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:

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.