I’m not a great fan of historical fiction, if by that we mean novels about fictional characters placed in a historical period for background color and to add pages of authorial research to the plot. Long, long ago, when I was still consuming books from the children’s section of the public library, I very much liked “The Little Maid” series — A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, and so forth — which gave its young readers digestible snippets of American history served up in stories about patriotic little maids saving the day for the adults.
But once I had persuaded everyone who mattered (the librarian and my mother) that I was old enough to go upstairs to the grown-up section, the allure of historical fiction began to fade. As my taste gradually matured, most of this sort of reading matter became less believable. Forever Amber was exciting in my adolescence because the fictional Amber slept around so much, not for its unpersuasive description of the court of King Charles II and seventeenth-century London. Gone with the Wind was slightly better, but probably only because many of my generation saw the movie before reading the book. And now that I’m really grown up (so they say), A Georgette Heyer Regency novel, for instance, featuring a proud but financially challenged fictional heroine in a high-waisted column of white dress and carrying a reticule just doesn’t do it for me, even if her similarly fictional counterpart is a strong-jawed disdainful hero with a title, horses, property beyond belief and secret longings in his heart for the heroine. I suppose Baroness Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) or Rafael Sabatini’s wildly romantic Scaramouche (1921) and its many sequels were acceptable page-turners for the times in which they first appeared. And A Tale of Two Cities, a standard in the American public high school curriculum when I was young, is simply Dickens, irrespective of its historical context, stirring words (“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times….”) and Sydney Carton redeeming himself by being guillotined in the end. (“It is a far far better thing than I have ever done….”) That said, I have by and large closed the door on bodice-rippers and tales of derring-do.
But when we turn to fiction about identifiable historical persons, who actually did live and love and suffer and die in centuries gone by, we must discriminate between bad, okay and very good — the distinction based largely on the quality of the writing and one’s ability to suspend disbelief. For a short while in college I was indeed in thrall to Mary Renault’s three novels about Alexander the Great, despite the fact that his bisexuality tilted strongly in favor of his own sex. Her work made his conquest of the known world seem (to me, then) somewhat real. But it was also frustrating, because Alexander was dead at 33, and all cut up with battle scars by then, and wouldn’t have given me the time of day anyway. Girlish reasons, I admit, but what can you expect from a college girl? (Renault also wrote one about Theseus, but that was less gripping because Theseus was mythological and not a real man.)
There are other such books, of perhaps higher literary merit. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are probably the best of the five or six he wrote in this genre. I do intend to tackle Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs (in translation) at some indefinite time in the future. But the absolutely most enjoyable and entirely convincing literary fictions about a historical figure I have read are Hilary Mantel’s relatively recent Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. She’s not only an accurate historian and an imaginative novelist but a superb writer.
As you may know, these are novels about Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII’s defection from the Catholic Church and his divorce from his first queen, the man who sent supposedly saintly Thomas More to be burned at the stake, divested the church of its property in England for the benefit of the crown and shortly thereafter contrived to have Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, convicted for adultery (and incest with her own brother) so that she could “legally” be sent to the executioner when she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne.
Sound like a bad guy? Don’t rush to judgment. Mantel shows you early sixteenth-century England exclusively through Cromwell’s eyes. You are there. You live his life. She omits no known historical fact in the public record, but benefits enormously from the almost complete absence of any record of Cromwell’s private life by creating one for him. You not only see with him, but also think with him, feel with him, maneuver with him, sympathize with him. In a way, you become him — whether you approve of yourself as Cromwell or not. Give Mantel fifty pages, more or less: if you can get through that much, you will be hers, and perhaps Cromwell’s too, until he dies.
Unfortunately, neither she nor he are there yet. She is still writing the third book of the trilogy. So until she finishes and this ultimate treat reaches publication — what might there be of equal allure to get me through hot damp July in Princeton? What a question! More Hilary Mantel of course. Before she tackled Cromwell, she labored intermittently over the French Revolution for almost twenty years. The book, finally published in 1992, is A Place Of Greater Safety, and it tells its panoramic story through the lives of three of the most important figures of the revolutionary period : Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. It runs 749 pages in the paperback edition and I’m only at page 220. But that’s far enough to report that I am half in love with Camille, of whom I had not known before. (He’s the one who jumped up onto a table in front of a crowd gathered before the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (le quatorze juillet) and delivered a speech so incendiary the population erupted and the monarchy soon toppled.
A Place of Greater Safety, written earlier than the Cromwell books, is not as smooth a read. It has a much larger number of significant players to keep straight in your head and a more intricate and shifting scheme of political events to follow, so that if you begin it, I cannot promise easy sailing all the way through. But if your idea of what the French Revolution may have been like while it was happening is based on Hollywood screen sets populated with heavily made-up movie extras in picturesque rags who are going to go home at the end of the working day to a gin and tonic and a nice dinner — then look at how Hilary Mantel sets the scene.
We learn early on (page 26) about bread:
When the Lieutenant of Police goes to his desk — today, last year — the first piece of information he requires concerns the price of a loaf in the bakers’ shops of Paris. If Les Halles is well supplied with flour, then the bakers of the city and the faubourgs will satisfy their customers, and the thousand itinerant bakers will bring their bread in to the markets in the Marais, in Saint Paul, in the Palais-Royal; and in Les Halles itself.
In easy times, a loaf of brown bread costs eight or nine sous. A general laborer, who is paid by the day, can expect to earn twenty sous; a mason might get forty sous, a skilled locksmith or a joiner might get fifty. Items for the budget: rent money, candles, cooking fat, vegetables, wine. Meat is for special occasions. Bread is the main concern.
The supply lines are tight, precise, monitored. What the bakers have left over at the end of the day must be sold off cheap; the destitute do not eat till night falls on the markets.
All goes well; but then when the harvest fails — in 1770, say, or in 1772 or 1774 — an inexorable price rise begins; in the autumn of 1774 a four pound loaf in Paris costs eleven sous, but by the following spring the price is up to fourteen. Wages do not rise. The building workers are always turbulent, so are the weavers, so are the bookbinders and (poor souls) the hatters, but strikes are seldom to procure a wage rise, usually to resist a cut. Not the strike but the bread riot is the most familiar resort of the urban working man, and thus the temperature and rainfall over some distant cornfield connects directly with the tension headaches of the Lieutenant of Police.
Nearly one hundred pages later (on page 122), we see five lines inserted between two paragraphs of the story:
Price inflation 1785-1789:
- Wheat 66%
- Rye 71%
- Meat 67%
- Firewood 91%
And then (on page 136), we get to January 1789 in Paris. This is no Hollywood movie set. This is why I like Hilary Mantel so much:
New year. You go out in the streets and you think it’s here: the crash at last, the collapse, the end of the world. It is colder now than any living person can remember. The river is a solid sheet of ice. The first morning, it was a novelty. Children ran and shouted, and dragged their complaining mothers out to see it. “One could skate,” people said. After a week, they began to turn their heads from the sight, keep their children indoors. Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.
These people have left their insufficient shelters, their shacks, their caves, abandoned the rock-hard, snow glazed fields where they cannot believe anything will ever grow again. Tying up in a square of sacking a few pieces of bread, perhaps chestnuts: cording a small bundle of firewood: saying no good-byes, taking to the road. They move in droves for safety, sometimes men alone, sometimes families, always keeping with the people from their own district, whose language they speak. At first they sing and tell stories. After two days or so, they walk in silence. The procession that marched now straggles. With luck, one may find a shed or byre for the night. Old women are wakened with difficulty in the morning and are found to have lost their wits. Small children are abandoned in village doorways. Some die; some are found by the charitable, and grow up under other names.
Those who reach Paris with their strength intact begin to look for work. Men are being laid off, they’re told, our own people; there’s nothing doing for outsiders. Because the river is frozen up, goods do not come into the city: no cloth to be dyed, no skins to be tanned, no corn. Ships are impaled on the ice, with grain rotting in their holds.
The vagrants congregate in sheltered spots, not discussing the situation because there is nothing to discuss. At first they hang around the markets in the late afternoons, because at the close of the day’s trading any bread that remains is sold off cheaply or given away; the rough, fierce Paris wives get there first. Later, there is no bread after midday. They are told that the good Duke of Orleans gives away a thousand loaves of bread to people who are penniless like them. But the Paris beggars leave them standing again, sharp-elbowed and callous, willing to give them malicious information and to walk on people who are knocked to the ground. They gather in back courts, in church porches, anywhere that is out of the knife of the wind. The very young and the very old are taken in by the hospitals. Harassed monks and nuns try to bespeak extra linen and a supply of fresh bread, only to find that they must make do with soiled linen and bread that is days old. They say that the Lord’s designs are wonderful, because if the weather warmed up there would be an epidemic. Women weep with dread when they give birth.
Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes.
Six months later Camille Desmoulins climbed up on that table in the midst of a roiling crowd of such desperate people and precipitated the fall of the Bastille.
I proceed towards page 300. Anyone care to join me?