Falling for Desmoulins

P.N. Furbank

  • 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:

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