When I was in my (very) early twenties, I drove half a dozen young ladies from London to Llansa on the Costa Brava, where we had rented a villa for a couple of weeks. We had one of these VW vans, which I’ve no idea how we acquired. It was dark blue, as quite often en route was my mood: don’t address all your niggles at me please! I don’t recall how or where we got the van from. Maybe one of the girls’ parents stumped up for it — these were solidly middle class girls — but this was obviously the cheapest way of moving seven or eight people through France. No doubt the vehicle would be sold upon our return. Parking in London back then was nothing like today, but it was no picnic, especially with a mini bus.

The only specific thing I remember about the journey (apart from the never-before-encountered long-life milk of which we found a season’s supply on the porch of the villa) was that the ladies were all obsessed with Rogue Herries, a period romance by Hugh Walpole, set in Cumberland from 1730 till 1774. This incessant chatter was enough to put me off the book — I have finally broken down and opened the quite handsome first 1930 US edition which I picked up many years ago for what looks like $2.50. It was published by Doubleday Doran and appears in the slightly odd trim size of 5⅛” x 7¼”. It has a gilded top, so the book block was trimmed at the top, but left untrimmed on the other two sides. There’s evidence that readers had to slit the vertical folds themselves as they read the story, which the publisher describes as a “massive, vital, full-blooded novel”.

The jacket features a drawing of Herries, facing away from us, gazing at the mountains while holding his whip behind his back ready to discipline any errant behavior. Walpole describes Francis Herries, “handsome beyond all ordinary men”, as “gay, charming, sullen, angry, kindly, cruel”. Why is it that so many young ladies love a transgressive hero? They all chose mild-mannered, utterly reliable spouses in the end.

Hugh Walpole was no relation of Horace Walpole (who apparently started out as Horatio), the son of Robert Walpole, and author of The Castle of Otranto and a notable correspondence. The Prime Minster does however crack a mention in Rogue Herries. Hugh Walpole was born in 1884 in New Zealand of missionary stock and came “home” to England as a child. Rogue Herries hit the bestseller list in America in 1930 at number seven for the year, and spawned a succession of Herries Chronicles; five more volumes including an unfinished one which Walpole was working on when he died in 1941.

What is it that makes John Cleese want cheese when he’s been reading Rogue Herries? Well, when all’s said and done Rogue Herries is a bit cheesy. I still don’t really know why my young friends were so keen on it. There’s a lot of marking time, telling us how lovely the Lake District is. The hero doesn’t really do anything much wrong — most of his “wickedness” happens off stage, though he is definitely rather selfish. He does have a brief meeting with Bonnie Prince Charlie: can this have explained Scots maidens’ enthusiasm? Cheese doesn’t feature. The one murder (by his goody-goody lump of a son) happens almost casually and without consequence. People walk prodigious distances. It rains a lot. Wensleydale remains a long way off.

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