In the latest issue:

The World Goes Bust

Adam Tooze

A nice girl like Simone

Joanna Biggs

The Arrestables

Jeremy Harding

Short Cuts: Built from Light

Daniel Soar

‘Cleanness’

Edmund Gordon

The Ghent Altarpiece

Julian Bell

You can’t prove I meant X

Clare Bucknell

At the Royal Academy: Léon Spilliaert

John-Paul Stonard

Conrad Jumps Ship

Fredric Jameson

How to set up an ICU

Lana Spawls

Poem: ‘Mayfly’

Fiona Benson

Follow the Science

James Butler

Diary: #coronasomnia

Wang Xiuying

Falling for DesmoulinsP.N. Furbank
Close
Close
Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992

Falling for Desmoulins

P.N. Furbank

2559 words
A Place of Greater Safety 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 896 pp., £15.99, September 1992, 0 670 84545 0
Show More
Show More

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:

This is a novel about the French Revolution. Almost all the characters in it are real people and it is closely tied to historical facts – as far as those facts are agreed, which isn’t really very far ... My main characters were not famous until the Revolution made them so, and not much is known about their early lives. I have used what there is, and made educated guesses about the rest ... I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader ... I have tried to write a novel mat gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside.

Now, of course, there is no intrinsic incompatibility between novel-writing and history-writing. Walter Scott was an admirable historian – here indeed lay most of his strength. A case can be made, too, for saying that Flaubert, in L’Education sentimentale, was a better historical thinker – showed a more advanced grasp of historical causation – than Michelet or Acton. On the other hand, one cannot imagine Flaubert writing historical romance – peering into the boudoir or the private consciousness of Louis-Philippe and Louis Blanc, of Guizot and of Lamartine, as a way of writing history.

One may go back to Henry James. For what balances James’s scorn for the historical novel was an evidently quite passionate longing to write one. (It was not for nothing that, when his mind was wandering during his last illness, he dictated imaginary letters from Napoleon to his family.) Were he to attempt such a novel, he felt, it would have to deal with a not-too-distant past, one with which he might hope to make a genuine connection: ‘I delight,’ he once wrote. ‘in a palpable imaginable visitable past.’ But even then, for such a hater of escamotage and cheating, so great a fanatic for ‘the real thing’, the enterprise seemed hopeless. Then he had an inspiration. He would create a hero, a young American writer in England, who both passionately desires and admits the entire impossibility of true commerce with the past, doing so with such purity – ‘He wanted the unimaginable accidents, the little notes of truth for which the common lens of history, however the scowling muse might bury her nose, was not sufficiently fine’ – that he is granted the right to go beyond imagining and step physically into the past, his own past, just after the Napoleonic wars. James’s historical novel The Sense of the Past turns out a very odd one, with no postchaises or lamplighters or encounters with Castlereagh or Cobbett. It is entirely concerned with hermeneutics – with how the hero learns to orient himself in the past by listening to people’s tones of voice and making on-the-spot use of a historian’s skills.

In the historical novels that one most admires the problem that Henry James here solves in fantasy has been answered in one way or another: I mean of how to preserve a place for the modern consciousness in the narrative and to make plain the thread connecting the writer to the bygone scene. What is impressive and winning in Scott’s Waverley is exactly his handling of the logic of ‘period’. The novel’s subtitle is ‘’Tis Sixty Years Since’, meaning that it is written in 1805 and deals with the year of the ’45 Rebellion; but the shift of viewpoint from 1805 to 1745 is no greater than the symbolic time-shift, or rather series of time-shifts, experienced by the hero Waverley as he moves on horseback from the modernity of Hampshire to Edinburgh, and then to Tully Veolan in highland Perthshire, and then across a great mountain-barrier, which is also a time-barrier, into the Highlands proper. Scott gains by this the right to cunning ambiguities of historical viewpoint, as when he writes, ‘The Baron of Bradwardine, mounted on an active and well-managed horse, and seated on a demi-pique saddle, with deep housing to agree with his livery, was no bad representation of the old school’ – leaving it to us to decipher what ‘old school’ this is, or for whom. Much of the force of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, again, lies in the contrivances by which the 19th-century hero Charles is furnished with the eye of a 20th-century social historian. As for Thackeray in Esmond, the thread of connection is here not a logical one, as with Waverley, but it is just as unmistakable – a matter of masterly ‘cheating’ and getting of the best of both worlds, telling a 19th-century tale under an 18th-century cover. (For an utterly anarchic historical novel, making its time-leaps according to no known rules, I recommend Patricia Beer’s engaging Moon’s Ottery.)

So one looks for the thread connecting the writer of A Place of Greater Safety to the French Revolution, and at first sight at least it is hard to identify. Mantel has her characters talk in 1990s idiom. (‘ “Don’t be snide,” Brissot said gently. There was impatience in the faint lines around his eyes.’) They are very Christian-namey: it is all ‘Max’ and ‘Camille’ and ‘George-Jacques’ between them. They are profane, in today’s style. Once Lucile Desmoulins ‘might have said the prayers for the dead. Now she thought, what the fuck’s the use, it’s the living I have to worry about.’) Plainly, Mantel does this to avoid ‘tushery’, in the Thackeray and Bulwer Lytton manner, and so far, so good. It is, you may say, a good working convention, like Shakespearean blank verse. Yes, but blank verse is a ‘timeless’ convention (relatively so, anyway), whereas these 1990s speech-conventions carry with them a swarm of time-bound historical implications. Thus you look to see these implications put to work, to make some significant historical point.

For there is no doubt, a price has had to be paid for them. For long, the amateur historian in ourself has been meaning to study such things as the history of Christian-naming and swearing, a history in which no doubt the French Revolution played its part. It would be interesting to study the very significant transition, during the 18th century, from blasphemous swearing to sexual: the change took place both in France and in Britain, but certainly not in the same manner. Social historians like Richard Cobb have done such amazing work on the French Revolution, studying the minutest lineaments of ‘the real thing’, that one begins to look for their sort of history in a historical novel and to feel thwarted when such topics are ruled out of court by the very terms of the enterprise.

Preoccupation with ‘the real thing’, authenticity, the hardly capturable tone and mental set of the Revolution might be thought a Jamesian obsession, out of place here, but I think not quite fairly. For the point is, we still care deeply about the French Revolution; many of us have not made up our minds about it, indeed are still under its influence; so that how Desmoulins and Robespierre and Danton ‘really’ talked and behaved is a matter of concern for us. (Matters would be different with a novel about the Punic Wars, for it is nice to know what to think about Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, but it will hardly change our life.)

Consider, then, an example of what, in the line of ‘educated guesses’, Mantel has allowed herself to do. The novel’s chosen ‘hero’, in the old-fashioned sense, seems to be Camille Desmoulins (he who, with his impromptu speech on a café table near the Palais Royal, gave the signal for the storming of the Bastille). She has fallen for Desmoulins, as everyone tends to, including oneself. Even the dyspeptic Carlyle had a soft spot for him: ‘he with the long curling locks; with the face of dingy blackguardism, wondrously irradiated with genius, as if a naphtha-lamp burnt within it.’ To make him more poignantly interesting she has supplied him with a homosexual past. It is made clear he had a liaison with the middle-aged lawyer, Maître Perrin, under whom he studied, and implied somewhat more vaguely that there were other affairs too. For a hundred or more pages of the novel this trait is worked hard. We see his friends archly teasing and nudging him about the gay side of his life – till at last he has a tender truth-telling session about it (‘Oh the relief’) with his wife Lucile. It all makes pretty fictional material; but I looked in the 19th-century Life of Desmoulins by Jules Claretie and the 20th-century one by Jacques Jannssens, for anything about this, and could not find it. So it looks as if Mantel may well have made it up; and as an ‘educated guess’ it could well be very sound, but where does it leave ‘the real thing’?

I will note another oddity in the novel. Mantel paints the Desmoulins-Danton-Robespierre circle as a bunch of thoroughly nice people. (Robespierre is humanised and somewhat tidied up, glossing over his final vicious betrayal of his old friends.) They converse in an intimate and jokey way. And the jokiness does not stop there; Marat and Fabre d’Eglantine talk in much the same flip style, and so at one point does the King. ‘Listen to what I will be if I do not uphold the constitutional oath on the poor bishops,’ he exclaims, looking up from a Revolutionary newspaper. ‘He broke off, put down the newspaper and blew his nose vigorously into a handkerchief embroidered with the royal arms – the last he had, of the old sort. “A happy new year to you too, Dr Marat,” he said.’ Even the anonymous narrator, who often intervenes to paint the scene or keep up to date with events, is inclined to be ‘superior’ and jokey.

VERSAILLES: a great deal of hard thinking has gone into this procession. It isn’t just a matter of getting up and walking, you know ...

  The Clergy, the First Estate: optimistic light of early May glints on congregated mitres, coruscates over the jewel-colours of their robes. The Nobility follows: the same light flashes on three hundred silk-clad backs. Three hundred white hat plumes wave cheerfully in the breeze.

  But before them come the Commons, the Third Estate, commanded by the Master of Ceremonies into plain black cloaks; six hundred strong, like an immense black marching slug. Why not put them into smocks and order them to suck straws?

This narrator is evidently an aristo, or at least impersonating one; elsewhere he or she is a statistician, textbook historian or troubled man in the street. But the question troubles us, why does it all have to be so ‘amusing’? Who is this narrator, and what is he so superior about?

Hilary Mantel is a formidably talented novelist, exceedingly well-informed about the Revolution and resourceful in all sorts of modes and genres: the tableau, the calendar, the bizarre news-item, the internal monologue, snatched intimacy or burlesque Socratic dialogue. She has seen deeply into her characters and their involvements with one other, and makes them live for us, with vivid invented detail, day by day, as they are battered or seduced by public events. Somewhere a suggestion lurks in her text that only private emotions and loyalties are real – public events, whether declaration of a republic or September massacres, being a sinister shadow-play, which it is best to treat with mockery or whimsy. But at all events, her hope to have written a book that one can ‘think and live inside’ seems justified; and it is done on an astounding scale, it has called for a creative energy and planning power that make one gasp. On the other hand, the Revolution was the most inspiring, though also one of the most horrible, events in history and cannot be reduced to the personal. Perhaps the whole literary enterprise was impossible. Historical novels, however intelligent or profound, are entertainments. Hence, though one can set one in the Revolution, one cannot write one about this extraordinary event, which is still with us and has not been reduced to the harmless, understood past.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

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.

Leslie Wilson
Caversham, Reading

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.

Gerald Long
Paris

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.

P.N. Furbank
London NW5

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.’

Christopher Ricks
Oxford

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences