Watch by Moonlight
I read and loved The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes when I was in the sixth grade. The poem has everything a budding romance lover could wish for: high melodrama, brilliant imagery, an intriguing rebel who lives outside the law, and his doomed love for an innkeeper’s daughter. When I saw that Kate Hawks had written a novelization of the poem, I was curious.
Jason Quick is a London printer’s son, a cockney who educates himself in the speech and manners of a gentleman. When his father prints an inflammatory political tract, the shop is burned and he is thrown into debtor’s prison. Jason needs money to redeem his father’s debts, so he becomes an accomplished pickpocket. In the countryside, a highwayman steals Jason’s hard-won loot, and Jason attempts to steal it back. He kills the highwayman and takes his place, growing ever-more addicted to the high-risk game of robbing stagecoaches. He falls in love with Bess, an innocent innkeeper’s daughter, and intends to give up his life of crime and marry her. But he keeps going back for just one more heist. Those who have read the poem know that this will not end well.
Watch By Moonlight is very well written, and the author ably resurrects the feel of eighteenth century English life. The characters are not the noblemen we so frequently meet in novels, but ordinary people, whose problems with money and with tyranny of King George III are often overwhelming.
The backstory of Jason Quick’s life in London is very interesting – in fact, I thought this the best part of the book. His desperation, his career as a pickpocket, his amour with a London actress, and his feud with her protector are truly engrossing, even though they seem to be intended only as background material. Things actually get a bit less interesting when the story moves to the countryside and Jason becomes a highwayman. There the plot causes Jason, hitherto a delightful companion, to become a rather unsympathetic fellow who would rather steal than keep a promise to the woman he loves.
Indeed, I would have liked this book much better if it hadn’t been a novelization of The Highwayman at all, but had instead gone its own interesting way. The wonderful thing about a poem is, in part, what it leaves out. Some of the magic is actually stripped away by the novelist’s necessary task of filling in the details. For instance, in the poem, the villain is barely mentioned, but that brief description is brilliant:
Tim, the ostler, listened, his face was white and peaked,
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter…
I’ve always found Tim to be both creepy and oddly sympathetic. In the novel, he is given a last name, a history, and becomes a rather tedious stalker-type, robbed of his wonderful pathos. Still, Watch by Moonlight is worth reading, especially for its depiction of the life of a down-and-out pickpocket in the London streets. If you love the poem, you might, like me, find it a little disappointing, but I imagine that this is a subjective thing. You might feel that Hawks has brought the poem alive. In either case, this is an ambitious and interesting book – I’ll be watching to see what Hawks will come up with next.