Maurois was a literary celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s who became one of the French great and good after his election in 1938 to the Académie française. He had wanted to write from an early age but, for a man who worked in his family’s textile mill, it could only be a matter of scribbling in his spare time. Still, he learned and became fluent in English, and not long after the outbreak of the First World War, he was sent by the French authorities to a British unit as an interpreter. From this experience Maurois wove the collection of sketches that made his name: Les Silences du Colonel Bramble (1918).
Richard of Normandy, the hero of Charlotte Mary Yonge’s The Little Duke, is only 8 when the story begins. I must have been about the same age when I first read it and some of its scenes, with their rugged Norman settings, have remained with me ever since. My children loved it too, but when I came across it again the other day I wondered if I dared reread it. Would it be too moralistic, too old-fashioned? Why disturb my childhood memories? I soon found I needn’t have worried. The Little Duke is as exciting and moving as ever. And it is amazing how much historical knowledge the simply told story conveys.
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