There is a story associated with this little shout-out, but it is neither here nor there. There is a recently-published nonfiction book out about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace: How to Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman. I haven’t read it yet; I’m currently working through a history of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. This book, however, is next on my list. Until then, I’m sure the book is worth mentioning to all who stumble upon this blog:
Writers are not just writers: they’re readers, too. Or at least, you have to assume they are. Exactly how much a writer reads, and what he or she reads differs. I, for instance, tend to read nonfiction because I don’t have a lot of time and I have to make my reading count towards my research. When I do read fiction, it’s usually historical fiction. What a writer reads reflects on their literary tastes (obviously) and influences both what and how they write (also fairly obvious).
Often, these influences make it into a manuscript in the form of allusions. This can be subtle–a few words that only an aficionado would recognize–or quite explicit–quotes, for instance. One of my least favorite (and non-literary) example of allusion is Barrack Obama’s constant quoting of Abraham Lincoln or words said about Abraham Lincoln. Look, I like the Lincoln as much as anyone else (okay, probably more), but give it a rest and get your own lines.
Which leads me to point one: no one wants to be beaten over the head with allusions. If you as the writer can slip allusions in there on the sly so that they either go past unnoticed (except by those who are in-the-know) or they become a seamless part of the narration/dialogue, then . . . great! Trying to show how clever you are: not so cool.
Hopefully, I am not in the latter category, because I have plenty of allusions in my recent manuscripts. There weren’t many in my Diamond-Necklace-Affair manuscript, nor in the recent Civil War novella I wrote. But my previous novel–Channing–and my current work-in-progress–a prequel–have more than a few.
The Channing allusions are to Abraham Lincoln. So maybe I should take it easy on President Obama, huh? In one case, it’s a straight-out quote of the House Divided speech, which a character sees in a newspaper. In another case, a different character paraphrases something that was said about Lincoln: Augustine calls Everett “a first-rate second-rate saint.” The allusion is to Wendell Phillips, who called Abraham Lincoln a “first-rate second-rate man”. I have another allusion to “whither we are tending”, which is a phrase also from the House Divided Speech (“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do and how to do it”). I don’t expect most people will recognize these allusions, though I suppose more than a few will.
I also reference a few important works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. There is a quote from the Bible, which is presented as such. Those aren’t exactly shocking.
In the novel I’m currently plugging along at, there a lot of references, this time to Shakespeare. I can’t claim to be a great Shakespearean scholar: I’ve seen or read all the major plays and recognize the well-known quotes, but I don’t know all the plays and can’t quote at length. This work-in-progress happens to center around an actress named Emily and a theater called the Obsidian in the late 1820’s. Then as now, Shakespeare was a big draw, and actors who wanted to become major, respected stars performed Shakespeare. So, naturally, there’s a lot of Shakespeare going on. In fact, I pretty much shoved any contemporary plays out of the way to make more room for Shakespeare (the Obsidian is all Shakespeare all the time). It becomes a kind of motif. Emily and her love interest quote little snippets of Shakespeare to one another. They even perform Othello on stage together, and in one scene there’s “real” blood (gasp!). The use of Shakespeare in this project clearly goes well beyond “allusion”. It’s integral to the plot itself. To give myself a leg up, I’ve been watching as many adaptations as I can–in the last few months I watched The Hollow Crown (which includes Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) and Hamlet. I don’t want to come to a place in my writing where I say, “I need a Shakespeare quote here! Let me go find one.” I want the quotes to pop into my head as I go along; it’ll come out much more organically that way.
Historical fiction is more likely, I think, than other genres to go for the allusions. It’s part of establishing atmosphere, place, and time. It’s similar to trotting out a famous character for a cameo (“Look, Queen Elizabeth I just walked through my Tudor story!”). Of course, whether it’s with cameos or allusions, they can’t just be a lame excuse for world-building. They have to be supported by actual knowledge and sensory description of the setting. And hey, if you can weave it into the plot (like I did! go me!), even better!
Breaking into the publishing industry in any way can be very difficult, and I am more than happy to help my fellow writers who have managed to do so and still slum around with us unpublished folk. Tom Williams was kind enough to link to this site from his blog, The White Rajah.
Here’s a blurb for The White Rajah:
Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak. Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies. The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.
This seems to be one of those fantastic “stranger than fiction” tales. You couldn’t get away with something like this unless it had really happened. It also sounds like an entertaining read. I can’t claim to have read either book, but having gotten to digitally know Tom, it seems a pretty good bet these will be worth your time.
Oh, and if you see his book in your library, Tom would like to know about it!
A little about the blog: Tom’s blog has a book reviews, talk about the literary world, and updates/information about the published books. I hope you will all mosey on over to THE WHITE RAJAH and stay for a spell.
Having recently (and briefly) dug back into Jeanne de La Motte-Valois‘s memoirs (The Story of My Life, or Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois), I came again across a charming passage which, I think, illustrates Jeanne’s brazenness not so much while she was in jail as after she escaped to England.
To set the scene: Jeanne was arrested in 1785 for her alleged part in the theft of a necklace consisting of 2700 carats of diamonds–and worth a literal fortune. The jewelers were under the impression they had sold the necklace to the Queen discreetly in order to avoid the political backlash that was sure to follow if the Queen squandered her money so frivolously. The Queen claimed she hadn’t bought the necklace, had never intended to buy the necklace, and had no knowledge of where the necklace had gone. Jeanne, a woman who claimed to be the Queen’s friend and a countess, was in the middle of the mystery; the evidence shows that she duped the jewelers and a Cardinal into believing that she was working on the Queen’s behalf, when really she was just trying to spirit away the necklace. Though it’s shrouded in mystery, it appears she succeeded in stealing the necklace. But the web of lies began to fall apart, and Jeanne was clapped in the Bastille. (For a more thorough description of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, see The Short Story tab above.)
Jeanne is writing about her time in the Bastille, after her arrest but before her trial. The Governor of the Bastille, Launay, was later brutally murdered by the men who stormed the fortress only four years later. Shortly following the events of 1785 that she describes, Jeanne was transferred to the Conciergerie, which is adjacent to the Palais de Justice where the trial took place. She was convicted, publicly beaten and branded, and sent to
Jeanne writes this, however, from a safe distance. She escaped prison and went to England, where she was welcomed. The English were quite happy to take her in, because her presence was an embarrassment to their perennial enemy, France. In any case, it’s important to remember that Jeanne not only had an agenda, she was creating her own myth. Jeanne made herself heroine of her own tale, the victim of a cruel monarchy, particularly of Marie-Antoinette. The description of a brave, defiant, downtrodden young woman is part of her own myth. She claims to have charmed pretty much everyone. Can it all be taken seriously? There might be a kernel of truth in it. To me, however, it seems to be mostly fabricated. I think that, while safe in London, she was brave and defiant, and pretended that she had been the same while locked in the Bastille. This little story about her defiant song is more an indication of how she felt and thought while writing her memoirs than it is an accurate account of her mindset while in prison.
In any case, here is Jeanne’s account of her song:
At some moments, I had such a flow of spirits that I frequently amused myself with singing a number of songs as they succeeded in my mind, blending them all together, without any attention to regularity. Many of the invalids, who heard me, reported to the Governor that a lady in the third Comptée sang at least sixty different songs and airs every day, and that she got up to the window, where they saw her very plainly.
The Governor, upon this intelligence, ordered them to come and listen to what I sang; he also stationed another person to listen attentively to the words of my songs. I was aware of my spy, though he spoke very low. I redoubled my efforts, and sung this passage from Richard, Couer de Lion: “Oh, Richard! oh, mon roi!” (Instead of the name Richard, substituting Valois.) “–by all the world forsook!” I took occasion, in the course of my song, to introduce the name of the Governor, and finished with a loud laugh. The poor Marquis de Pelport, who saw our spy, dared not utter a word, but I, not at all alarmed at the spy, nor having the least fear of the Governor, continued my song.
At eight the same evening, the Governor came to see me. “Oh, oh!” said I to him gaily, “you are very obliging to make me a visit. You wish, then, to gain the goodwill of the prisoners, by coming to see them?” He smiled. “But you are a singer,” said he. “I am very sorry to have interrupted you!”
And this Governor, so very rigid and austere, who had prohibited singing in the Bastille, entreated me to do him the favor to sing a song. I at first hesitated, but after some little consideration, began to sing. And, that I might be heard throughout the Bastille, I sang a brisk tune. As soon as I had finished, “Very well, Governor!” said I rallyingly, “you have not behaved with the greatest consistency in sending my turnkey, St Jean, to desire me not to sing, for that is contrary to the rules of the Bastille, when I can absolutely say that I have authority to sing even from the Governor himself!”
—Jeanne de La Motte, “The Story of My Life”
For further reading:
The Story of My Life (or “The Life of Jane de St. Remy de Valois, heretofore Comtesse de La Motte“) as published in English in 1791, and source of the above quote)
Vie de Jeanne de St. Remy de Valois, etc., as published in French in 1792
I’m a little shocked at how long it’s been since I last wrote a blog post. That’s what happens when you’re having fun! With the holidays and various other real-world things to deal with, I’m afraid I haven’t been focused on this blog.
However, I got a Kindle for Christmas. Among the benefits of a Kindle is being able to download pretty much any out-of-copyright book for free. One such book is The Queen’s Necklace by Alexandre Dumas. This is Dumas’s version of the Affair. As a novelist writing about the same incident, I was, of course, interested in how a great novelist like Dumas treated it. Dumas had two things going for him: he was born only twenty years or so after the Affair, and he was French. He also was a great writer.
Victorian novels were not the same as modern novels. They were the same format, but the conventions and styling were different. The narrator often spoke to the reader (“Reader, I married him,” says Jane Eyre to us, the readers), and events were more theatrical. There was much less internal dialogue. These things are true of Dumas’s work as well. It’s not florid like so many Victorian novels; in fact, I would say the details are pretty sparse. It’s driven largely by dialogue and exposition.
The Queen’s Necklace begins with a very entertaining dinner party put on in 1784 by Richelieu, one of the old guard at Louis XVI’s court. He and his servant banter about the coming party. It’s interesting to see the interaction, because you’d expect a sly old dog like Richelieu to always get the upper hand, but it’s the servant who ends up on top in the verbal sparring. He has everything under control, though he lets Richelieu question him and fume at him. It’s amusing–but has little to do with the Affair.
The party itself, however, is another story. The most interesting guest at the party is Count Cagliostro, the one and only. Dumas presents him as someone you’re inclined to laugh at. Everyone there at the supper party, at least, is inclined to laugh at him, including Madame du Barry and Governor de Launay. They test his powers of precognition and his claims to have lived long enough to see the pyramids built. Cagliostro answers them, but we the reader aren’t (supposed to be) convinced (I don’t think). But then Cagliostro begins prophesying the deaths of those at the party. For those who know these people’s ultimate fate, it’s eerily accurate. So, is Dumas saying Cagliostro really had some mystical powers and was able to tell the future? Or is this just an entertaining in-joke? I mean, the fates of the supper guests would have been commonly known to his original audience. Are we meant to chuckle at the irony when du Barry poo-poos the idea that she might be executed like a common criminal? No matter what the case may be, Dumas uses Cagliostro to his full, theatrical potential.
The story moves on to slightly more mundane things after this. We meet the Queen getting out of her sleigh in Paris. We don’t know immediately that it’s Marie-Antoinette, but it doesn’t take long to figure that out (again, a healthy dose of knowledge about the people and places involved is helpful). The Queen is on her way to meet a young lady in a ramshackle house. The lady is Jeanne de La Motte. I haven’t gotten very far in The Queen’s Necklace, but it appears that in Dumas’s version the Queen is innocent of wrongdoing. However, there’s no historical reason to think the Queen ever met Jeanne before the trial, so this meeting plays into the stories/lies that Jeanne told. I won’t fault Dumas for it, though; it’s possible that it happened and it makes for a good story.
After the meeting, the queen gets into some mild trouble trying to get home to Versailes. We meet a few dashing young men as well as the Duc d’Artois, Louis XIV’s brother and therefore Marie-Antoinette’s brother-in-law. She gets into a disagreement with the king, and the Diamond Necklace itself is brought up. The king offers to buy it for her, but she refuses because it’s too extravagant. This is certainly true. The queen refused to buy it, both because it was too expensive and because it had been intended for the late king’s mistress, du Barry. The necklace had been around for a while; the increasingly-desperate jewelers had been looking for a buyer since the late king’s death.
The last I left off, Jeanne is unaware that her anonymous visitor was queen, and she was waiting for a visit from Cardinal Rohan. I highly expect the fireworks to begin. It was this relationship that gave Jeanne the opportunity to enact the swindle of the century.
So far, the story has been charming. Most of the story has been treated pretty lightly thus far, which is perfectly alright since thus far nothing all that dramatic has happened. This has all been a set-up for what’s to come. I’m excited to see exactly whom Dumas thinks did what, when, and why.
But for now, I am reading another book about the era, Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud. So far, so good; not great, but good. Perhaps I should stop jumping from book to book and just finish reading one?
This is a list of the many memoirs of the people directly involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. There was a widespread penchant for writing memoirs at this time, so everyone involved wrote their version of events and had it published. Since the scandal made such a major impact, the memoirs sold well, though the writers didn’t necessarily see much profit due to copyright laws of the time. However, these would have proved juicy readings for the public, as well as for the historian. Although they’re wonderful fist-hand accounts, it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction, especially in the case of the Affair od the Diamond Necklace. Some are available in various forms in various places. In her fabulous book The Queen’s Necklace, France Mossiker conveniently and brilliantly wove together these memoirs and other primary sources. If you want to read some of these various memoirs, your best bet is to find this book, which isn’t hard to do. If, however, you want to read the entire memoirs, these are the titles of them, and a few links to those that can be found via Google Books.
Boehmer and Bassenge:
Memoires des joailliers Boehmer et Bassenge, du Août 12, 1785.
Mémoire pour le Comte de Cagliostro, accuse, contro M. le Proceureur-général, accusateur, en presence de M. Le Cardinal de Rohan, de la Comtesse de La Motte et autres, co-accusés.*
Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint Rémy:
Mémoires justicatifs de la comtesse de La Motte-Valois. London 1789.
Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de La Motte. Dublin 1790.
Vie de Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois. London, 1791, Paris 1792.
Mémoire pour la demoiselle le Guay d’Oliva, fille mineure, émancipée d’âge, accusée, contre M. le Procurer-général.*
Jacques Claude Beugnot:
Mémoires, Paris 1823
Madame Campan [Queen’s confidante]:
Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie Antoinette. Paris 1823
Nicolas de La Motte:
Mémoires inédits du comte de La Motte-Valois (ed. Louis Lacour). Paris, 1858).
Retaux de Villette:
Mémoires historiques des intrigues de la cour, Venice 1790.
*Not personal memoires
Links to memoirs on Google Books for your edification
Nicole d’Oliva [FRENCH]
The Guardian Book Blog (bless the Guardian’s heart for having such a thing) has a very interesting article called “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.” The gist of the article is that historical fiction isn’t as, well, honest as it might be. He also mentions that there’s a boom in “historical fiction”; after all, lots of books happen to have settings that are in the past, making them historical fiction.
The question is: how accurate is historical fiction? The Guardian (I can’t find an actual person’s name to use) brings up Braveheart and The Da Vinci Code. Braveheart is a film and if you want accuracy from a movie (especially historical accuracy) then you’re pretty much insane, because you should never, ever believe the Hollywood version. The Da Vinci code, while a book, is not historical fiction, which is duly noted. It’s a thriller based on a conspiracy theory. And if you’re looking for historical accuracy from a conspiracy theory, you are probably looking in the wrong place. In my opinion, most conspiracy theorists work backwards: they come up with an idea and fit the evidence to the idea.
Books are, at least generally, much better than their celluloid counterparts. Partly, this is because of the constraints of movies. I do grudgingly forgive some inaccuracies because movies have to visually portray a story whereas a book is just ink on paper (or e-ink on an e-reader). This is going to inevitably restrict them in some things. Movies also have to tell the story in 2 hours of screen time. Books have a hundred thousand words to do it in.
Books don’t always tell the truth, either. The Guardian calls these lies, but they really aren’t lies. “Lies” has a negative connotation, though the writer clearly distinguishes between purposeful “lies” (telling a story that isn’t exactly backed up by historical fact) and careless mistakes. Most careless mistakes are, for me at least, forgivable. Unless the error is so glaring that I laugh until I cry, I can usually get over it.
All fiction is a lie. That is what fiction is. Historical fiction, depending on the brand of historical fiction, is a lie, too. It is simply a slightly different breed of lie. Instead of creating people and giving them a story in our own world, we put them in a different world, but a world that existed, a world inhabited by our ancestors. If the characters are real people, then the writer is writing about real lives, real people’s pain and anger and joy. The art of the writer is to make those emotions come alive, to make us identify with and understand the people who came before us. I think historical fiction serves a unique purpose in that respect; it gives us insight into the people who came before us and helped shape our world.
No matter how hard a novelist tries, though, we don’t actually know what these people felt and thought. Even if they left first-hand accounts, we may find those accounts are garbled, un-detailed, or are just plain old lies. Take for example my favorite story of ancien-regime greed and credulity. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois left several accounts of her life, and one would be hard-pressed to believe a word she says.
That is, if there are accounts. The 19th century is well-documented, the 18th century rife with memoirs, but further back than that and the records get progressively sketchier. And there’s plenty of history beyond the confines of Europe, and in places and times where there were no records at all. There are enormous gaps in even well-documented stories. The assassination of JFK was extraordinarily well-documented, and yet there are still certain gaps of information; conspiracy theorists have a field-day with that.
A novelist, in a way, is a conspiracy theorist. They just have to convince their reader that their conspiracy is plausible. The novelist fills in the holes in the records with what they think happened or might have happened (there’s a difference–you can choose to write about one possible theory, while believing rationally that another theory is the correct one). This is artistic license, the workings of the imagination, not “lies”. If a thousand different things could have happened, and three things probably happened, then it’s not a lie to suppose that one of those three things really did happen. Sometimes, it makes dramatic sense to twist timelines slightly to bring together characters, or put a character in a certain place where he never was in reality. These are the tools of a writer, and must be used skillfully. No one likes to be toyed with by a writer who thinks they’ll tinker with history, and no one wants to read a story where the writer uses history awkwardly or out and out screwed up.
It is necessary to lie, when we’re talking about a historical story. As the writer of the piece pointed out, modern people would not be able to understand language of other times (you tihnk Shakespeare is bad? try Mallory in late Middle English). A novelist is forced to write in modernized language, even if they were able to write authentically like someone from another age (that’s much, much harder than it sounds). The novelist also has to makes assumptions about some things, especially where the record isn’t complete. The novelist also has to make the ideologies and society of another time accessible. That can be very difficult, too; the Guardian is spot on there. So, the writer has to, in essence, lie. It’s just the nature of the beast, so to speak.
The trouble with all this is that no one reads nonfiction except history geeks like me. People believe the plausible stories that the writers (or moviemakers, God help us) come up with. Few people check the facts. It wouldn’t be so bad if people knew their history a little better. But then again, a good story is a good story, and who’s to say that “history” is correct? History is written by the winner, isn’t it? The record is biased because only certain bits survived. Maybe history itself is fiction (not to be cynical).
The Guardian ends by giving a shout out to The Bard:
Shakespeare is a good rule of thumb in this respect. He knowingly conflated historical characters in historical plays. He deliberately misnamed others. Sometimes he gave them attributes that were the very opposite of their real characters. And yet he made the drama of their lives meaningful for us, so that we remember who they are. No one is likely ever to accuse Shakespeare of historical accuracy, but who has written a greater work of historical fiction about the later Plantagenets
*Stage whisper* I think he’s talking about Richard III.
“Burning is not answering.”
A Place of Greater Safety, an epic novel, pulls us from the childhood to the demise of three French revolutionaries: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre (actually, we end with the guillotining of Camille and Danton, but Robespierre did follow not too long after). These were exceptional men living in a frenetic period in history.
There is some intense magic to Mantel’s work. It is cuttingly witty at times, and there is a deep pathos for characters who are vulnerable and flawed–particularly for Camille, who seems the most fragile and yet the strongest of the three main characters. He has a stutter and is given to strange outbursts, he seems unable to cope with everyday things, and yet he made incendiary speeches that urged Parisians to storm the Bastille, he was devoted to his wife Lucile, and he appears to have been capable of doing things–when he wanted to. Camille’s biting irreverence is itself endearing. Danton is likable in the way of a cowboy: big, loud, and a bit loutish, he oozes the kind of get-it-done attitude that is so appealing. You can’t miss that he is an opportunist, or corrupt, depending on your interpretation. It isn’t until the end that there is really a great deal of sympathy for him. After the death of his long-suffering wife (“convenient, to start loving her now,” one thinks Camille might have said), he becomes disillusioned with politics and stands up against the killing spree known at the Terror. It’s here we see that, bullish or no, corrupt or no, Danton has principles that he is willing to die for. Robespierre is as always (and even for a writer as brilliant as Mantel) opaque. She does a superb job of showing a mind that demanded such rigidity that things had to be broken to fit into the right place. Unforgiving and unmovable (and Incorruptible), he sends his oldest and dearest friend–Camille–to his death. To most of us, this would be inexplicable. To Robespierre, it’s a tragic necessity. It is one of the more horrifying transformations from friend to foe I’ve ever read, and an illustration of the dangers of inflexibility and over-zealousness.
There are moments of absolute brilliance. Particular lines just about took my breath away with their humor, wit, and intelligence. Though this ends tragically, there are light moments that make it easier–and at the same time more difficult–to swallow the end. The reader isn’t forced to wallow in the coming death (though a few startling reminders are sprinkled throughout that “Danton is halfway through his life” etc). However, these happy moments and the joy brought to us by Camille, Danton, their friends, and occasionally by Robespierre make it all the more difficult to accept their demise.
One of my favorite lines comes as several people are discussing Camille. It is almost exclusively a dialogue between these people (I can’t recall who or how many people spoke). At the end of the scene, up pops Camille to say, “I wish you wouldn’t speak about me like I’m not here.” Ironic and hilarious; we, the reader, didn’t even know he was there until he spoke up. It catches one off guard and recasts the entire conversation that went before. And it makes you love Camille for his sharp, unexpected interjections.
And that is how one is left; rather appalled that these people, these towering characters who have thus far swept all before them, are actually gone. These are delicate human lives like any others, and its shocking that these fascinating people were snuffed out with such finality and for no particular reason. The cycle of killings was illogical and cruel. When Saint-Just shows blank arrest warrants to fellow judges and then puts their names on them (like a sadistic blank check) in order to bully them, I said aloud, “Bastard. What a piece of shit.”
What a wonderful book! I enjoyed it, probably more so than Wolf Hall. The lack of present tense in A Place of Greater Safety probably helped. And yet, as much as I wanted to kiss Hilary Mantel, I wanted to strangle her. Brilliant, yes, but there were things that drove me slightly batty. There is the habit of not telling us who is speaking. This can be confusing, and though I feel it’s intentional (in some way), the effect is often confusing-in-a-bad-way instead of confusing-in-a-good-way–too clever by half, shall we say. And for such an enormous book, it does an amazingly poor job of telling exactly what was happening. Instead, we pick around the edges of it; we hear people talk about big events beforehand and afterward; we get snippets of some of the action. But the narrative of the Revolution isn’t told. For someone not particularly well-acquainted with the maze-like happenings of the Revolution, it became very difficult to follow. It doesn’t help that the characters (our only source of real information) tiptoe around issues.
In theory, I have no problem with the length of the book, because we are talking about an epic story. It does drag towards the middle, though, and I get the feeling that, beautiful as it is, we are only seeing more and more of the characters acting like themselves. This sounds strange, I admit; but it is simply witty repartee piled upon itself, and it feels like we aren’t moving much of anywhere. The last 100 pages or so is the pay-off. After sticking with it for hundreds and hundreds of pages, the ending packs enormous punch. It is perhaps because we have gone deeper and deeper into these people’s minds and come to love them–and also because we’ve persevered at their side for 700 pages–that the ending has such an impact.
As this is a blog about ancien regime French history, I should probably explain two things: 1) I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of A Place of Greater Safety, but there are such fantastic details and she has such a deep understanding of these people that I have to believe her research in amazingly good. 2) The events of the Revolution were in some ways a break from ancien regime France, but in many ways there was a continuity. The Affair of the Necklace was, after all, partly to blame for bringing down the Bourbons and raising up Camille, Danton, and Robespierre.
At least a month and a half ago now, I wrote a post noting that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall had won the Booker Prize, which is actually a pretty big thing here in Britain (I hadn’t heard of it before coming here). I’ve read a lot of books, fiction and nonfiction, about the Tudors. I started reading adult nonfiction about those fascinating folks when I was eleven or twelve. Granted, that is only about ten years–but really, that’s enough to have read plenty about them. I’ve even watched the TV show The Tudors (I don’t recommend it). So yet another addition to the vast pantheon of Tudor stuff seemed unappealing.
But, this book won a big prize and the title intrigued me. I knew beforehand that Wolf Hall was the family home of the Seymours, ie of Jane Seymour who was Henry VIII’s third wife. Wolf Hall, however, is about Thomas Cromwell, not the Seymours. I’ve never read anything about Cromwell, who was a bit shadowy. So I decided to give it a try.
It is a fascinating book, and I’ve personally never read anything like it. It’s told in present tense, which normally would put me off. At least it’s in third person or I would not have started reading it. It is, however, a very close third person, with plenty of elisions, fragments, and questions. Mantel brings us closely into the head of Master Cromwell who seems to revel in people’s fear of him. We become very intimate with him and understand him. He has very high ideals and, no matter the appearances, is trying to not be cruel or unkind. He shows immense care and sympathy for his foster sons. He even tries to keep Thomas More from martyring himself (a losing battle, that). He is also coolly efficient, with a brain that works on several levels at once–as is shown very effectively in a scene where he is carrying on two conversations as once, one with his son about bricks and one with his sister in law about politics.
The detail that is explored truly defies belief. She must have done some massive research–Cromwell is constantly thinking about things like fabrics and their cost, which Mantel clearly researched. This is all part and parcel of the world she builds up. It is a layered world, unsettled, and not based on foregone conclusions. This is a world in which no one knows that Anne will end up beheaded, that the Protestants will enact an iconoclastic Reformation, that the Holy Roman Emperor won’t intervene in English affairs, that Thomas Cromwell will eventually be brought down, too. She brings in the uncertainty of a world that was just beginning to turn into the legalistic, Protestant state we know today (both in Britain and in the US, which inherited the traditions of the Reformation).
It is a thick book, but it moves quickly along, mostly due to the shortcuts she takes between events and the way that scenes start right in the middle of the action. This could, however, cause some trouble for those who aren’t familiar with the Tudor period. I was not caught out, but I fear that large chunks of the text might be unintelligible to the uninitiated because names and places pop up without much explanation. For instance, a Hans suddenly pops up with no introduction. It didn’t take me long to figure that this must be Hans Holbein (it still gave me pause–who the heck is this Hans?), but what if someone didn’t know who that was? Granted, there is a list of characters at the beginning, which I used a few times to look up Cromwell’s family. But she doesn’t give the reader much chance to catch his/her breath.
The writing style had two big setbacks: the use of “he” and the use of quotations. Cromwell is usually “he”. This is okay; he is a man. When there is more than one male in the scene however, which is often, it becomes very confusing as to who is talking/acting. Now, I can see the use of this. Because he is referred to all the time as “he”, we become very close to him. Cromwell is “him”, not “Cromwell”; it works similarly to the I in first person. This causes a lot of confusion, though, which I suppose serves to create a more dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness feel. It took me a lot longer to read the book because I had to keep going back over sentences to figure out who “he” was.
My other major qualm was the quotation marks. Reading British single quotes is hard enough, but Mantel seems to dispense with them arbitrarily. One part of a conversation is in quotes, the other is not, it is simply part of a paragraph. The line is clearly dialogue but isn’t in quotes. Why? I admit I got used to it, but it did make it difficult to distinguish Cromwell’s thoughts from his words and other people’s words. It was also so arbitrary. I think I see the point: Cromwell is internalizing the words and they are more like bits of a dream–again creating an almost out-of-body sensation.
At the end of the book, I found I had enjoyed the journey. I also felt as though something was missing–such as, oh I don’t know, Anne’s downfall, the rise of Jane Seymour, Jane’s death, and Cromwell’s eventual fall from grace. From what I understand, there will be a sequel, which will be very welcome to me. Still, the ending had a very “to be continued . . . ” feeling about it, which one wouldn’t expect in such a massive book about a subject that has such a clear ending to it (you know, Cromwell’s death).
All in all, it was a fantastic book, so much so that I checked out A Place of Greater Safety from the library and have just started it. This, at least, has some relevance to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace; it’s about the major players of the French Revolution.
A book from the 1940’s has been resurrected recently in the form of a paperback. I am the proud owner of a £12 paperback of Antal Szerb’s The Queen’s Necklace. It seems to be a popular title. There are at least three books on the topic with the same exact title: Frances Mossiker’s wonderful book, Szerb’s book (also nonfiction), and a dramatization of the events by Alexandre Dumas (he wrote a trilogy about Count Cagliostro).
This title isn’t out in the US yet, but will be in April 2010.
I guess I was lucky to come across it in the bookstore here in the UK. I actually found it in the fiction section, which is makes me roll my eyes. Sometimes there are some very funny mix-ups in bookshops when the people there don’t actually know what a book is about–fiction books going in “Mind, Body and Spirit” and so forth. This is not a work of fiction, it is a work of nonfiction.
I haven’t managed to read through it all yet. So far, what I’ve read hadn’t been earth-shattering. The style is a little more conversational than a modern reader is use to. Szerb more addresses us the reader. It is not chock-full of primary sources like Frances Mossiker’s book. In this way, it’s more traditional than Mossiker’s book. Of course I have
no idea what the originial Hungarian was like, but the translation seems to be well done.
The book was written in the 1942. Szerb was born in 1901 in Budapest. As he wrote this book, the Nazis were occupying Hungary. In 1945, Szerb was killed in a Nazi concentration camp. The story of the author does, in many ways, overshadow what he wrote. It’s a sad story. Szerb was a gifted and well-known writer. It shows just how indiscriminately destructive the Nazis were. What a terrible loss!
Buy it on amazon.co.uk.
Preorder on amazon.com.