Falling for Desmoulins
- A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
Viking, 896 pp, £15.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 670 84545 0
When Sarah Orne Jewett sent her friend Henry James a copy of her latest work, a historical novel entitled The Tory Lover, he told her it would take a very long letter to ‘disembroil the tangle’ of how much he appreciated the gift of this ‘ingenious exercise’ of hers, and how little he was in sympathy with historical novels. He begged her to come back to the modern age and ‘the dear country of The Pointed Firs’, to ‘the present-intimate, that ‘throbbed responsive’ and was so much missing her.
The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.
The case against the historical novel could hardly be better put; and faced with Hilary Mantel’s latest work, a mammoth 870-page-long novel set in the French Revolution, one is inclined to ask oneself some general questions: as, for instance, whether Henry James wasn’t right about the genre, or whether perhaps reading too much Henry James hasn’t given one a prejudice, or whether it is a genre at all and not, rather, several.
Evidently, a first distinction has to be made between a ‘period’ novel – like Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major, shall we say, or on a much larger scale Henry Esmond – in which the ‘great’ and the makers of history have merely a walk-on part (playing themselves, as it were), and a novel which takes such figures for its central focus and aspires to reinterpret them. Hilary Mantel’s evidently falls into the second class, her protagonists being Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, together with Desmoulins’s wife Lucile. Out of her novelist’s imagination she has lavishly furnished these personages with passions and motives and emotional entanglements; and since they, as much any individuals can be said to be, were the makers of the French Revolution, she must be said to be rewriting the Revolution (whereas Thackeray was not trying to rewrite the War of the Spanish Succession).
This leads to a second question: what have historical novels to do with historiography? Or to put it another way, would Mantel be happy to have her book thought of simply as a ‘historical romance’, akin to those biographies romancées of Emil Ludwig (Bismarck, Napoleon, Michelangelo) which found favour in the Twenties and Thirties. The wording of her Author’s Note seems, if guardedly, to claim more:
Vol. 14 No. 17 · 10 September 1992
P.N. Furbank’s criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (LRB, 20 August) reminded me of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins flinching away from a novel he is offered and hiding behind a book of boring sermons instead. Because the meat of Furbank’s criticism is not that the book is a bad one – he spends a whole paragraph admitting that it is a very good one. What he objects to is that anyone should write an ‘entertainment’ about this theme. He doesn’t want the imagination to trespass on what he seems to regard as the exclusive territory of historians. So Furbank states that Hilary Mantel had no right to suggest that Camille Desmoulins might have had homosexual encountets, because he can’t find any suggestion of it in either of two biographies. But it is the business of the imagination and of the novelist to make the connections that the historians can’t allow themselves to make, to say to us ‘What if?’ It is also the business of the novelist to abolish the split between the personal and the public, to ‘humanise’ characters, as Furbank objects to Hilary Mantel humanising Robespierre. It is our job to point out that the political is always personal to someone or other, and generally to rather a lot of people. Besides, Furbank tries to have it both ways. He criticises Hilary Mantel for using her imagination and at the same time – in a series of bewildering intellectual contortions – praises other writers for quirkiness in their handling of the past. Nor does he turn his guns on Georg Büchner, whose Danton’s Death I studied as part of a highly conservative course in German literature about twenty years ago.
It certainly isn’t true to say that A Place of Greater Safety ‘reduces’ the events to the personal. The book is not the story of a clique, a cosy tale of Georges and Max and Camille, Lucile et al. From the first page of this gripping novel the larger issues are there, vital and structural. It reminded me of the Tolstoyan view of history, that history happens in spite of the efforts of individuals. I felt Robespierre was comparable to the figure of Kutuzov in War and Peace, a man who permits the inevitable. For Robespierre that meant that a whole generation, a whole world, and himself too, must be annihilated in order that the new world could be born. It is an appalling idea. Isn’t it a valid one to put forward in a novel, a challenging ‘What if?’ But Furbank feels that one cannot write a historical novel about the French Revolution because it is still with us, and has not been reduced to the ‘harmless, understood past’. It’s a very strange concept. I have just written a novel about a witch precisely because the topic was dangerous and misunderstood: it seems to me that Furbank hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a novel is doing.
In any case, history can’t be corralled in a nice pen where only approved personnel may go. It lies about on the lids of biscuit tins sneaks into the language, gets hung up as decorations in pubs. It even gets turned into Asterix cartoons. We never stop dealing with the past, and novels are certainly part of the process. It is ludicrous for Furbank to instruct us what we may or may not write novels about. He had better protect himself by clutching the book of sermons in front of his more vulnerable parts.
Vol. 14 No. 18 · 24 September 1992
Unfortunately it is not necessary to imagine Flaubert writing historical romance, in the sense to which P.N. Furbank refers (LRB, 20 August), nor to yearn for a novel on the Punic Wars: Salammbo fills both bills. It also supports Henry James’s view, since it is certainly an amazing tour de force, and just as certainly complete humbug. Worse, it is boring humbug, even if it tells us what to think about Hamilcar Barca. The historical novels of Alexandre Dumas may also be humbug, but they prove that a writer of genius can simplify back with complete success, and produce books which are popular, but not cheap. Even he failed with the Revolution: his novels of that period, the latter part of Joseph Balsamo, Ange Pitou and the saccharine Comtesse de Charny, are amongst his least successful. Anatole France caught the atmosphere of the Terror with Les Dieux ont soif, precisely because he chose a small canvas, and reduced its figures to the personal.
Balzac wrote historical novels. Was not Carlyle’s French Revolution a historical romance? Generalities about genre do not apply to genius.
The French Revolution was one of the most important events of recent European history, but to describe it as one of the most horrible events in history is an exaggeration of staggering magnitude. In terms of those killed, the Revolution could not compare with a battle of any size: Michelet recalled that the number executed in Paris during the whole of the Revolution did not make up one-fortieth part of the French and Russian troops killed in the Battle of Borodino before Moscow in 1812: figures vary according to source, but there were probably over seventy thousand dead in that extremely bloody encounter. There is no generally-accepted figure for the total number of victims of the Revolution. Between April 1793 and July 1794, the period of the Terror, the guillotine in Paris claimed 2625 lives. Even if the total for the whole of France and for the whole period were ten times that, it would barely exceed a reasonable-to-low estimate (say, twenty-five thousand) of Parisians summarily executed when government troops put down the rebellion of the Commune in 1871 – an event of which we rarely hear mention.
Since then. Hitler and Stalin have massacred on a scale undreamt of by past tyrants, but approached more recently by the Khmer Rouge. Every innocent victim of tyranny is one too many, but we should keep some sense of proportion, even in judging horrors.
Leslie Wilson’s diatribe against my review of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (Letters, 10 September) is sensibly argued, and all I feel like saying in answer to it is that it did not take me by surprise and was indeed the reaction I half-expected to provoke. I honestly tried to be generous towards Mantel’s novel, though I did not like it; and the remark I most stand by is the one that Wilson does not comment on: ‘Why does it all have to be so amusing?’ Ultimately, that is to say, my complaint was not about ‘truth’ but about tone.
Vol. 14 No. 20 · 22 October 1992
Henry James’s letter to Sarah Orne Jewett about the ‘historical novel’ was tellingly quoted – twenty lines of it – by P.N. Furbank in his review of Hilary Mantel (LRB, 20 August). ‘The case against the historical novel could hardly be better put.’ But what needs to be put right, after all these years and after Leon Edel’s repeated retailings, is the text of the letter: ‘You may multiply the little facts … as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought.’ Yet the ear can hear something wrong, there in the and of ‘and in its essence’. Sense demands that for essence we should read absence – and then this proves to be what the letter itself (in the Houghton Library) reads: ‘the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its absence the whole effect is as nought.’