbornly disobedient to authority,” for instance. And then there are some that are just amusing:

‘Oh, mother!’ exclaimed the boy, while a violent blush overspread and empurpled his face!

Empurpled! Awesome! Next time I blush I want to be empurpled! Okay, fine, I’m kidding. But if you like to read books with weird, delightful words, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s not as great as Jane Eyre for words, but it’s still good. Speaking of words, there is the writing style. Well, again, this is a 19th-century novel; the author is no Hemingway. But the she is fairly sparse with descriptions, and the dialog, if sometimes rather wordy, still has plenty of life to it.

I am so glad that I found this book again, not to mention that I managed to procure the second part, since it was a delight to read! The complicated, fast-moving plot, the fun characters, the awesome words, and the wonderfully tied-up ending (a rare sight in contemporary fiction, you must admit) all made for a satisfying read. If you feel like a break from the somewhat grim realism, plain writing, and comparatively simple plots of much modern literature, you might enjoy this novel. And perhaps best of all – it’s free! (Just make sure to get both The Hidden Hand and Capitola the Madcap!)

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