Nun’s (not) on the run (Caroline Bowden)


Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy by K. J. P. Lowe
CUP: Cambridge, 2003; ISBN: 9780521621915; 454 pp.; Price: £83.00.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
London : Virago, 2009; ISBN 9781400063826; 432 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Reviewer: Caroline Bowden (Queen Mary, University of London)

The challenge in writing a comparative review of Kate Lowe’s fine study of early modern Italian convents Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture with Sarah Dunant’s gripping novel Sacred Hearts is to find ways of making sense of the experience of reading both beyond stating the obvious. They are both about the religious life ofwomen in a particular time (early modern) and in one country (Italy). They are both well worth reading for entirely different reasons, but I think few people (apart from this reviewer) are likely actively to enjoy reading both: most readers will, I suspect, choose to read one or the other. Having made a brief survey of online discussions of historical fiction, it is clear that there is a huge readership for historical fiction and some well-crafted reviews of historical novels of all periods. At the same time it seems to me that there is a degree of misapprehension among the contributors to these sites about the ways that historians work and write, with repeated emphasis on their opinion that historians research to ascertain the facts which they then write up in narratives. Probably with the recent increasing interest among historians in commenting on historical fiction there will be similar misunderstandings coming from the other direction. We all need to be aware of the debates if we are to appreciate how each contributes to our understanding of the past.

In the case of this pair of books, Sarah Dunant’s novel relies heavily on Lowe’s research: her heroine, the apothecary (who saves the newly arrived Serafina from a life of incarceration) is closely modelled on the family circumstances of the Chronicler from S Cosimato in Rome. Both their fathers had medical qualifications. Perhaps coincidence, but it is part of the novelist’s skill to turn such trifles into significant elements in their story telling. The plot and indeed many of the relationships in the convent are governed by Dunant’s acceptance of Lowe’s argument that in Italian convents of the period a majority of entrants were placed there against their will and negotiating a way out was virtually impossible. Given the number of convents in early modern Italian cities, this suggests that a large proportion of aristocratic women were incarcerated for life. Much of the subtlety of characterisation of the fictional members of Santa Caterina is dependent on acceptance of this argument and the ways that individuals came to terms (or failed to do so) with forced professions. Dunant’s novel effectively recreates the atmosphere of an enclosed space, governed by extraordinarily complex rules and with the added tension created by office holders working out their own strategies for achieving grace. However, I think it is important to point out that the detailed research to support this argument does not form part of Lowe’s study. Certainly young women and even a few small children were placed in the convents for a variety of reasons and remained there for long periods of time with little choice about staying or leaving. Further research is needed to identify individual life experience in the convents to support more definite conclusions about the numbers involved.

I have to confess that I am not a reader of historical fiction by choice, but in this case I found myself drawn into the life of Serafina with her beautiful voice and her travails in the Ferraran convent, where her profession was forced on her because she had fallen in love with her music teacher and the family wished to separate them and focus on her younger sister’s marriage instead. Serafina finds it impossible to accept her enclosure and the story reveals how she gains support from a few nuns in the community in her struggle. Dunant creates a very real sense of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the restricted space, occupied by women governed by regulations affecting every part of their life, many of whom had not chosen to be there. Is it significant that there has been a change in the cover design? For some editions there is a rear view of a cloaked figure moving towards a dark doorway: there is now an attractive young woman with a low(ish) cut dress, eyes modestly cast down. This version gives no clues about the convent setting of the novel. The book does now advertise discussion points: my edition did not so I cannot comment on their value for teaching purposes. Their target audience was more likely to be readers in book groups.

Sarah Dunant brilliantly conjures up the atmosphere in a single convent for a small group of members. She has absorbed the detail provided by Lowe’s meticulous study to take the reader with her behind the walls. By contrast with the novel, Lowe is working on a much larger canvas to present an overview of three significant urban convents in the period as revealed in the chronicles written in the 16th century. Because of her own detailed knowledge of the sources and the period, Lowe is able to move confidently across three very different sources and convents. Such movements present challenges to the reader especially as the cultural context which clarifies some of the early material appears later in the book.

What are we to make of the central themes of these books: that of forced professions and the negative impact of male-instituted reforms? As someone who has spent a number of years studying the experience of female religious life in the early modern period, it is the denial of free will and choice to a substantial proportion of members of convents, who are in reality the inmates of a locked institution, which is shocking. Lowe argues too that Tridentine reforms were almost wholly negative in their impact on the convents. At S Cosimato for instance ‘life after Trent was merely a more severe version of an already very restricted lifestyle…’ The ‘nuns lost their opportunity to take decisions for themselves’ and their independence was repressed.(1) However if we look at the English convents with which I am more familiar, their foundations were made after Trent and neither they nor we as historians are in a position to compare life before and after. They had to accommodate the rules established by Trent and attract candidates in difficult circumstances and they created cultural and religious centres of some importance. In the English convents in exile, care was taken to ensure that women entered convents of their own free will and evidence has survived from many of the convents showing that candidates could, and in fact did, leave if they changed their mind about joining. They attracted patronage, constructed and decorated buildings in much the same way as their Italian counterparts in the earlier period described by Lowe.

The 16th century saw significant changes for women religious, largely as a result of Tridentine decrees which imposed enclosure and which are seen (as I have already suggested) by Lowe as negative in their impact on women. In fact as she shows, the reforms at Le Vergini in Venice pre-dated Trent in ending an unusual version of the religious life which permitted considerable freedom to the Canonesses who lived there. Perhaps it is the contrast between the latitude experienced there before 1519 to the forced professions described elsewhere in the study and in the novel which makes the incarcerations so notable. Reactions to enclosure did vary elsewhere. For instance, some writers in the new English convents founded in exile on the continent from 1598 even embraced enclosure, commenting how they welcomed separation from the secular world and the opportunities it provided to focus on their religious life without distractions. Perhaps it was different for them having experienced religious persecution and having to make a personal commitment to go overseas to join a convent. It was also not so hard as it was in Italy for them to leave if they were unsuited to the religious life. Such differences of female experience serve to demonstrate the importance of working comparatively as historians to take into account variations of circumstances.

It was good to read the bold conclusion by Kate Lowe emphasising the cultural significance of the Italian convents that formed her study and in particular their contribution to history writing. While, as she argues, their works were little known outside the convents at the time, ‘convent histories enter the mainstream of historical debate’.(2) Equally the success of Sarah Dunant’s book and her wide readership introduces a new group of readers to thinking and talking about a hitherto closed world.

1                    Lowe, pp. 393, 394.

2                    Lowe, p. 397.


Restoration: fact and fiction in the stores of history (Alan Marshall)


Restoration by Rose Tremain
London; Vintage Books, London, 1989, 2009 ed.,ISBN 978-0-099-53195-1; 399 pp.; price £7.99

Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660-1685 by Matthew Jenkinson
Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2010, ISBN 9781843835905; 293 pp.; £60.00

Sir Walter Scott, masquerading both as ‘The Author’, as well as his pompous alter-ego, the historian ‘Dr Jonas Dryasdust’, inserted the following dialogue into the beginning of his historical novel of the Restoration period, Perevil of the Peak (1823):

‘Author…you mean to say these learned persons [historians] will have but little toleration for a romance, or a fictious narrative, founded upon history?

Dryasdust: Why sir, I do rather apprehend, that their respect for the foundation will be such, that they may be apt to quarrel with the inconsistent nature of the superstructure; just as every classical traveller pours forth expressions of sorrow and indignation when, in travelling through Greece, he chances to see a Turkish kiosk rising on the ruins of an ancient temple …’ (1)

Comparisons between historical fiction and historical work of fact have become much more frequent since Scott’s day, but the basis of the argument often seems the same. The presence of any number of novelistic ‘Turkish kiosks’ erected in full view of not a few historian’s own grounds and filled with ‘frothy and superficial knowledge’ has been often criticised for at the least foolishly spoiling the historical view, and at worst for looking in completely the wrong historical direction; that is, of course, where they have not been ignored entirely.(2) The two sides seem destined to live, if not at war, then at least in state of mutual antipathy. Nevertheless the historical novel was just as much a development of the 19th century as serious academic history and both of these genres have, arguably, come to their full flowering in the modern era.(3) Yet the Dryasdust distain for the historical novel still lingers on in some quarters. Can historians still afford to ignore the historical novel completely? Can it really tell us anything about our views of a particular period?

If such literary works tend to be treated at all by historians, then it is often as a somewhat smaller, less worthy, over-rowdy, and much more emotional younger brother, over-concerned with mere story and (taken as given by many historians) often containing many an ill-conceived, ahistorical, character creation. Far better, it is thought, to till the historical soil in our primary sources, so as to capture the genuine essence of the factual past and only then display the results in serious academic tomes and in serious academic language. Yet both genres possibly still have much to learn from one another. Indeed if popular and just occasionally academic history has become more novelistic in tone at times, then sometimes historical novels have become more academically serious.(4)

The idea of the Restoration period has been present in the historical novel genre for some time. It has never, of course, been the most popular of periods for the historical novelist to explore -inevitably that palm lies with the all-powerful Tudors, who alongside Romans and Nazis seemingly dominate the popular historical imagination of students of all ages in all forms of the media. Having said this, there are some interesting examples of the genre of Restoration historical novels in existence. Indeed the use of the Restoration period as a vehicle for the novel has something of a history of its own that can still give us some perspective when examining one particular example of the genre in the context of a new and serious academic work on the period.

The ‘founder’ of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott, actually set the ball rolling on the Restoration novel by setting one of his more unreadable than usual books in the period. This was the aforementioned Peveril of the Peak, wherein Scott crashed about the period with improbable settings and even more improbable characters and their unlikely dialogue, doing unhistorical things in a singularly ponderous manner. Others soon followed his lead.

Rose Tremain’s novel Restoration is not Scott by any means; it is very readable for one thing, has engaging characters and is not that improbable in its story.(5) Nor is it a pot-boiler or bodice-ripper romance a la Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber (1944). Instead it is really a novel about ideas, which happens to be set in the past, and it can lead us to ponder and then go on to explore many of these ideas in a genuine historical context, which is perhaps what the really good historical novel should do.(6) Space naturally precludes an examination of all of the ideas in this particular work. The novel covers many historical themes, from Nonconformity in the character of Pearce, through the issue of gender, to ideas of madness and of science. Clearly the suggestion of the very idea of the Restoration as aspirational is crucial to the novel. Robert Merivel, the main protagonist, who has more than a touch of Samuel Pepys about him, aspires, after his Candide-like adventures, to a restoration of his soul. A further theme, the idea of a historical burn-line in 1660, presents the somewhat old-fashioned view that everything changed in May 1660 and nothing was ever the same again.

Tremain’s view on this particular point is made clear through her main character’s statement that: ‘The truth is that when the King restored, it was as if self-discipline and drudgery had exploded in clap of laughter. I became much too excited by and greedy for life to spend much of it at work. Women were cheaper than claret, so I drank women’ (p. 9). This is the idea of the 1660s as the 1960s, or at least as the 1980s when the novel was written: metaphorical and sometimes actual, wealth, sun, licentiousness and sex; but, of course, if the 1960’s and 1980s wasn’t really like the proverbial and mythical 1960s or 1980s, neither was the 1660s like the mythical 1660s.

Intriguingly, though, in this novel, as in other Restoration novels, one of the real centres of gravity in the work lies in the character of a real person: Charles II. The invented characters, interesting though they are, move around a King whose own restoration is the political act in the title. It is also implied that it has botched and unsatisfactory results, even for him. While Charles II is off stage for much of the novel, there is little doubt that it is his character, or Tremain’s view of his character, that really dominates the work. He is the novel’s deus ex machina. Why is there such a fascination with this particular monarch? For it might be said that that one of the main characteristics of most Restoration-period novels is that they always tend to be dominated by Charles II whatever their plot, just as the Tudor historical novel is dominated by Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

Of course, we know, or believe that we know, where we are with Charles II. He is, so any number of authors have told us, a `personality’.(7) In popular culture Charles II remains a hale fellow well met sort of man, one of us really, sometimes a sort of early Blairite ‘pretty straight sort of guy’, with, for a king, the ‘common touch’. He was naturally a man with faults, but was also a lover of wine, women, dogs, song and pleasure and who could dislike such a man as that? He was also a supporter of the theatre and it might be said that in Restoration comedy is to be found a form of drama which the King’s personal life sometimes resembled. So, if Charles II has been frequently depicted in the modern era as a generally all-round good fellow, as well as occasionally a shrewd reader of men, as in ‘Restoration’, we feel we ought to like him and, we are perhaps meant to feel he would probably like us. It might be said, however, that this image is arguably a hangover of the Charles II of the Arthur Bryant School of history. While the real Charles II actually was some of these things, and even at the time he was portrayed as some of these things, he was also a lot more than this, as historians have tried to explain. He was actually a complex and intelligent man living in a post-revolutionary political and cultural environment and above all a survivor, not merely the caricature Nell Gwyn-chasing ‘merry monarch’. However, for the real Charles and his political space we must always turn to the historian’s view, which is where Matthew Jenkinson’s serious and genuinely weighty work of history can help us.

‘For the King moves like God in our world, like Faith itself. He is a fount of beauty and power, of which we all yearn, in our overheated hearts, to feel some cooling touch’ notes Robert Merivel in the novel (p. 24). Jenkinson takes a similar view of the Caroline Court, its culture and its monarch. The court, a space Merivel continually aspires to, finds a minor place in and then is catastrophically cast out from, is vitally important to Jenkinson’s work too. Merivel finds by the end of the book that the court was not worth that much anyway and fortunately for him he is eventually given his own space to inhabit, but few of those who aspired to the court at the time would have thought like this and they were eager to be there whatever the consequences for themselves. In Jenkinson’s work the Restoration court image matches this significant historical nexus. For Jenkinson’s is a sober view of this important institution, its inhabitants and its culture, and much more penetrating than Merivel’s.

For Jenkinson the central idea is of a court culture that is informed by and influenced by politics and in which politics also influences culture and the nation. It is indeed the presentation of the king and his image within the contemporary multiple voices of culture. The book is located around a Restoration court that was politicized in its many forms including its artefacts. The court contained ideas on kingship, on performance, on faction and on contemporary disagreement, as well as the distrust of philosophies. It was also a problematic space. Following the failed republic, the court was part of a much needed political stabilisation in the period, but it was continually undercut by cultural interests that stressed negativity, advice and challenge. This was significant. For argues Jenkinson the ‘order and health of the nation was reliant on, symptomatic of and a reflection of that of the royal court’ (p. 213) Underneath the pleasurable veneer of the Restoration court therefore stood both severe uncertainty and a ‘lively interrogation’ of the issues of the court: ‘virtue, love, loyalty, reason, authority and … honour’ had to be interrogated (p. 236) The monarch who compromised these political/cultural elements was Charles II. The King, by his indulgence of both himself and his courtiers, was in the end exactly what was not what was needed, for his reported actions only emphasised the fears of disorder in the realm; the same fears, of course, that are primary to understanding the early modern psyche.

Chapter two of the book goes on to explore the features of the court in the early Restoration, the first being a rhetorical commitment to the law as evinced by the executions of the regicides. Jenkinson then examines the role of churchmen at court and the role of the author John Crowne; he discusses the court wits in chapter five and John Dryden in chapter six as a court poet (though not in the sense that Rochester had been), alongside sections on Tory discontent at court, printed propaganda and the ‘empty atmosphere’ of the last days of the court of Charles II after the ‘second Restoration’ of the 1680s. It is a rich and finely detailed mix for the reader to interrogate and gives us a good understanding of the cultural ambience and the cultural ambivalences of the court. If the entire Restoration court experience has, it is argued, implications for the health of the body politic then indeed the ideas of ‘words and meanings’ of the courtiers and their king need to be deconstructed.

In many senses therefore the historical work parallels that of the novel; it too is about ideas. The court however has moved away from prurient interests in disorder and sexual libertinism that we find to some extent in the novel, into something more. The court was the central organisation of the new state in the 1660s, and if it was dysfunctional then so was the state itself. As Jenkinson puts it, the court should be viewed as ‘a political institution to be taken seriously, whose vibrant cultural life could be used to navigate contemporary political complexities’ (p. 7). Here then is the nub of the issue: for while the historical novel can in the end only ever deal with surface and story, the historical work can probe deeply into the heart of the court’s problems. Yet, for all of this there is still arguably room for both versions, for used wisely the one can provoke questions of the other. As Scott the author noted long ago:

‘The stores of history are accessible to everyone; and are no more exhausted or impoverished by the hints thus borrowed from them, than the fountain is drained by the water which we subtract for domestic purposes. And in reply to the sober charge of falsehood, against a narrative announced positively to be fictitious, one can only answer by Prior’s exclamation

‘Odzooks, must one swear to the truth of a song!’.(8)


1 Sir Walter Scott, Perevil of the Peak (2 vols., 1836 ed.), I, p.x–xi.

2 ibid.,I, p.xii.

3 See Jerome de Groot, The Historical Novel (Abingdon, 2010).

4 One example would be Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London, 2009).

5 Having said this, as so often in historical fiction the timescale within this novel jars to the historian’s eye. The novel is set c.1660–7, but these years are telescoped and extended apparently to suit the plot.

6 Of course, in the end the novel is an entertainment and many reading it will be content with this pleasure alone.

7 Modern approaches, both academic and popular, to Charles II can be found in R. Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); R. HuttonDebates in Stuart History(Basingstoke, 2004), pp.132-170; T. Harris, Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms, 1660-1685 (St Ives, 2005); A. Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power(London, 2008) and Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (London, 2009).

8 Perevil, I, p.xii.

Debating the Cultural Revolution in China


Brothers by Yu Hua
Picador: London, 2009; ISBN: 9780330452755; 600 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Mao’s Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MS, 2006; ISBN 9780674027480; 752 pp.; Price: £17.95.

Mao's Last Revolution cover imageBrothers cover image

Reviewer:Julia Lovell (Birkbeck, University of London)

In Western imaginations, the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76) – in which one of the world’s oldest, most elaborate cultures began destroying itself, in which a successful, disciplined political organisation tore its own heart out, and in which colleagues and classmates turned murderously on each other – stands among the landmarks of the recent Chinese past. In the late 1980s, when Chinese history and culture remained esoteric to all but specialists, it was accounts of the Cultural Revolution – told in English through the personal narratives of those who endured it – that drew general audiences in their millions to read about the country. The success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans in particular turned the Cultural Revolution memoir into a genre sensation, beloved of publishers and readers alike. By the late 1990s, Wild Swans had been joined by a clutch of cygnets – To the Edge of the Sky, The Vermilion Gate – mostly family sagas, mostly written by women, many of them focusing on the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. (At the close of that decade, it was even rumoured that literary agents had defined ‘Chinese pain’ as a product, because a profit could be made from it.)

In China, the Cultural Revolution – the ‘ten years of madness’ – is also regarded as one of the seminal tragedies of the country’s 20th century. For obvious political reasons, however, there are limits to how the event can be commemorated. The Cultural Revolution, after all, was a civil war (with disastrous consequences for China’s political, economic and cultural development) unleashed by China’s pre-eminent leader, Mao Zedong; a civil war that was made possible by Chinese communism’s culture of violence and one that Mao’s feted successor, Deng Xiaoping – a high-ranking leader in 1966 – signally failed to prevent.[d1]  It is hardly surprising that the regime does not want to encourage free-form, open-ended debate about its causes and consequences. In the interests of drawing a veil over such contention, the Party passed its own, final judgment on the Cultural Revolution and on Mao’s role in the early 1980s, declaring that the Great Helmsman had been 70 per cent right, and 30 per cent wrong, and that no further discussion was required. Nonetheless, memory of the Cultural Revolution has inevitably resonated through Chinese cultural life – not least because so many writers were affected. Literary commemorations of the Cultural Revolution have long outnumbered those of the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward (1958–62). This is perhaps because, although the latter was in absolute terms far more destructive of Chinese life (claiming some 40 million deaths, to the Cultural Revolution’s estimated 1.5 million), those worst affected were (predominantly illiterate) farmers, while the Cultural Revolution particularly targeted intellectuals. And although substantial restrictions still exist on coverage of the Cultural Revolution in China’s public history industry (especially in the mass media), there is greater, if still incomplete, freedom for fictional explorations of these events.

Over the past 20 years, China’s most critically acclaimed novelists – writers such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong, born between the 1950s and early 1960s – have turned the historical novel into the pre-eminent genre in serious contemporary fiction. For the most part, they have concentrated on recounting the 20th century, and particularly the landmark traumas of the Communist decades through which they themselves lived: Land Reform, the Great Leap Forward and, of course, the Cultural Revolution. In Brothers, one of the bestselling Chinese novels of the early 21st century, Yu Hua created a two-volume blockbuster covering China’s last four decades: a portrait of the country’s transformation from Maoist political thuggery to money worship. The first volume is taken up by a startlingly brutal account of the Cultural Revolution.

The novel is set in Liu Town, an east-coast backwater near Shanghai, and tells the lives of two victims of Mao’s China – Baldy Li and his stepbrother Song Gang. Approaching their teens during the Cultural Revolution, the boys witness Song Gang’s father, Song Fanping, tortured then battered to death (ostensibly for being the son of a landlord, in reality for a linguistic slip interpreted as slandering Mao) only 14 months after his marriage to Baldy Li’s mother, Li Lan; within another few years, she dies of kidney failure and sorrow. In Brothers, the Cultural Revolution starts out as burlesque anarchy – a chance for children to skip school and enjoy heaping humiliation on ‘class enemies’: ‘[The boys] only knew that now Liu Town had become as festive and rowdy as if every day were a holiday’. Soon enough, however, the ubiquitous mob violence – daily lynchings leave the town literally smeared with blood – turns against the boys and their family. The killing of the boys’ father – described in horrifying detail across four pages – is the centrepiece act of mindless cruelty. Six local Red Guards beat him steadily to death, shredding his flesh, ripping an ear off, finally bayoneting him with a splintered wooden bat: ‘As the spikes were yanked out blood gushed from his body as though it were a perforated wine skin’. Even after he has died, reinforcements arrive to take over the beating, trampling and pummelling, while the first group of killers breakfast ‘with savage delight’ on ‘soy milk, buns and fritters’. Even in death, Song Fanping has to endure the humiliation of having his kneecaps smashed so that he can be fitted into the only cheap coffin available.

In the interests of achieving a faithful likeness of these extreme times, Yu Hua makes use of a style that is crude in almost every respect: in its freakish protagonists and plot twists; in its fondness for repetitions and expletives (or, ideally, repeated expletives – one paragraph alone is graced by eighteen conjugations of ‘f**k’); in its fountains of body fluids (snot, blood and saliva). Modern China, its author has reasoned, ‘is so sick that a writer can’t pretend to be a doctor. Instead, the best one can do is admit that one is ill and try to describe the symptoms’. And the coarseness of the novel’s literary language seems technically well-matched with the grotesquerie of the violence being described: archival and anecdotal evidence tells us that Yu Hua’s descriptions of hyperbolic sadism are historically accurate.

The highly negative portrayals of the Cultural Revolution in Yu Hua’s Brothers are indeed a sign of the writer’s political bravery (and proof of the greater creative freedom that Chinese novelists enjoy, relative to peers working in film, television or newspapers). In refusing to allow these events to go quietly forgotten, and in commemorating them in such scurrilous, brutish style, Yu Hua flagrantly contradicts the exhortation by the Chinese Writers’ Association (the government’s official literary union) that writers should ‘make positive contributions’ to sounding an ‘elevated main note in literary creation’. And yet Brothers also illuminates the interpretative limits faced by Chinese authors describing the Cultural Revolution. The book ultimately pulls its punches when it comes to seeking the origins of these events. The horrific violence of the Cultural Revolution is portrayed as an irrational explosion of mass thuggery, without any attempt to search for deeper causes (in, say, Communism’s institutionalisation of violence at all levels of government and in its caste-like system of class designations). As a result, the book is often rich in superficial shock value – in its explicit descriptions of violence and sex – but weak in its grasp of the political roots of Maoist cataclysms. Moreover, there is scant introspective attention paid to perhaps the most interesting psychological legacy of the Cultural Revolution: the way in which the great majority of victims and persecutors have had to co-exist quietly with each other since the regime turned its back on class struggle after Mao and his revolution came to an end in 1976. Yu Hua’s sensationalist style seems almost deliberately designed to forestall deeper thought about the causes and outcomes of these events. By militating against careful reflection on the Cultural Revolution, Yu Hua unwittingly furthers the regime’s project to stifle widespread debate about its sources.

The narrative style of Roderick MacFarquhar’s and Michael Schoenhals’ Mao’s Last Revolution could hardly form a greater contrast with the tone of hysterical violence that dominates Brothers. The former – the most authoritative, comprehensive single-volume account of the Cultural Revolution in English – does not in any sense shy away from the physical horror of these events, mind; it is littered with appalling spectacle. We read of an early victim of Mao’s purge hurling himself off a building; his suicide attempt failed but left him crippled, after which his opponents hauled him to mass criticism meetings inside a cabbage basket. Red Guards beat class enemies to death without understanding their alleged counter-revolutionary crimes. Cities up and down the country were – as Yu Hua describes in microcosm – spattered with blood: some 15,000 were killed or wounded in Wuhan alone. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals describe how factions of students murdered each other with sugar sickles intended for Cuba; funeral processions in which Red Guards held aloft the severed body parts of the fallen; how some victims were not only killed but also eaten; how one man with a bad class background bled to death in front of his family after having his ear cut off.

But MacFarquhar and Schoenhals are constantly at pains to explain not only what happened, but also how it could have happened. There is a devastingly effective coolness to their writing, as they explain the course of the Cultural Revolution: not only Mao’s central culpability, but also the complicity of his chief lieutenants (none of whom tried to prevent Mao from launching his political witch-hunt, most of whom were purged in the course of the Cultural Revolution). Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s recent, best-selling biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, turned the Cultural Revolution into melodrama: the villains (Mao, his wife Jiang Qing and his Defence Minister, Lin Biao) lined up on one side; their good-hearted victims (Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Deng Xiaoping) on the other. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals paint a picture in which blame was far more troublingly widespread. Both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were deeply implicated in the culture of political violence that made the extremism of the Cultural Revolution possible; both mocked early victims of the movement before it turned on them.

Technically, the book is a tour-de-force, a heteroglossic survey of Cultural Revolutionaries at every level of Chinese society, that makes use of both conventional archival material and sources from below: interviews, memoirs, pamphlets, posters, diaries and denunciations, and other flea-market finds. (Michael Schoenhals has been acclaimed elsewhere as the ‘doyen of Chinese garbology’ – presumably for his skill in excavating historical gems from piles of apparently waste paper that have found their way to such markets.) Even traditional archival sources on the Cultural Revolution, it should be remembered, are far from straightforward to access in China today. Much evidence from these years is routinely shut off to foreign researchers without special connections and permits. In MacFarquhar’s and Schoenhals’ narrative, the voices of external observers inject welcome tonal variety into the turgid political formulae of official PRC communiqués. Although in the eye of the storm, British diplomats stationed in China during the Cultural Revolution still kept their upper lips almost miraculously stiff. One Foreign Office functionary evacuated from Beijing laconically observed that as he, his wife and young family fell under attack at the airport from Red Guards, his ‘tie was pulled into so tight a knot that it had later to be forced open with a tea spoon.’ Imprisoned within the British embassy in Beijing on the evening on which it would be sacked, its inhabitants almost burnt to death and its women sexually molested, the ambassador reported back to London that the staff ‘dined together … off a dinner of tinned sausages and peas, claret and biscuits and cheese, prepared by the ladies. After dinner I went to the first-floor … to play bridge, while those of the staff who were not at work watched Peter Sellers in a film entitled not inappropriately, ‘The Wrong Arm of the Law’!’

MacFarquhar’s and Schoehnals’ dispassionate, clear-headed account is therefore more profoundly unsettling than the surface sensationalism generated by a novel like Brothers. We gain a powerful sense of a tragedy unfolding: of a fundamental failure by Mao and his subordinates to predict the consequences of their actions; of the hypocrisy of a revolutionary elite who – themselves enveloped in privilege and learning – wished to deny these things to their countrymen. We are left with greatly enhanced understanding of a disaster – still insufficiently explained and discussed in China today – driven by an over-concentration of power and by a lack of institutional accountability, both issues that remain political hazards in the contemporary People’s Republic.

Moscow as city and metaphor (Alexander Martin)


The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
London: Flamingo, 1989; ISBN 9780006543701; 256pp.; Price £7.99.

Holy Fathers, Secular Sons: Clergy, Intelligentsia, and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia by Laurie Manchester
DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008; ISBN 9780875803807; 302pp.; Price £28.00.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913 but written at the height of perestroika, conveys an ambivalence familiar to those of us who spent time there during the Gorbachev years. Much in the Moscow she describes is grimy and discouraging: the oppressive bureaucracy; the ugly, derelict buildings; and, for much of the year, the gray, wet, depressing weather. But the book also gives an idea of the light that shone through the cracks in Russia’s shell: the Chekhovian charm of the ramshackle wooden houses and overgrown gardens; the churches with their golden onion domes, exuding a majestic sense of history and enduring, timeless faith; and the people themselves, approaching life with a humor and an almost mystical intensity of feeling that seemed to prevent the everyday from becoming banal. In the late 1980s as in 1913, the country was on the verge of epochal changes, and to be there meant to be a witness to history.

The Beginning of Spring expresses the Zeitgeist of the Gorbachev years, but it also incorporates much older images and stereotypes. It could hardly be otherwise. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) was a distinguished and talented novelist – her fiction was awarded both the Booker Prize and the American National Book Critics fiction prize – but she was evidently no Russia hand; at least, The Beginning of Spring is her only work set in that country. Much of the novel is about the Russians’ sheer cultural otherness. Like many thoughtful, well-meaning Westerners trying to understand the Russians, Fitzgerald represents them as people who are exceptionally soulful, passionate, and melancholy. This is a stereotype that first appeared in Russian literature in the 19th century, and it has since become a fixture both in Russia and in the West.

How the stereotype used by Fitzgerald originated becomes clearer if one reads Laurie Manchester’s Holy Fathers, Secular Sons, a study of the role of secularized popovichi (sons of Orthodox clergymen—from pop, “priest”) in the formation of the Russian intelligentsia. Russia’s high culture was long dominated by nobles who looked down on their lower-born compatriots because they lacked European culture. When commoners became more educated in the mid-19th century, and more resentful of the nobility’s snobbery and arrogance, they asserted their own moral superiority over the nobles by treating lack of cosmopolitanism as a badge of national authenticity. Manchester’s book argues that no one did more than the popovichi – many of whom acquired great influence as writers, educators, scientists, journalists, or political activists – to promote the idea that ’real’ Russians should aspire to a pattern of thought and behavior rooted in the mystical spirituality of Russian Orthodoxy, not in supposedly universal notions of rationality and enlightenment modeled by West Europeans.

The ’Russian‘ traits espoused by Manchester’s popovichi are pervasive in The Beginning of Spring, and they appear all the more exotic because Fitzgerald shows us Russia through the eyes of a semi-outsider, a Russified Englishman. The central character in The Beginning of Spring, Frank Reid, is a husband, father of three young children, and owner of a modest printing business in Moscow. The business was founded by his parents, Britons who settled in Moscow, and Reid himself is at home in both cultures. When the story begins, his English wife Nellie has just unaccountably walked out on him and gone home to Britain, and Reid is left trying to sort through the implications – where she has gone, whether she will come back, and what it all means for him, their children, and his own relationship with Russia. This is the novel’s central plot line, which reaches a surprising dénouement at the end that I won’t give away.

As Reid attends to his affairs, we meet a variety of other characters. This is where Fitzgerald beings the Russian stereotypes to life: there is the eccentric Anglo-Russian businessman Selwyn Crane, who writes Russian poetry about birch trees, wears a Russian peasant blouse, and tries to live by the utopian Christian precepts of Tolstoy; there is Kuriatin, the moody, theatrical merchant; Tvyordov, Reid’s employee, a compositor and erstwhile labor organizer, who approaches his craft with almost religious reverence; Lisa, the enigmatic peasant housemaid, whose sexual allure derives from her preternatural calm and serenity; Volodya, the pistol-wielding student who is either a revolutionary, a jealous lover, or both; and assorted drunken coachmen, bribe-taking police officers, and officious station masters. Restless seekers all, they resemble Russia itself, that ‘magnificent and ramshackle country’ (p. 177).

The novel’s characters are a study in contradiction and opacity: rebellious yet submissive, lecherous yet ascetic, corrupt but also profoundly moral. Moscow itself shares these traits. Fitzgerald was ill served by whoever advised her on language matters, because she keeps mangling the Russian words that are supposed to provide local color, but judging from my own research on tsarist Moscow, her sense of the city is spot-on. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells are described in such pungent detail that Moscow must count as a quasi-character. Fitzgerald does a beautiful job of evoking the city in passages like this one:

‘Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying on to the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel, but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage-patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village’ (pp. 35-36).

Running through the whole book is the theme of ‘the beginning of spring’. Perhaps Fitzgerald was thinking of Ilya Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel The Thaw, which provided an entire generation of Soviet readers with a metaphor for the return of freedom and hope after Stalin’s death. In Fitzgerald’s novel, the season is late March, when the snow and ice begin to melt. It is not a pretty time of year, but winter’s grip loosens at last and life comes into its own again. Fitzgerald describes how the double panes are removed from the windows, and once more the sounds of the street penetrate the interior of people’s homes. A nervous anticipation and uncertainty takes hold. Nellie has abandoned her family, but we don’t know why. Reid loves Moscow yet considers moving to England; he is attached to his business but has doubts about its long-term viability, and he understands neither Nellie’s sudden urge to leave nor his own unexpected feelings for Lisa. Selwyn Crane is spiritually torn between two conflicting sexual impulses – free love and chastity – and is about to pour out his heart to the world in his first book of poetry; the approach of summer also means another restless season of wandering the Russian countryside in peasant birch-bark sandals. In the wider world, meanwhile, it is 1913, and we all know what lies in store.

When Fitzgerald anthropomorphizes the city and uses human characters to embody the mood of a fateful historical moment, she is making use of time-honored literary devices. What makes these devices believable to the reader is the appeal to well-established images of Russians as soulful, brooding, oblivious to external order, and uncompromising in their quest for deeper spiritual experience. But this was no timeless Russian national stereotype; rather, it was invented in the mid 19th century.

Until the early 19th century, Westerners as well as upper-class Russians viewed the Russian Empire primarily as a quasi-colonial civilizing project that aimed to bring an amorphous mass of backward peoples and lands into the ambit of European enlightenment. The issue on which debates about Russian society turned was whether the empire’s multiethnic population was becoming enlightened, not whether there was a single, identifiable Russian ethnicity and what its essential national character might be.

All of shifted in the second quarter of the 19th century. Educated Russians – writers, painters, journalists, historians, musicians – began exploring what they thought were the unique features of the Russian nation. It is at this moment in time that the cliché on which Fitzgerald relies came into being: that Russia’s exterior is harsher and more forbidding than that of Western countries because its inner core is warmer and more spiritual. Like all national stereotypes, these claims were based on observations of reality, but they were above all a protest by dissenting intellectuals against the imperial regime. The regime wanted its subjects to be obedient and rational; instead, they were now exalted as rebels and dreamers. Russia’s flat, monotonous landscapes, criticized earlier as oppressive and dreary, were found to contain a mystical beauty, and the filth and poverty of peasant villages was recast as a sign of spiritual greatness. The West – and, by association, the tsarist regime – was nothing but pretty appearances; ’Russia’, by contrast, was spiritual truth.

Laurie Manchester’s Holy Fathers, Secular Sons helps us understand how this conception of Russianness arose. It has long been known that the rise of 19th–century Russian nationalism had roots both cultural (German Romanticism, Slavophilism, liberalism) and sociological (the disillusionment of noble intellectuals, and the growth of a non-noble educated class). Manchester draws our attention to a social group whose role has traditionally not received adequate attention – the clergy, or rather, their sons.

The fact that scholars studying the sociology of Russian intellectual history have focused so much more on nobles than on the clergy is, come to think about it, surprising, because clergy and popovichi formed a crucial reservoir from which educated laypeople – including many who were technically noble – were recruited. The government needed more officials than the nobility could supply, while the clergy had more educated sons than could be placed in Orthodox parishes, so there was a steady flow of popovichi out of the clergy and into the state service (where many were ennobled) and other literate professions. Much of Russia’s educated population therefore had roots in the clerical milieu.

Laurie Manchester shows, based on a study of a hundreds of popovich memoirs, that popovichi all through the 19th century shared a similar outlook on life. This outlook sharply differentiated them from the group they viewed as their chief rival and with whom they were locked in a relationship of profound mutual dislike and disdain – the nobility. Both considered themselves the natural leaders and moral enlighteners of the nation. The popovichi, born among the common people and raised to serve in local parishes, prided themselves on being ‘real’ Russians, unlike the Europeanized nobility. Nobles were torn between a European and a Russian self, and some felt like foreigners among the Russian people or harbored guilt feelings toward the peasantry; popovichi considered themselves part of the Russian populace and hence experienced none of these tensions. Nobles aspired to a lifestyle of politeness and refinement; popovichi took pride in having grown up in poverty and living an ascetic life.

One source of the popovichi’s powerful sense of corporate identity, Manchester argues, was their clerical upbringing. Orthodox parish clergy were almost always sons of clergymen and married to daughters of clergymen, so they were a caste-like group, isolated from other classes and imbued with a sense of their own saintly mission in a society whose elites were corrupted by sin and estranged from Russia’s sacred traditions. The nobles, they felt, were haughty, spoiled by material luxury, and estranged from Russia by their cultural cosmopolitanism. The merchants were alienated from their nation by the greed that inhered in their occupation. Only the clergy, they felt, aspired to a life of godliness, service to the people, and devotion to Russia’s true national essence.

This sense of the clergy’s special calling was reinforced by the experience of quasi-martyrdom at the bursa, as the schools of the Orthodox Church were colloquially known. The bursa system resembled secular secondary schools in aiming to provide a sophisticated humanistic education, but otherwise it was like no other school system in Russia. Attendance was compulsory, and unlike most schools, it was for one social estate only: it was staffed by clergymen and designed exclusively for sons of the clergy, so depending on his level of ambition and talent, a young man could go from primary all the way to post-secondary schooling without ever coming into contact with lay teachers, administrators, or classmates. Lay schools, especially those for the nobility, placed great emphasis on neatness, order, and polished manners. By contrast, the bursa was notorious for its filthy and decrepit buildings, the squalid living conditions of its students, and the coarseness with which obedience to authority was enforced; the sadistic violence of corporal punishments at the bursa was legendary even in lay society.

Manchester argues that across generations, the experience of the bursa united popovichi entering lay professions with each other and with their peers who remained in the clergy, and isolated them from the other elements of society. The bursa formed memories that no other class shared. Leaving home for the bursa was universally remembered as a traumatic break with the innocence of childhood. Gazing back across that fateful divide, popovichi remembered their earlier family life with an intensity of affection that reinforced the bonds of loyalty uniting them with the clergy. They recalled their fathers as bearers of a saintly, quintessentially Russian masculinity, and their families as models of love and harmony. Although there was affection for particular teachers and comrades at the bursa, the bursa itself was recalled as a place of suffering. Other classes, especially the nobles, might pity or despise the popovichi as people degraded by an abusive education – as late as the 1930s, dictionaries still defined seminarskii (the adjective derived from “seminary”) as meaning ’coarse, ill-bred’ – but popovichi themselves regarded the horror of the bursa as a trial by fire that made them into saintly martyrs and thus uniquely qualified as moral leaders of the nation.

Manchester argues that the popovichi were the principal source of the distinctive, at times paradoxical ethos that educated contemporaries as well as historians have generally attributed to the 19th–century Russian intelligentsia. Both groups hated both the nobility and capitalism. They condemned leisure, privilege, and wealth, and embraced a life that was demonstratively austere and anti-materialistic. They felt a deep bond with the peasantry but expected to be acknowledged as its leaders. They were unsparing in their social and political criticism, but their sense of embodying the nation’s indivisible essence made them uncomfortable with dissent and disagreement. All of these were attitudes common both to the intelligentsia and to the popovichi, and they underlie the outlook of Selwyn Crane and the radical student Volodya in Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, just as the notion of an all-pervading, mystical Russian essence shapes Fitzgerald’s description of Moscow itself.

Holy Fathers, Secular Sons places this transformation of popovichi into intelligentsia in a dual explanatory framework. First, Manchester argues – persuasively, I find – that much in the popovich mentality represented an adaptation of the clergy’s Orthodox religiosity. They carried on, in secularized form, the clergy’s belief that it alone represented both moral integrity and true Russianness, and that the peasantry was not corrupted by sin as the nobles and merchants were. Secularizing the notion of individual salvation and of a future messianic redemption of humanity, they refused to separate the political from the personal, instead insisting that the struggle for change in the sociopolitical order be accompanied by tireless efforts at moral and spiritual self-improvement.

Aside from the secularization of religious sensibilities, the other concept that Manchester uses to frame her analysis is the notion of ’modern selfhood’. Modern selves, she argues, are people who think critically and believe that they can control their own lives and surroundings; variations of this definition are repeated throughout the book (e.g. pp. 5, 115, 135, 153, 214). The argument that the popovichi were pioneers in the development of modern selfhood in Russia is plausible and makes intuitive sense, but it does seem a bit conjectural. The popovichi made autonomous career choices, but might not their clerical ancestors have done the same had the social order permitted it? Some popovichi wrote memoirs and kept diaries in which they constructed a sense of their own selves – but most did not do these things, and might their ancestors not have done so if their culture had encouraged this particular form of self-expression? A systematic exploration of the older sense of self might have shed light on these questions, but the book does not attempt it, and perhaps the available sources may not allow it.

I argued earlier that Manchester’s book could be read as a study of the origin of the national stereotypes that underlie Fitzgerald’s novel. On one crucial point, however, the two diverge. Fitzgerald’s characters are driven by a spiritual quest, but they are eccentric, naïve, passive people, and in Moscow in March 1913, they drift helplessly into the maelstrom of the 20th century. By contrast, the popovichi had a sense of destiny that made them vigorous participants in modern Russian history – the sorts of people who helped build the new Soviet order after 1917, and whose descendants helped bring it down in Fitzgerald’s own time.

Telling ghost stories (Judith Harris)


Pompeii by Robert Harris
Arrow: London, 2003; ISBN: 978-0099282617; 416pp. £7.99

Pompeii, the Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
London: Profile, 2009; ISBN: 9781861975966; 416pp. £9.99.

Pompeii is the quintessential ghost story, frequently told by archaeological and literary scribes working together in symbiosis, not always for the good. In this multitude of ghost raconteurs novelist Robert Harris stands tall. With scientific aid and comfort from two of the world’s foremost British Pompeianists, archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and classicist Mary Beard, both of Cambridge, Harris wrote the novel Pompeii, published by Random House in 2003. Its enormous popular success brings further rewards, for director Paul W. S. Anderson is making Harris’s own screenplay of the novel into a $130 million TV series for release in 2012. For all intents and purposes, therefore, Robert Harris’s Pompeii is Pompeii for the public worldwide, and what he has seen in Pompeii, or thought he has seen, is what the world will see.

Harris wisely bypassed the complexity of the site, with its seven centuries or so of existence, its confusing mixture of cultural sources and languages (Oscan, Greek, Etruscan, Samnite, Roman and Hellenised Roman), and above all the totality of a city entirely sealed as if in amber. Instead, in his novel Harris chose to narrow his exploration of Pompeian antiquity to showing the Roman engineering marvel of construction and maintenance of aqueducts, against the raw dramatic background of the eruption, not coincidentally a fine occasion for an exciting literary and television romp. In a welcome technical aside, the hydraulic engineer who is the hero of the story speaks of placing his faith, not in gods who hurl thunderbolts, ‘but in the daily miracle that came from mixing two parts of slaked lime to five parts of puteolanum – the local red sand – conjuring up a substance that would set underwater with a consistency harder than rock’. Following this recipe for the cement that kickstarted Roman construction on the grand scale, Harris throws in an elegant quote from Virgil. In narrowing his field of observation to little more than this, what he therefore offers is a primer to Pompeian, which is to say Roman, life, and an inspiring point of departure for those interested in seeing the site and in reading further.

When he strays farther afield he occasionally makes irritating, if innocuous, errors, such as mention of a boat that ferried passengers ‘daily’ from Roman Ostia to Pompeii, a journey of 240 km. Overland it required three days at least, to cite no less an authority than Mary Beard; sailors would never count on making that journey, which depended upon wind and wave, in just one day. For any author, to recreate chit-chat in an ancient language is difficult, and many of Harris’s folksy phrases grate, like the reiterated ‘fuck’ this and ‘fuck’ that, and the constant sexual innuendo intended as rough-guy camaraderie (‘maybe he’ll stop playing with himself’). One ponders over his sources. His plucky young female heroine, who dashes up Mount Vesuvius at night on horseback to provide the hero with compromising evidence against corrupt evil-doers, might just have stepped off the wuthering moors. His characters dine off Trimalchio while sloshing down the wine like the British football fans I’ve seen on Via del Corso in Rome. Others are as fey as the toffs out of P. G. Wodehouse:

The slave had shuffled up beside him, carrying a tray, in the center of which stood a large goblet of clear glass, three-quarters full. Pliny grunted and lifted the wine to the candlelight.

‘A Caecuban,’ whispered Pomponianus in awe. ‘Forty years old and still drinking beautifully.’ He ran his tongue round his fat lips. ‘I wouldn’t mind another glass myself, Pliny’.(1)

Another Harris novel has already been made into a successful movie. This was, significantly, The Ghost. Its non-fictional background was the election night in London in May of 1997, when Robert Harris, at the time crack political commentator of The Sunday Times, was the lone journalist at the side of the triumphant Tony Blair at Labour party headquarters as results poured in. Within a decade of that victory, Harris, the former insider reporter who was by then a best-selling author, had become disenchanted, particularly after the Prime Minister supported the US invasion of Iraq. In The Ghost, written at lightning speed in less than six months, Harris unleashed bolts of wrath, Jove-like, against a thinly disguised Blair. The narrator of the novel is a ghost writer who has been summoned to mist-wrapped Cape Cod (get it?) to write what is meant to be a best-selling autobiography of a British Prime Minister, who otherwise risks becoming a ghost because newly out of power. Admitted into the retired PM’s inner circle, the narrator first discovers that his predecessor as ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances, thus becoming a ghost. Then he realizes that his subject is a cad, and finally takes on board that he himself is at risk of becoming the ghost of a ghost writer.

In 2007 Colin Greenland, a reviewer for the Guardian, compared the narrative conceit of a ghost writer telling the story to having the scribe Tiro relate the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero in a novel called Imperium, written by, guess who, Robert Harris. To summarise, then, armed with notebook and ballpoint pen, the real Harris, a reporter, had been the unobserved observer at the real Blair’s side. Armed with a typewriter, a ghost writer had been the unobserved observer at the side of the Blair clone. And armed with wax tablet and stylus, the invented scribe Tiro became Harris’s unobserved observer of an imagined Cicero.

In this game of ghostly semi-fictitious presences, what is there of truth? Reviewer Greenland, for one, put down The Ghost as ‘an imaginative impertinence, an accusation [against Blair] that no one could make or take literally’. And yet, bristling with vitality and intelligence, The Ghost seems to capture what may not necessarily be literal truth about the Blair world, yet nevertheless appears to be a kind of insightful truth.

The problem is that to tell the ‘truth’ about Pompeii, and to offer genuine insights into Pompeian life, presents a far greater challenge. In that impertinence, many have tried and failed, and the early archaeologists who attempted to recreate the lives of the people who once lived, loved, feasted, conducted business in and died in Pompeii made errors that today bring a smile. Only the most notorious was the conclusion that the framed bright red phallus painted on a wall with the words HIC HABITAT FELICITAS indicated that the building under excavation was a brothel. Digging further, archaeologists found grinding mills which proved that the building, later called the House of Pansa, was a bakery, and that the phallus was a good-luck charm. In my 1852 edition of William Gell’s Pompeiana a sketch of that phallus is coyly unrecognizable, but, as a footnote points out in Latin, ‘membra genitalia … incrementis frugum et pecudum’.

Archaeologists, of course, are not the sole responsible for errors. Archaeologist John R. Clarke, the author of Looking at Lovemaking and Looking at Laughter, has painstakingly documented how building contractors in the 1970’s arbitrarily tacked fresco fragments onto ceilings and walls at Oplontis, the town near Pompeii where the so-called Villa of Poppaea was being over-enthusiastically restored to serve as a tourist attraction.

Gell himself, who represented London’s Society of Dilettanti and kept a house in Naples, showed Pompeii to the politician-cum-novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The result was Lord Lytton’s fictitious The Last Days of Pompeii, published in 1834 and widely translated. Since that time no vision of Pompeii has been more influential in films and fiction. Even Harris has a blind youth – the equivalent of Lytton’s blind flower seller Nydia –accompany the young waterworks engineer through the streets of Pompeii.

The quintessential meeting that brought together archaeologist-architect Gell and novelist Lytton illustrates how the painting of notions upon the ghostly canvas of Pompeii occurs through the cross-fertilization of fantasy and science. What they do not show is where the one begins and the other ends. In her fascinating Resurrecting Pompeii, Australian forensic archaeologist Estelle Lazer, who spent seven field seasons working on the human skeletal remains of Pompeii, demonstrates ‘that the skeletal positions which Bulwer-Lytton employed as descriptive evidence for the lives of his characters was so evocative that his romantic imaginings have been invoked as scientific evidence in forensic analyses which survived into our own day’ (her words).

This does not occur solely in archaeology, of course. In this same way, new studies show that police fingerprint analysts tend to read into their microscopes identifications which had been previously suggested to them. At Pompeii, a number of full skeletal bodies were given flesh and moral qualities like heroism, while other, non-evocative skeletal remains were simply tossed aside. For many decades bones were heaped into spider- and animal-infested mounds, and abandoned, which meant their loss of provenance. The emotional impact to viewers when they saw the body casts overshadowed science.

‘The seduction of scholarship by popular culture was one of the key factors that contributed to the neglect of skeletal material as an archaeological resource’, Lazer concludes.(2) In short, fiction had determined and undermined fact, with the result that ‘Pompeian skeletal remains were not initially seen to have any research potential. They served merely as props for the creation of visual or verbal vignettes for visiting dignitaries or literary works, like those of Gautier and Bulwer-Lytton’.

If Lazer’s is a work of pure scientific archaeology and as such of interest primarily to specialists, Mary Beard’s Pompeii, the Life of a Roman Town (published in the US as The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii Lost and Found) successfully merges the serious touchstones of classicism and archaeology with the no less important imaginative work of reconstructing life and lives in the deep past. Beard, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, can be challenged on a point or two. She occasionally debunks for the sake of debunking; for instance, experts today challenge her assertion that the eruption took place in November or December, rather than in August. She avowed this theory on grounds that warm clothing and dried fruits, not harvested yet in August, were found, but persuasive arguments countering both these notions exist.

But to her credit this Cambridge don takes the trouble to spell out all the versions debated by archaeologists. In discussing the same aqueduct system described ‘more or less accurately’ in Harris’s book (her words), she writes that,

Something must have gone wrong with this system of supply on the eve of the eruption. For it is clear from the empty trenches filled with volcanic debris that, at the time of its destruction, the pavements in various places in the city had been dug up and the water pipes removed. Most likely this was an instant attempt to investigate and repair the damage done to the water system by earthquakes that occurred in the run-up to the final eruption.(3)

But then she typically goes on to explain more, including doubts about what is visible to archaeologists. It is this care that sets her book above others on the market today, and makes it of particular interest:

Archaeologists have speculated that similar problems might explain why, down one back alley (running beside the House of the Chaste Lovers and the House of the Painters at Work), the cess pits filled by the domestic latrines had been dug up and their contents left piled up unsalubriously in the pathway when the disaster struck. Though why seismic movements should affect the operation of cesspits is less clear. Perhaps this is more of an indication of the regular state of a Pompeian backstreet.(4)

In writing of the economy, she explains why trade, despite its being the very essence of Pompeii, was ‘a very thin icing on the [Roman] economic cake, small-scale and not particularly respectable,’ and then takes care to explain precisely why one has difficulty in being precise about how it functioned, for:

Rome developed none of the financial institutions needed to support a sophisticated economy. There was limited ‘banking’, as we shall see, in Pompeii. It is not even clear if there were such things as credit notes, or if you wheeled around a load of coins in a wheelbarrow to make large purchases, such as houses.(5)

She observes the same caution in describing a painting of the mythical Pero breast-feeding her starving father Micon found in the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, along with verses celebrating modesty (pudor) and piety (pietas). Some archaeologists, she writes, have thought this an apt decoration for a child’s bedroom (‘a strange choice, if you ask me’), and suggests that the image may contain a more specific ‘political resonance’.(6)

In this pleasantly readable, extraordinarily comprehensive and wide-ranging book, Beard, perhaps because she is a classicist treading on the turf of other scholars (the archaeologists), succeeds in writing in a manner that is invariably interesting for both scholars and for those who are, like me, the voyeurs of archaeology.

1          Robert Harris, Pompeii (London, 2003), p. 1.

2          Estelle Lazer, Resurrecting Pompeii (London, 2009), p. 100.

3          Beard, Ibid, p. 64.

4          Beard, Ibid., p. 64.

5          Beard, Op. cit., p. 154.

6          Beard, Op. cit., p. 146.

Day 3: Best bits

Another busy day at the conference, with in-depth discussion of the differences and similarities between historical fiction and academic history, featuring lively contributions from Maria Margaronis, Ian Mortimer (and his alter ego James Forrester), Rebecca Stott and Beverley Southgate.

We also had two more comparative book reviews. Matthew Grant tackled The Flyer by Martin Francis and Day by A. L. Kennedy, and found both books gave him not only a deeper awareness of the war, but also a renewed excitement about the possibilities of both genres of writing to convey the emotional and subjective experiences of the past.

Meanwhile Tracey Loughran, one of our speakers from yesterday, reviewed two classics: Pat Barker’s Regeneration and Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War.

There was also a very interesting piece on why it’s good for historians to write fiction – also by Ian Mortimer. Several of our attendees seemed to agree with Ian Mortimer’s take on this issue – but what do the rest of you think?

Finally, don’t forget to take part in our competition – just tell us about your favourite piece of historical fiction and what impact it has made on you.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Jackie Eales, Cora Kaplan, Paul Lay, and Stella Tillyard.  We’ll also have the usual mix of book reviews, articles, opinions, and announcements. See you anon…

Shell-shocked: trauma, the emotions and WW1 (Tracey Loughran)


Pat Barker, Regeneration. London, Penguin Books, 1992 [first published 1991]. ISBN 9780140123081; 252pp.; Price £6.99.

Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War. London, Reaktion Books, 1999 [first published 1996]. ISBN 9781861890351; 336pp.; Price £14.95.

I was 16 or 17 when I first read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and 26 when I completed my PhD on shell-shock in First World War Britain. It would be doing more than one of my university lecturers, as well as Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, a disservice to say that I ended up working on shell-shock just because I liked Regeneration – but my career would almost certainly have developed along different lines had I not read the book. There may not be many historians who would attribute this degree of influence to Regeneration, but it is nevertheless treated with great seriousness in histories of war trauma. All major histories of shell shock published since the mid 1990s have made reference (favourable, critical, or simply thoughtful) to Barker’s novel.(1) I’ll return to the possible reasons for historians’ obsession with Regeneration at the end of the review, but for now it should just be noted that it is really quite remarkable. Imagine, for example, that for the past 20 years every historian of the reign of Charles II had felt duty-bound to comment on Rose Tremain’s Restoration (1989), as fine an example of historical fiction as Regeneration: it seems unlikely. Even if we limit the field to recent historical fiction concerned with the First World War, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (1993), published contemporaneously with the Regeneration trilogy, has not caught on among historians to anything like the same extent, despite achieving significant critical and popular success. The singular status of Regeneration provides one way into understanding the relationship between history, historical fiction, and historians.

But not right away. This is because, much as I hate to admit it, historians aren’t actually all that important to understanding the success of Barker’s novel. When I was 16 I was not a historian, no matter what my history teacher tried to tell her charges, and Regeneration got under my skin not because I was given to musing on the boundaries between history and fiction, but because it was a good read. In fact, it wasn’t the ‘real’ history in the novel, which centres on the protest against the war made by poet Siegfried Sassoon and his subsequent ‘treatment’ at Craiglockhart War Hospital, by the eminent neurologist-cum-anthropologist-cum-psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, which appealed to me at all. I loved Regeneration because I loved Billy Prior, a fictional character. Prior is a working-class officer from the north of England, intelligent, ambitious, and above all, awkward. He is not immediately charming, or even that likeable at the first encounter, although he soon wins the reader round. Prior is not cut from the same cloth as aristocratic Sassoon or middle-class Wilfred Owen. His England is not the England of rolling green hills and honey still for tea, but a place of crowded streets, grey skies, and grim poverty. This alone makes him stand out in the pantheon of First World War popular characters, real and fictional (there are accounts by and about working-class soldiers’ experiences in the war, but you’re not likely to stumble across them at GCSE level, or at least, I never did).

Prior’s working-class identity is one of the defining facets of his personality. The other is the fundamental ambiguity which inheres within him. From the first, Prior confounds our expectations. We know nothing of him except that he is a second-lieutenant, and that his main symptom is mutism. He is described as ‘a thin, fair-haired young man of twenty-two with high cheekbones, a short, blunt nose and a supercilious expression’ (p. 41). This combination of attributes and attitudes conveys, somehow, an impression of toffishness. As he cannot speak, Prior’s side of this initial ‘conversation’ with psychologist Rivers is conducted in writing, but it still takes on the aspect of a confrontation. He tells Rivers that there is nothing physically wrong with him; he challenges Rivers’ judgment that the test for analgesia of the throat does not hurt; when Rivers suggests that Prior writes in block capitals because it is less revealing, Prior passes the pad to him and judges Rivers’ own handwriting; he repeatedly insists that he cannot remember any of the events which led to his breakdown; and finally, he turns his back to Rivers and refuses to respond to his questions any longer, writing simply ‘NO MORE WORDS’. None of this is typical patient behaviour. In this initial encounter, Prior is infuriating, passive-aggressive, and vulnerable. We know nothing about him beyond that he is a man of contradictions.

The next time Rivers meets with him, Prior’s voice has returned. We revise our first impression of Prior at the same time as Rivers, and through his eyes and ears:

A Northern accent, not ungrammatical, but with the vowel sounds distinctly flattened, and the faintest trace of sibilance. Hearing Prior’s voice for the first time had the curious effect of making him look different. Thinner, more defensive. And, at the same time, a lot tougher. A little, spitting, sharp-boned alley cat (p. 49).

Prior’s background is working-class, but his ‘genteel’ mother has instilled in him a fierce ambition. Before the war, he was a clerk in a shipping office, a white collar post which he found unrewarding, but which nevertheless would have constituted a step up in the world; during the war, he rose up through the ranks to officer status. Yet he does not belong to the world he now inhabits; he is alive to the snobbery he encounters, and often scathing about the officer class. He is, according to his father, ‘neither fish nor fowl’ (p. 57). At the deepest level, though, Prior remains working-class. Rivers tells us that officers rarely suffer from hysterical symptoms such as mutism, whereas these are common among privates. The form of Prior’s breakdown – the symptom through which his psyche chose to manifest his pain – fixes his class identity more firmly than his accent, the colour of his shirts, his nostalgia at the smell of steak frying, or any of the other myriad tiny markers of social class which litter the pages of Regeneration. Class, Barker seems to be saying, exists beneath the skin.

Barker’s portrayal of the distribution of symptoms along lines of social class is an accurate reading of Rivers, and of the histories of shell-shock which draw heavily on his work. By making Prior mute, she accepts Rivers’ testimony that officers and ranking men suffer from different forms of shell-shock, but she does not accept his account of the reasons for this difference. Rivers argued that war neurosis stemmed from a conflict between self-preservation and duty, and that different symptoms represented different means of attempting to solve or repress this conflict. The hysterical symptom resolved this conflict by incapacitating the sufferer and thereby removing him from military service. This was, Rivers stated, a ‘crude solution of the conflict between instinct and duty’, which was unlikely to satisfy officers owing to their ‘more complex and varied’ mental life and the moral standards inculcated by public schools, particularly the repression of fear.(2) Historians have tended to let Rivers off the hook for these statements of class prejudice remarkably easily, but not so Prior:

‘Are you serious? You honestly believe that that gaggle of noodle-brained half-wits down there has a complex mental life? Oh, Rivers’.

Barker’s presentation of Rivers throughout the trilogy tends towards the hagiographical, but through Prior, she also challenges his assumptions in a way which few historians have either dared or considered. I still silently cheer whenever I read this passage.

For Prior, class infuses everything: it shapes his sense of who he is and who he isn’t, it determines who he will love, and it is revealed through his accent and through his inability to speak when he breaks down. If hysteria is the visible symbol of pain, emotion written on the body, it is also, in Prior’s case, a revelation of his primal class identity. Barker understands that class is inescapable and inseparable from other aspects of life, including bodily experience. This is a knowledge she shares with Joanna Bourke, whose Dismembering the Male: men’s bodies, Britain and the Great War was published in 1996, a year after the final part of the Regeneration trilogy. Bourke’s ambitious aim in this book is to explore ‘the impact of the First World War on the male body’, defining the body as ‘the subject of both imagination and experience’. It is a cultural history, which takes as its starting point the view that ‘bodies lived, were imagined and died’ within a socially constructed ‘frame’ composed of ‘signs and declarations of age, generation, class and ethnicity’ (p. 11). Yet throughout the book, class looms much larger than these other aspects of identity, almost deserving equal billing with the body in the book’s title: the social is a vital, ever-present, acknowledged part of the cultural here. Among other things, Dismembering the Male therefore offers a tantalising glimpse of one of the ways in which cultural history should have developed, and might still.

Unlike Regeneration, I have no strong sense of personal involvement with Dismembering the Male. At an early stage in my acquaintance with the book, I realised that ostentatiously reading it on a train is a good way to ensure that no-one sits next to you, but that’s about it as far as anecdotes go. Somewhat shamefully, I had never read it cover-to-cover until I was asked to write this review, despite first dipping into it as an undergraduate and probably getting through more than half of it in disjointed segments over the intervening decade-and-a-bit. This was a mistake on my part, as the book is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It makes an important contribution to well-established historiographical debates on the effects of the First World War on British society, but it would also make an interesting and refreshing read for someone unfamiliar with these debates. Reading it as a whole, I realised the extent to which Dismembering the Male has influenced subsequent writing on masculinity and British experiences of the First World War. Bourke emphasises the importance of civilian experiences in shaping responses to the war, the extent to which men retained their civilian identities despite the temporary adoption of the warrior role, and their continuing attachment to home throughout the war. She recognises that the war operated on different groups of men in different ways, and acknowledges its devastating effects for many, but nevertheless sews it into the fabric of modern British history rather than treating it as a thing apart. In recent years, these themes have been picked up and explored further by historians as different from Bourke and from each other as Peter Barham, Ilana Bet-El, Jessica Meyer, and Michael Roper.(3) This is some achievement.

Dismembering the Male is, then, an inspirational book in many ways. It is also sometimes a frustrating book, mainly as a result of its wide remit: men have men’s bodies and like gender, the body is everywhere. It is not always evident what makes this book a history of men’s bodies rather than simply of men and what they felt, thought, and did. The book is divided into five chapters: ‘Mutilating’, which examines disability and war; ‘Malingering’, which explores feigned illness in the civil and military spheres; ‘Bonding’, which deals with comradeship and with the effects of war on heterosexual relationships; ‘Inspecting’, which investigates military, governmental, and voluntary physical fitness campaigns; and ‘Re-Membering’, which focuses on the corpse and the evocation of the dead in ceremonies and rites. All of these chapters deal with men’s bodies, but it is not always apparent that certain experiences are best studied via the body. ‘Bonding’, for example, can be achieved through bodily activities, but it is conventionally defined as an emotional or psychological attachment: physicality is an accidental rather than an essential element of bonding, or at best it is an integral part only insofar as all actions of embodied creatures have a corporeal component. The body was more obviously at stake in discussions of malingering, but even here it was really the shirker’s will, character, or personality which was perceived to be at fault, and which had to be acted upon.

The book is undeniably ‘baggy’, but this is an unavoidable consequence of its ambition. It is difficult to imagine how a book on the effects of the First World War on men’s bodies would not end up straining at the seams of its defined subject matter. Ultimately, the focus on material experience is a strength rather than a weakness, as it means that Bourke never strays far from the lived realities of male existence. Cultural history which operates purely on the level of representation and construction often feels curiously divorced from what real people thought and felt, with little sense of the relation of the text to the texture of life, but this is never a danger here. The book is based on the correspondence, diaries and memoirs of ‘ordinary’ servicemen, rather than the literary productions of more famous combatant authors: it does for the history of the First World War what Barker did for its fiction when she invented Prior. These men do not flit bloodlessly between discursive subjectivities, or slot themselves into the masculine ideals or warrior stereotypes beloved of cultural historians. They live and die in earthy idioms which make us laugh, cry, wince or gasp with them. Take, for example, Cockney soldier John William Rowarth’s tales of his wartime sexual education:

the platoon started to talk of their love conquests, and one of my mates Said to me, Casey have you ever dipped your wick, what do you mean, I aint got no wick to dip, when the laughter had subsided, they put it more blunty had I ever made love to a girl, when I said no, oh you must be a bloody virgin, and when we get to France we will soon remedy that, and one of the blokes said if the French tarts are as tall as our Irish girls, Casey will have to lug a brick to stand on …

When Rowarth did meet a girl before going abroad, she was shocked to discover that he was a virgin. He did little to remedy the situation when he asked ‘a Virgin, wats a virgin, the only Virgin I know of is the Blessed Virgin Mary, since I have been in the Army, I have heard so many new words which frankly I don’t understand. the Girl then said, lets change the subject’ (pp. 159–60). This is rich stuff, which can tell us much about homosocial and heterosexual relations in the early 20th century: but most of all, hapless Rowarth stands in stark contrast to the visions of impregnable masculine domination elaborated by the proto-fascist Freikorps members analysed in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, which for a very long time was the only serious study of masculinity and the First World War. Dismembering the Male is full of stories such as Rowarth’s, which convey the irreducible individuality of war experience but also, stitched together, form a colourful patchwork social history of men at war.

Bourke writes history and Barker writes fiction, but both tell stories which were, when first published, at odds with how most of us imagined the First World War. They are both also stories which are very much products of their time. Dismembering the Male still repays reading today – very few historians dealing with similar aspects of the war have matched its scope or achievement since – but it is also rooted in the historiographical trends of the mid 1990s. Bourke partly inspired further historical research on masculinity, the body, and war, but her book is also a product of existing interest in these areas, and the alacrity with which her lead was followed suggests a field ripe for harvesting. There’s nothing odd about this: the discipline of history works through the continual revision of old arguments and realization of new perspectives, and sooner or later gender and the body will seem old hat. Yet although cultural history has its critics, no serious historian would now condemn Bourke for writing a history that is informed by the disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) concerns of its time. Barker, on the other hand, has been seen as fair game, with historians happy to censure her for projecting the concerns of 1990s liberals and lefties onto her wartime protagonists.(4) There is a case to be made that, at least in Regeneration, this isn’t quite what she’s doing: after all, she is writing about a soldier who protested against the war and a doctor who was transformed from an instinctive Conservative into a potential Labour candidate by the experience of war. This isn’t projection so much as selecting a story which chimed with more widespread concerns at the time of writing the book.

These criticisms suggest a lack of sympathy for the aims of historical fiction, which are not the aims of history. Barker uses historical fiction in a now well-established way, drawing on the exoticism of the past and attempting to balance it with an appeal to the apparently universal aspects of the human psyche, and alternately using this foreignness as a vehicle for greater understanding of the present. Regeneration is a literary work about literary figures (Sassoon, Owen, Graves) from a war which has always been approached by general readers through its poetry and fiction as much, if not more than, through its histories. It appeals to those who enjoy reading the poems, novels, and memoirs of the First World War, as well as to historians interested in the shaping and re-shaping of the memory of the war in literature and popular culture. It helps, of course, that the tale of Sassoon’s protest is a cracking story even without the intervention of the novelist; it was a staple of histories of shell-shock before Regeneration was published. For all its literariness, though, Regeneration is also a novel which asks questions which are both ethical and historical. As Barker dissects and probes the ethical issues raised by Sassoon’s protest, the reader is forced to engage with a number of very big questions around the ‘justified’ costs of war, the rights of the soldier to protest, and the purpose of military psychiatry, These were all issues which were definitely on the liberal-left agenda in the late 1980s and 1990s, but strangely enough also caused soul-searching among those involved in waging a world war. Long before Barker came along, Freud described military doctors as ‘like machine guns’ driving fugitives back to the front.(5) OK, Regeneration isn’t A. J. P. Taylor, but it’s not Georgette Heyer either.

Most historians’ comments on Regeneration are less critical than engaged, but they are fascinated by the novel for the same reason: it is the unusual proportion of fact to fiction in Regeneration which really gets under my professional colleagues’ skins. Siegfried Sassoon really did protest against the war in 1917, and after some string-pulling by his friend Robert Graves, he really was sent to Craiglockhart for treatment by W. H. R. Rivers. It needs none of what Hilary Mantel calls ‘the novelist’s arithmetic’ to manoeuvre a strange meeting with Owen: it happened, and we have Sassoon’s handwriting all over the drafts of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ to prove it. Most of the less familiar characters in Regeneration are also real: the doctors Bryce, Brock, Head and Yealland all treated shell-shock and published details of their work in wartime medical journals, while the histories of patients such as Burns and Anderson correspond to case studies in Rivers’ published writings. Of the major characters in the novel, only Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb are entirely fictional creations. The novel liberally quotes from historical ‘documents’, including the Times and the poetry of Owen and Sassoon. Barker not only portrays real people and events, she constructs a narrative which takes its place among several other factual, fictional, and semi-fictional versions of the same events by the protagonists, of varying length, depth and reliability: Sassoon’s fictionalized memoir Sherston’s Progress (1936); his ‘straight’ autobiography Siegfried’s Journey (1946); Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That (1929); Rivers’ Conflict and Dream (1923); and Owen’s letters. The author’s note at the end of the novel also points readers to two histories which Barker drew on, Eric Leed’s No Man’s Land: combat and identity in World War I (1979) and Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: women, madness and English culture, 1830–1980 (1985).

Barker is not the only novelist to draw heavily on real events and historical texts, or to direct readers towards the histories she has used, but she is clearly wandering into the historian’s territory here. After all, what do historians do but construct an account of events based on historical documents and on the work of previous historians? Although all but the most extreme postmodernist would agree that there is a clear difference between fiction and history, the lines are not as clearly drawn as it might first appear. Barker does not only tell a story, she implicitly provides an analysis of events and judgments on issues such as the legitimacy of war; she continually nudges the reader towards meaning. Historians might do this in different ways (most of us accept that we’re not allowed to make things up, whereas this is part of the novelist’s job description), but they never simply write ‘what happened’; they seek to explain it, and although these explanations are mostly explicit, they too unconsciously nudge readers towards meaning in ways which are less overt, including imposing certain boundaries on their subject matter, such as the period covered, the type of sources used, the selection of material, and the interpretations presented to the audience. When Bourke chooses to use the use the unpublished diaries, letters, and memoirs of ordinary soldiers, she privileges a particular perspective on the war above others, and her choices are doubtless informed by a political standpoint which filters into her sense of what history should be and who it serves. This is not so different from Barker’s invention of Prior to tell a story she believes needs to be told, although one is a project of invention and the other a project of recovery.

Again, though, the two types of project are not as rigidly separated as might first appear. Imaginative reconstruction is a tool of the historian as well as the novelist: no document explains every dimension of a particular event, and no document can be taken at face value. Historians circumvent these problems by consulting as wide a range of sources as possible, comparing these sources to determine the probable reliability or particular perspective of each, and acknowledging the constraints and potentialities of these different sources in their published works. By incorporating elements of the accounts of all protagonists, Barker again does something that historians do, albeit on a lesser scale. It is this blending of fact and fiction, with no way for the uninitiated to separate truth from imagination, which provokes reaction from historians; but it is also what appeals to readers. Having spent years researching shell shock, I can argue with confidence that some aspects of Barker’s interpretation are not supported by the primary evidence: but I also know that my meticulously researched scholarly articles on the construction of diagnostic categories in wartime medical literature, worthy as they are in the context in which they were intended to be read, are not likely to inspire any 16-year-olds to spend years delving into trauma in the First World War.

This is not to say that history does not kindle the imagination, or achieve great things. It is evident from reading Barker that academic histories have influenced her interpretative framework; I wonder how many history undergraduates taking modules on the First World War have encountered Eric Leed or Elaine Showalter on their reading lists years after reading Regeneration, and found their arguments uncannily familiar? It is rather that academic history tends to act on minds prepared in other ways, by family stories, GCSE English Literature coursework, the History Channel, and books like Regeneration. I am not suggesting a linear progression from historical fiction to ‘real’ history, as though fiction is for children and fact for adults, but that one of the purposes of historical fiction is to spark an interest in history among new audiences. These readers will approach academic histories with fresh minds, and read different historical novels with a deeper understanding of history; this is a cycle which can continue for life. Novelists like Barker feed academic history, and history in turn feeds back into historical fiction. They are not in competition with each other, but locked in a relationship which is often satisfying but which sometimes chafes. This is perhaps because, from my side of the fence, the restrictions on the historian seem tighter, and the imagination of the novelist both awe-inspiring and envy-provoking. Historical novelists operate in the no man’s land between history and fiction, where historians fear to tread. To walk with the dead unfettered by footnotes seems a terrible kind of freedom; this may be why historians persistently return to Regeneration, as though it is an itch which can’t be scratched.

1          A. Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton, NJ, 1995), p. 68; P. Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 173–5; B. Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists, 1914–1994 (London, 2002), p. xx and p. 109; P. Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (New Haven, CT, 2004), p. 388, fn 3; E. Jones and S. Wessely, Shell Shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War (Hove, East Sussex, 2005), p. 60; F. Reid, Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914–1930 (London, 2010).

2          W. H. R. Rivers, ‘War-neurosis and military training’, Mental Hygiene, 2 (October 1918), 513–33, 516–7.

3          P. Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (New Haven, CT, 2004); I. Bet-El, Conscripts: Lost Legions of the Great War (Stroud, 1999); J. Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke, 2009); M. Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009).

4          B. Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists, 1914–1994 (London, 2002), p. xx; B. Bond, The Unquiet Western Front: Britain’s Role in Literature and History (Cambridge, 2002), p. 76.

5          J. Brunner, Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis (Oxford, 1995), p. 121.

Flyers and their traumas: the RAF in the Second World War (Matthew Grant)


The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939–45 by Martin Francis
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2011 [originally published in 2010]; ISBN: 9780199602292; 266pp. £18.99

Day by A. L. Kennedy.
London: Vintage, 2008 [originally published in 2007]; ISBN: 9780099494058; 280pp. £7.99.

One would naturally expect the two books under review, one a history published by an academic press and the other a novel, to be very different treatments of their chosen theme. Yet it is the similarities between them that consistently strike the reader. They are both concerned with airmen serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but focus on the place of those airmen within British culture and society. Rather than telling stories about fighting the war, they explain the consequences of fighting on the men that did it, how those men understood their wartime experiences, and how they interacted with others. Probing individual and collective experiences, both The Flyer and Day investigate what it was like to live through a war which had codes of approved behaviour that are almost as familiar now as they were then. The codes emphasised bravery, self-sacrifice and commitment to building a better and more equal Britain and are part of a history of the war that is well established in the popular mindset. Both books show how the lives of airmen operated within these codes but also contradicted them, and as such are part of wider trends in the writing of history and historical fiction about the war. Moreover, both are books that stay with the reader, leaving this one at least hugely impressed with two books which, taken together, seem to penetrate to the heart of the issue of the impact of war on those who fought it.

At no point since 1945 could it be said that the Second World War was neglected within British culture. Yet in recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in the war, at least if we go by the number of books written on it. Tales of the blitz, evacuation and rationing dominate popular understanding of the war, and tales of El Alamein and Operation Market Garden, of bravery and derring-do from the fighting fronts, seem to have declined in importance. Whether it’s through television programmes, published diaries, or the ubiquitous designs influenced by the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster, stories of the wartime home front exert ever more allure. In particular, it is the experience of ordinary people in those extraordinary, but familiar, times that seems to captivate contemporary British culture. This trend has been marked in recent literary fiction, and the war is also an increasingly popular backdrop to crime fiction.(1) Numerous high-profile novels have been set against the background war in the last few years. Several have received, or been nominated for, major prizes, sold very well or have been subject to enormous critical response – and sometimes all three. These include Sarah Water’s The Night Watch (2006), Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl (2007), Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You (2009), and Gerald Woodward’s Nourishment (2010), as well as Day by A. L. Kennedy (2007).

This trend has also been seen in academic history. Military history has declined in popularity relative to the rise of the social and cultural histories of the war. The political history of the war has been hotly debated for many years, and has turned recently away from the seemingly endless discussions of why Labour won the 1945 General Election, to focus instead on how political ideas were understood within society and culture. It is the experience of the war by individuals and within popular culture that has really grabbed the attention of historians. Numerous histories have been published recently about the British experience of war. Martin Francis’ The Flyer has been joined by Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self by James Hinton (2010) and Churchill’s Children: the Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain by John Welshman (2010) as books seeking to provide a deeper analysis of apparently well-worn stories.

These works, whether fiction or history, all compose narratives that alter the reader’s perceptions of a wartime story that is deeply entrenched in the British mindset. Day and The Flyer therefore share a common starting point in an awareness that the popular memory of the war hides as much as it reveals, and that the standard story of the ‘people’s war’ creates opportunities to tell stories (and histories) that derive much of their power and relevance from the gaps between their narratives and the established memory of the war. The novels mentioned above all feature characters that contradict aspects of the spirit of the ‘people’s war’, whether as conscientious objectors, participants on the black market, or as people contravening other moral or sexual codes.(2) Likewise, historians have long been interested in probing the popular memory of the war, especially how it became established, why it has endured, and perhaps most of all, the extent to which it corresponded to the reality of lived experience during the war.

What has emerged is a broad historiographical consensus which stresses that much of the traditional version of the war is indeed broadly true – people did pull together in the face of the blitz, and they did want a ‘new Britain’ after the war. What historians emphasise now, however, is that these social attitudes were by no means as universally, or indeed as deeply, held as wartime commentators and propagandists liked to say. In his classic book, The Myth of the Blitz (1992), Angus Calder argued the obsession with unity, sacrifice and ‘taking it’ was vitally important in shaping subsequent behaviour, as people began living up to the ‘myth’. Sonya Rose’s Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain (2003) has extended this analysis to suggest that these famous narratives of wartime unity amounted to a ‘hegemonic discourse’ which dominated British culture, becoming the basis by which all wartime behaviour was judged. As Rose describes it, this discourse created elevated ideals of behaviour, and those deemed to have failed to live up to the image of the ‘good citizen’ were denigrated within popular culture. In this way, ‘good’ behaviour was reinforced and ‘bad’ behaviour policed. Of course, there were fine gradations of approval, and an individual’s behaviour could be ‘problematical’ in one sphere but conform to the utmost in other. For example, many women might be criticised for their sexual morality, but still played a full and active role in the war as conscripted industrial workers; middle-class people might be alienated by the talk of social-levelling, but could still define themselves through their war work and their role of dutiful – albeit reluctant – consumers in the system of ‘fair-shares’ rationing. Other work has reinforced that of Calder and Rose, and there is awareness that within wartime society and culture many modes of behaviour apparently contradicted contradict the ‘people’s war’ narrative, but such behaviour does not mean that the established narratives lost any of their cultural power.

Both The Flyer and Day continue these trends, focusing on iconic figures of the war and showing the reader that all is not as it seemed. Martin Francis’ The Flyer can be seen as a companion piece to Rose’s book, looking at an area neglected by Rose and indeed the majority of authors. His interest is centred on the airmen of the RAF, how their war was understood within British culture, and how their lives were represented. A. L. Kennedy’s award-winning Day is also about airmen, or rather one particular member of a bomber crew – Sgt. Alfie Day, a rear-gunner on a Lancaster bomber. Although the two books are concerned with active servicemen, their treatment of their subject matter places them firmly in the mainstream of academic historiography and recent fiction which focuses on the home front. Francis’ book shows how these men were constructed as glamorous flyers and heroes, and the reality of how they often struggled as lovers, husbands and fathers. Day is about all manner of similar struggles experienced by a man coming to terms with his war. As much as their relationship with other examples of their genre, the books have a great deal in common with each other. They illustrate the complexities in the lives of these airmen, their fears, and the separation between the way they were expected to behave and their own experience.

Read together, these two books illuminate each other. The Flyer’s well-judged discussion of airmen’s family lives, love lives, relationships with other crew, and problematic post-war experiences is matched by explorations of these issues in Day, whilst the latter’s narrative of the troubled Alfie gains resonance from the fact that his problems can be related, in kind if not degree, to the wartime experience of thousands of other men. Day is a harrowing book. The protagonist is a man living a life which, like the world around him, appears ‘dilapidated’. The book opens in 1949, with Alfie aged just 25. He is a working-class autodidact working in a book-shop owned by a conscientious objector called Ivor. Or rather, he did work there, before he walked out to become an extra in a film set in a prisoner-of-war camp, recreating the life behind the wire he experienced after his bomber was shot down in 1943. Much of his time seems to be spent consciously not remembering the war, burying deeply the painful memories. It is while he is back in the camp, however, that the memories he has tried so hard to forget come flooding back. This process of conscious forgetting and slow remembering is central to the book. At the beginning, he tells himself ‘if you couldn’t keep control and stay wary, you might think anything, which was exactly the one freedom you’d avoid. You could dodge certain thoughts, corkscrew off and get yourself out of their way, but they’d still hunt you’. If the memories are to be avoided like incoming flak at this stage, it is only by allowing himself to remember the worst of them that he is able to overcome the trauma of the war and reconcile himself to his post-war life. Remembering his return from the POW camp after the war, he recalls ‘the trick cyclist … Wanting to steal what was left of you and pretending you shouldn’t object’.

In this way, Day’s memories make the man, and the way these memories are narrated is central to the book. Much of it is told in flashback as the memories return. They are memories of the war years and of the community of his crew. His family life is told through his memory of returning to Staffordshire in his uniform. Alfie has joined the RAF to speed his escape from his violent father, but bitterly laments his inability to protect his mother. Apparently hit by falling masonry, Day is convinced his father is responsible for her death. He returned to exact vengeance, eventually attacking his drunken father and watching as he fell into a river and drowned. Compared to what follows, remembering this ‘murder’ is relatively safe territory for Day. Close friends die, his POW camp friend Ringer after a forced march from the approaching Russians, and his fellow crew-member Puckrose of wounds after being hit by flak over Europe. But even these are not the memories he resists the most. Rather, it is the denouement of the two most important relationships of his life which he tries to forget. Firstly, the crash that led to the death of his crew and his own capture; and secondly, the moment when his lover Joyce, already waiting for a husband captured at Singapore, sent a dreaded ‘Dear John’ letter, breaking his heart.

It is these wartime relationships during the war that have turned Day’s existence upside down. Volunteering as bomber crew was a continuation of his desire to escape. The role of tail-gunner’s position also came naturally: ‘you’re the one they’re most likely to kill – that’s why it’s been what you wanted, from the very first time you heard’ (p. 11). But in his crew, and then with Joyce, he finds what he has never had – the warm embrace of a quasi-family and romantic love. The memories of Joyce and the crew, especially Captain ‘Sandy’ Gibbs and Puckrose form the emotional heart of the book. Day finds comradeship, respect, and deep-seated attachment. Their aim as a crew is to stay alive. Routine and superstition become central. Every pub is renamed ‘The Duck’s Head’, they urinate on the Lancaster bomber’s rear wheel before take-off, and they run to the plane half-way through their adopted song, as having left something unfinished means they will return. Alfie Day cherishes Joyce no less than his crew, in part because she allows him to feel he belongs, and is loved and needed. When this belonging is taken away by her rejection letter, received in the camp, Day becomes even more closed off. More than the crash or his imprisonment, even more than being tortured after his capture, it is the brutal severing of the ties with both Joyce and the crew that traumatises him. The final, cathartic, act of remembering comes when he allows himself to return to the crash and Joyce’s rejection. Helped even more by returning to England in an old Lancaster (he puts himself in his old turret seat for the journey), Alfie reaches an accommodation with life. Committing to the bookshop and living with Ivor, he finally seeks out Joyce, who although tied to a house-bound and resentful husband, makes it clear she still loves Alfie and wants him in her life.

Day is a remarkable book that details experiences far from those typically portrayed in narratives of the war. Not only Day’s experiences but his attitudes to the war set him apart from the standard ‘people’s war’ narrative. In the novel, the crew have a complex relationship with their allotted task of bombing Germany. Bitter comments about ‘murdering’ women and children are made, and the contrast between Day and the pacifist Ivor – who suffered burns while saving civilian lives during the blitz – is clear. Ivor thinks Alfie fought a dirty war, and it appears that Day agrees with him. No-one in Day is particularly proud of what they do, perhaps save the character called ‘The Bastard’ by crewmates. This epithet tells its own story. The novel displays a deep ambivalence about the role of Bomber Command in the war which is shared by many within contemporary British culture. Moral distaste for the enormous numbers of civilians killed in the attacks, and the doubtful efficacy of the raids in shortening the length of the war has led some to declare that they should be classed as war crimes. Certainly, Alfie Day’s attitude to the bombing war sits better with current sensibilities than some of the more frankly celebratory wartime accounts of the raids.

This is not to suggest that Day is anachronistic. Ambiguity towards the bomber offensive was marked during the war, especially from some church leaders, and this ambiguity has sharpened into a reluctance to discuss the bombing offensive within popular culture. The destruction of Hamburg does not quite sit with the ‘make do and mend’ version of the war. Ever since Bomber Command was denied its own campaign medal, the perception that bomber crews were snubbed has continued. A campaign for a dedicated memorial to Bomber Command to be erected in London has attempted to reverse the ‘neglect’ of the airmen and to highlight their sacrifices. The politics of memorialisation are complex, but as Day shows, we can lament the enormous casualties suffered by Bomber Command (of the 125,000 men who flew operational missions, more than 55,000 lost their lives; around 10,000 more were captured by the enemy) without ‘celebrating’ the campaign itself.

Martin Francis’ The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939–45, is less concerned with the issue of the bombing campaign, save for stressing that the flyers did not like to think about the consequences of their actions. Francis is more concerned with discussing the ‘airman’ as a type and as such does not particularly distinguish between the lauded pilots of Fighter Command and the far more numerous men who made up the bomber crews. That said, the same issues confronted by Alfie Day in Kennedy’s novel are discussed, sometimes supported by memorable evidence. For example, on the superstitions of airmen, Francis tells of a flyer who noted that his crew went down while he was away even though ‘Barker went also. But apparently even that didn’t save them’ (p. 125). Barker was a teddy bear taken by the crew for good luck.

The Flyer begins with a survey of the role of the airman in British culture. Francis examines how the heroism of the airman was combined with a reputation for risk-taking and hard living. Airmen were also, according to the propaganda, more democratic and less ‘stuffy’ than other services, more concerned with ability and bravery than background. These factors combined to make the young flyers a potent symbol in wartime: simultaneously brave, dashing and egalitarian they fitted in perfectly with the cultural currents of the war. With their well-cut and ‘stylish’ uniforms, airmen seemed to have enormous sexual appeal. The vast majority, stationed in Britain, were well-placed to take advantage of this, especially those – mainly fighter pilots – who were within easy reach of London night life. Many flyers perished in road accidents as they raced about the country, and apparently they were keen on filling their cars with the high-octane fuel intended for their aeroplanes. The flyer’s allure far surpassed his fellows in the Royal Navy or Army, and the fact that relatively few airmen were stationed outside Britain until the last year of the war meant that these military men, though living on base, were able to play a far greater role in the domestic life of the nation than other combatants.

After this opening survey, the rest of The Flyer details the ways in which the reality of the airmen’s lives did not match up to the version circulating in popular culture. It is not a book that spends a great deal of time reflecting on its methodological or theoretical approach, but it sits squarely with other recent cultural histories of wartime in its catholic approach to source material. Melding contemporary discussions, airmen’s memoirs, and imaginative literature from the war and just after, Francis provides a range of evidence that gives a wonderful richness to the book. Through it, he reconstructs the complex world flyers inhabited, and ensures they are understood not only as servicemen but as lovers and family men (although, curiously, not really as sons). We see a Royal Air Force riddled with class differences, and airmen struggling to overcome their fears. Most importantly, however, we see how their supposedly masculine world was always leavened with the presence of women: either serving on base, as wives living nearby, or as girlfriends. Some men used domesticity as an escape from the pressures of war, whilst for others the pressures of war ruined their home life. In the end, rather than glamour and bravery, the image emerges of a world filled with sex, snobbery and fear, and often fuelled by Benzedrine. These are stories that do not fit the standard narrative of the wartime RAF, and which are only partially paralleled in Day, but which illustrate the lived experience of these airmen and those who knew them.

The Flyer brilliantly recreates the world of these airmen, the way the nation viewed them, and how they viewed themselves. The final chapters, on fear, ‘damaged’ airmen and their return to civilian life are particularly interesting and show how airmen coped emotionally with their experiences and how the majority of airmen adapted to postwar life. Some were damaged emotionally by the war, men like the fictional Alfie Day, while others came to prominence through criminal activities, like the very real double-murderer Neville Heath. Most men, though, managed to readjust to ordinary civilian life despite the difficulties faced in coming to terms with aspects of the war experience: the violence, grief and the separation from home life. Some sought out adventure elsewhere, and there was an increase in belief in spiritualism, but in general they settled down in civilian jobs and were re-integrated into normal British life. Overall, it is a wonderful book that details the ambiguities of these flyers’ lives, providing new depths to our understanding of Britain’s wartime experiences. As a book which concerns those on active service, it is a fascinating contribution to the study of military masculinity, which still never loses sight of the importance of its relevance to the wider domestic culture.

The two books are highlights of the recent trend in writing about the Second World War. Using the war as a backdrop to explore emotions and notions of belonging and masculinity, both The Flyer and Day are in the vanguard of new approaches to the war which are changing our understanding of it. The story of Alfie Day gives Kennedy’s novel an emotional power that an academic histories struggle to achieve, but The Flyer is an excellent example of a history which attempts to reconstruct the subjectivities of individuals.(3) In his use of both memoirs and fiction, Francis discusses the flyer both as an individual and a culturally-constructed type. It is an approach that reveals much about what it was like to live through the war, and serves to narrow the gap between fiction and history. Both books are texts that reflect prevailing intellectual concerns. Each no more or less than the other is a product of the shifting attitudes towards what it is important to know about war. For both historian and novelist, the war is an emotionally traumatic setting in which individuals’ lives are dominated by a complex mixture of death, fear, comradeship and sex. As such, for all the differences between novel and academic history, they both reveal stories that convey a sense of historical truth.

Both books tell us remarkable things about the war, and both illustrate the direction studies of the myth and memory of the Second World War are heading within British culture. The traditional war stories are so well-established that historians and novelists are keen to subvert the narratives we are all familiar with. For Francis, this takes the form of examining the Air Force in greater depth than before, and consciously building on the work of historians who have examined cultural constructions of the home front and their consequences before him. For Kennedy, this is expressed in a likeable character who fights a war very different from that praised in traditional depictions, with very different consequences. Both books force the reader to think about the war in different ways and both do so in ways that leave the reader feeling deeply impressed.

Novelists have always revelled in uncertainties. Historians, however, have traditionally liked things a little more clear-cut. Francis is unafraid to declare that there must be a lack of firm conclusions in a book such as his, that experiences were always varied, and generalisations are difficult if not impossible. It means that we leave The Flyer understanding that some flyers revelled in the excitement, the danger, and the killing, while others were sickened by the same things. We also understand that they could also end the war and disappear into civilian life, some adapting perfectly well, others struggling. History struggles to tell the story of men like Alfie Day, a deeply-damaged but employed and law-abiding man. In the record of returning veterans, Alfie Day’s postwar life would be seen as a successful return to civilian life. Francis’ sources do not uncover real-life stories that might be similar to the post-war experiences of either Alfie Day of the characters portrayed in immediately post-war novels, and Francis’ rejection of psychoanalytical approaches means there is little discussion of the disturbed unless they come to the attention of the authorities.(4) Of course, A. L. Kennedy does not need to concern herself with the methodology of the history of emotions. She can strike out and investigate the emotions that a man like Alfie Day might have had, creating a world which although not ‘historical’ in the strict sense does achieve a genuine sense of realism. It is remarkable that after reading both books, Day feels like an in-depth study of an individual that seems very familiar from reading The Flyer. To read both books gives the reader not only a deeper awareness of the war, but also a renewed excitement about the possibilities of both genres of writing to convey the emotional and subjective experiences of the past.

1          Sean O’Brien, ‘Dambusters – and other novel themes’, Times Literary Supplement, 16 March 2011.

2          In this the echo the novelists of the period. See Kristen A. Miller, British Literature of the Blitz: Fighting the People’s War (Basingstoke, 2009).

3          For an academic work which conveys both real emotional power and a superlative examination of the methodologies involved with researching emotional subjectivities, see Michael Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009).

4          On the problem of historicising unseen and undiagnosed psychological damage after the war, see the essays in Life After Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 1950s¸ ed. Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann (Cambridge, 2003).

Queers, erotomaniacs and Victorians (Harry Cocks)


Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Virago: London, 2002; ISBN: 9781860498831; 560 pp.; Price: £8.99.

The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee by Ian Gibson
Faber & Faber: London, 2011 ; ISBN 9780571209040; 304 pp.; Price: £8.99.

Any historian analysing a historical novel is bound to appear a little pedantic, taking a spade to the proverbial soufflé, but here goes. It would of course be foolish to start measuring Fingersmith against the ‘real’ historical sources, as it is not my job here to demand that it be ‘more authentic’, more like the actual historical accounts presented by Ian Gibson and the like, but to examine the reasons why certain stories about the past and not others have come to the fore. The main reason that the motifs of Fingersmith are so familiar and enduring, I think, is that for all the fact-mongering of the professional historian, our view of the Victorian past owes far more to its literary heritage than to any learned footnote.

This is shown by the fact that Fingersmith was part of a wave of ‘neo-Victorian’ fiction which emerged in the 1990s, and includes Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), and Waters’ other two Victorian novels Tipping the Velvet (1999) and Affinity (2002), though she has since moved on to the 1940s (The Night Watch, and The Little Stranger). These books are characterised by a kind of pastiche – they do not try and hide their source material (Dickens, Mayhew, the sensation novel, social investigation, academic literary criticism), but instead flaunt their fictiveness and wear it proudly as a badge of honour, a kind of homage to Mrs Braddon et al. This attitude – exemplified by the plausible but made-up slang that forms their titles – is an attempt to inhabit rather than transcend one’s sources, to do Victorian fiction as faithfully as possible but to include the bits that couldn’t be said or depicted at the time, thereby adding a modern sensibility. Done badly, as in the recent BBC adaptation of Faber’s novel, the result can seem like a set of gothic clichés laid end to end: desperate middle class wife suffocated by domesticity – check; evil bourgeois paterfamilias keeping secret prostitute/pursuing double life – check; mad woman in attic, or about to be confined there – check; mad doctors about to perform horrific procedures on said mad woman – check; sexually repressed evangelical moral hypocrite – check; doppelgangers; dark, bleak house in the country; impersonation; purloined letters; fogs; check, check, check. The point is not to deny that these things happened or existed in the 19th century, but rather to inquire into why these particular tropes and stories, and not others, have proved so incredibly durable. Why do we need the Victorians to be the dreadful hypocrites that these novels imagine? Why do we demand that these things are the everlasting sign of ‘the Victorian’?

Fingersmith starts in a thieves’ den in the Borough in London. Sue Trinder, an orphan whose mother, she supposes, had been hanged for murder, is a fingersmith – a pickpocket. She lives in the house of Mrs Sucksby, a baby-farmer and the matriarchal ruler of her little gang. Sue is employed by the genteel conman Richard Rivers (known as ‘Gentleman’) in a scheme to defraud an heiress, Maud Lilly, of her inheritance. She is to go to Maud’s suitably bleak house in the country as her ladies’ maid, to gain her trust and act as chaperone while Rivers, who teaches Maud drawing, seduces and carries her off. Having married her, Rivers says he will then incarcerate Maud in an asylum and steal her money, giving Sue her share. Maud is no ordinary heiress, though. Her uncle, Christopher Lilly, is an obsessive collector of erotica, and employs Maud as his assistant. Every day, she reads books from his library so that he can compile an exhaustive bibliography of sexual acts and perversions. The conspiracy is complicated by the fact that Sue and Maud slowly fall in love, but this does not stop Sue from fulfilling her part of the bargain with Gentleman. This section of the story is told from Sue’s perspective, and we feel that we know this story with all its gothic tropes, but the brilliance of Fingersmith is that it sets out the themes of sensation fiction mainly as a way of lulling the reader into a kind of false security. We know this story, and this protagonist, we think, just as Sue is so sure of herself and certain about what is happening.  We are so immersed in Sue’s point of view, so familiar with it, that the sudden demonstration that all is not what it seems is all the more effective.

When Sue and Gentleman arrive at the mad-house where Maud is to be entombed, it is the doppelganger Sue, and not Maud, who is taken away to be locked up. It turns out that the whole scheme has been dreamed up by Mrs Sucksby with Sue, not Maud, as the patsy. She has done this because it is Maud, and not Sue, who is her real daughter. Seventeen years previously, Mrs Sucksby had helped a lady called Marianne Lilly to give birth to an illegitimate daughter. The dying Marianne despairs at the fate awaiting her daughter – to be reclaimed by her family and confined forever in the trappings of gentility. She does a deal with Mrs Sucksby – they will swap babies. So Mrs Sucksby sends her own daughter, Maud, to live a life of enervating luxury with the Lillys in the country, while Marianne’s daughter (Sue) remains in the Borough. In order to claim the Lilly’s fortune, which will come to Sue in due course if her true identity is found out, Mrs Sucksby has to reclaim her own daughter (Maud) and inveigle her into the plot, as well as sending Sue (the real heiress) off to the madhouse. Sue is locked up, but escapes thanks to that stand-by of the sensation novel, the improbable coincidence. She returns to the Borough and confronts Mrs Sucksby, Maud and Gentleman. There is a scuffle and Gentleman is fatally stabbed, it is not clear by whom – Maud or Mrs Sucksby – but the matriarch admits her guilt in order to save the daughter she has grown to love, is arrested and hanged.  Sue finally learns the truth, but in an amazingly forgiving mood, returns to Maud (who now occupies the crumbling house in the country). They declare their love for each other, and commit themselves to a future living off the writing of the same pornography that Maud had spent her life reciting.

I don’t want to suggest that Waters is a prisoner of the historians, still less that they are, like Mrs Sucksby, hiding behind every narrative turn. However, it is interesting how academic history has contributed to this particular vision of the Victorian. The love between Sue and Maud is a case in point. Although Waters is sometimes lazily typecast as a writer of ‘lesbian romances’, her work relies on an unstated allegiance to particular historical assumptions that belong to what Alan Sinfield called the ‘queer moment’ – the idea that, in the 1990s and since, the fixity of sexual identity and its history was suddenly in question. This turn reflected the centrality of Michel Foucault to our idea of modern history, in particular his view that the confines of sexual identity – the alleged solidity of homo and hetero – was a relatively recent, 19th-century invention. Before that, the implication was, there had to have been a period ‘before identity,’ that was paradoxically less constrained than the present. Putting the rightness or otherwise of Foucault to one side, it is clear that the Victorian plays this role – the past as a place of paradoxical liberty – in Waters’ novels. Another noticeable influence is the historiography inspired by Lillian Faderman’s compendious history of lesbianism since the Renaissance, Passing the Love of Men.(1) She, and those who came after her like Sharon Marcus, argued that because Victorian women were not thought to possess an active and independent sexuality, the idea of lesbianism was in many ways inherently implausible (although this idea has been critically scrutinised by Martha Vicinus in her 2004 book Intimate Friends (2)). Following Foucault’s account, Faderman suggested that this meant that in the homosocial world of the Victorian woman, it was possible for same-sex love to develop without it ever attracting the label of pathology (or indeed any label). Maud and Sue’s love for each other follows this pattern, with the important difference that they are not chaste, as Faderman’s account suggested they might have been. They are unaware of anything as crude as a sexual identity, however, and instead their love develops naturally from everyday proximity such as sharing a bed. ‘It is only that we are put so long together, in such seclusion’, Maud says, barely deceiving herself, ‘We are obliged to be intimate’ (p. 252). This liberty entails a form of self-creation, for if there is no pattern to follow, it must be invented. This too is one of the tropes of queer history and theory, the principle of which is to subvert notions of identity. Indeed the indeterminate nature of Sue and Maud’s attachment, the fact that there is no name for it, is registered in the novel by the insistent use of the word ‘queer’ in all its guises to describe uncanny and unfamiliar states – people move ‘queerly’, ask ‘queer questions’, have queer feelings, while queer things happen.

These queer assumptions threaten to do two things: firstly, they can make us anachronistically project a late 20th–century habit of self-invention back into the past, and make those who seem to do it the object of our histories. Secondly, it can allow us to imagine characters like Sue and Maud as somehow outside history and discourse, inhabiting instead a world of almost pure self-creation. Sue’s initially self-confident narration and clever way with locks and wallets, as well as her disdain for Maud’s real servants stuck in a world of servility and hierarchy while she lives a life ‘without masters’ (p. 38) seems at first to be just such a story. However, the inversions of the novel cleverly upset these comforting possibilities and potential excesses – Sue and Maud are not in command of their own stories. They are after all subject to history – although the end of the book they seem to be escaping from it once again.

While the twin protagonists of the novel are inventions in more ways than one, Maud’s uncle is consciously if very loosely based on a real person – the bibliographer of the erotic Henry Spencer Ashbee, also known as Pisanus Fraxi, whose life is chronicled in Ian Gibson’s biography. The contrast between Maud’s uncle – a figure straight out of the gothic – and the obsessive cataloguer Ashbee tells us a great deal about what we want from Victorian stories.  Ashbee was the son of the manager of a Hounslow gunpowder factory who made a good marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant and joined the family firm. His extensive travels on business in Europe and America allowed him to pursue his bibliomaniacial vocation: collecting books, including quantities of erotica and pornography. This work resulted in the production of two massive bibliographies – the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877), a record of erotica, and the more conventional Centuria Librorum Absconditorum (1879), the former worked up from a vast collection of rare and erotic texts brought mainly on his business trips.  Gibson also speculates that Ashbee’s talent for the exhaustive makes him a likely candidate for the authorship of the anonymous 11-volume pornographic bore-athon My Secret Life (c.1888–95).

Gibson presents Ashbee as the classic example of a Victorian double life. He kept up a respectable home in Bloomsbury, while at the same time taking an office a few miles away in Gray’s Inn to store his books and work on his bibliography of the erotic. He may also have had an illegitimate daughter, a key beneficiary of his will. He socialised with other bibliophiles and book dealers, including the great experts in the literature of venery, Richard Monckton Milnes and Richard Burton, both of whom were members of the Cannibal Club, an informal society devoted to consuming and curating the pornographic. For Gibson, Ashbee’s life is prima facie evidence of the fact that he was hiding some sort of secret perversion, whether ‘erotomania’, a love of flagellation, or excessive masturbation. Gibson therefore tries hard to present Ashbee’s travels as erotic quests, noting his admiration of Spanish dancing girls or Indian ladies, as well as seeing his habit of marking crosses in his diary as a possible secret record of masturbation. In this respect, Gibson tries hard to locate Ashbee as one of Steven Marcus’ Other Victorians (3), a book which he uses as his principal guide to the territory. Marcus argued, famously, that the pornographic was symptomatic of a society that increasingly thought of sex as a distinct and separate domain of knowledge, and that the pornographic was therefore useful as a mirror image of official moral attitudes.

Maddeningly for Gibson and us, Ashbee’s diaries contain nothing about his personal motivations. Instead, he comes across as peevish, irascible and obsessive. On his travels he is swindled by dull Americans, hates Arabs, deplores the rudeness of the French (characteristically failing, while in Rouen, to say anything about Madame Bovary), and is the very picture of an anti-Catholic Tory. Back at home the bourgeois paterfamilias alienates his sensitive son, the arts and crafts pioneer and homosexual Charles, not least by severely upbraiding him for wearing a straw boater and flannels to the office. For all Gibson’s efforts to demonstrate that Ashbee was hiding some fascinating secret or revealing compulsion, he frequently comes across as uncultured and narrowly middle class, his fascination with erotica driven by little more than the mania of a collector – the need to list and obtain every example of what he wanted. This characteristic is demonstrated by Ashbee’s later work – an equally obsessive and laborious attempt to own every single illustration to Don Quixote. It is this attempt to catalogue everything that alone makes Ashbee a plausible author of the interminable My Secret Life.

What makes Ashbee interesting is not whether he was the secret author of a pornographic masterwork, but simply his rather mundane desire to compile and collect – it is that which makes him a typically modern surveyor of the sexual. For an obsessive like Ashbee, pornography was the ideal idiom. It is modern and industrialised, boring and repetitive, a matter of enumeration, listing and ticking off all the required acts, body parts, positions and perversions. Even he conceded that his enterprise tended this way, and that much of what he read was ‘dull and insipid’. In that respect Ashbee is a figure of transition from an older libertine culture of erotic education – a kind of literary ars erotica in which small groups of elite men gathered to celebrate their priapism and investigate the female body – to a more modern one of scientific ambition and classification. It is therefore no coincidence that his work became the basis of later sexology and history, and that he was consulted by the early sexologists like Iwan Bloch, since he shared their aim of encyclopaedic compilation. Ashbee’s life is also a valuable corrective to the gothic imagery of Fingersmith. Unlike Mr Lilly, and separate offices in Gray’s Inn notwithstanding, Ashbee did not shut himself away in a gothic pile but lived in the world, and there is no way he could have collected such a volume of erotica while closeted in that fashion and without his extensive European links (though in the novel Mr Lilly has some dubious denizens of Holywell street to help him with that). As Lynda Nead and others have tried to show, the problem with pornography in mid-Victorian Britain was not that it was hidden away, but that it was all too public, and thanks to the expansion of cheap print, all too available.

In that vein, one could point out, spade in hand, that many of the tropes given new life by the neo-Victorian novel and its television versions are actually looking a bit worn out. I admit I said I would try and avoid this kind of comparison, but it has to be done, if only to provide some perspective on the power of fiction to dictate the vision of Victorianism. For instance, the idea that sane women were routinely incarcerated in asylums for harmless moral infractions owes more to the sensation novel than the historical record, and derives its popularity from a few scare stories associated with the women’s movement that were later employed in books like Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady.(4) One of the most notorious of these cases was that of Edith Lanchester, who was confined by her family in 1895 for taking up with a railwayman, and therefore seems to fit the Victorian pattern, but who was in fact released four days later as the result of public outrage. While not disputing that it happened in isolated cases, historians like Andrew Scull have questioned whether women (sane or otherwise) suffered from the ‘great confinement’ that Showalter outlines any more than men did. Similarly, although women were thought prone to hysteria that might be linked to their reproductive system, and were threatened with hair-raising surgical treatments, these were rarely if ever carried out, and in any case, horrific medical procedures and ideas were hardly confined to the treatment of women. It is therefore surprising that tropes like the looming mad-house and the sinister mad-doctor have died so hard.

The continuing passion for the neo-Victorian, and for its familiar stories and characters, represents our unending compulsion to find the secret heart of Victorianism. Their surreptitious ways and inexplicit desires encourage the idea that our crinolined forebears are hiding something vital that will in the end be known, that in spite of their evasions, we can ‘really know’ what they are about. Just like the hidden library at the heart of the old, dark house where Mr Lilly transcribes his bibliography, or the revelations of Mrs Sucksby, we imagine that this secret is there, and that when we find it we will know all. But as Gibson shows, Ashbee, like many other Victorians, is not really hiding anything in the depths of his psyche – his only passion is the will to know, or to list. In spite of that there is still a steady demand for sensation, and for the imagined certainty that is ours alone.

1 Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London, 1985).

2 Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women 1778–1928 (Chicago, IL, 2004).

3 Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1966).

4 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London, 1985).

The Crusades (Jenny Benham)


The Templar Knight by Jan Guillou (tr. Steven T. Murray)
Harper Collins: London, 2010; ISBN: 9780007285860; 480 pp.; Price: £7.99.

The Crusades: A Short History by Jonathan Riley-Smith
Athlone Press: London, 1987 (2001 ed.); ISBN 9780826459541; 336 pp.; Price: £18.99.

Jan Guillou is a well-known Swedish author, journalist and political commentator. Anyone who has spent time living in Scandinavia since the 1970s will be familiar with his novels about the spy Carl Hamilton, including the titles Coq Rouge (1986), The Democratic Terrorist (Den demokratiske terroristen, 1987) and Enemy’s Enemy (Fiendens fiende, 1989); his many high-profile investigative documentaries and articles, including one exposing the Swedish secret intelligence agency, Informationsbyrån (The Information Bureau); his outspoken views on a number of political issues; and his own alleged involvement in espionage. With such a background, some eyebrows must have been raised, I’m sure, when Guillou published a trilogy of historical novels set in the high Middle Ages.Known in English as the ‘Crusades Trilogy’ it is really the second book in the series, The Templar Knight (Swedish: Tempelriddaren), that deals with events in the Holy Land in the lead up to the Third Crusade. It follows the fate of the fictional Swedish noble Arn Magnusson and his beloved Cecilia, who have been penalised for prematurely consummating their anticipated marriage, resulting in Arn having to spend 20 years as a templar knight defending the kingdom of Jerusalem against the Saracens while Cecilia languishes in the convent of Gudhem in western Sweden under a vengeful abbess.The book opens with Arn pursuing a band of Saracen thieves thereby saving the lives of a merchant and his brothers. The merchant invites Arn to supper as mark of gratitude and during the evening not only is a friendship forged between the two men but the merchant is also revealed to be the crusaders’ fiercest enemy, Saladin, who is preparing an attack on the kingdom of Jerusalem (pp. 17-38). These opening pages present an Arn who has already spent ten years in the Holy Land – a veteran among the Knights Templar and commander of the important fort at Gaza. Following his encounter with Saladin war comes upon the crusaders and Arn himself, who can speak Arabic and has studied the Muslim way of life by employing locals in various positions around his fort, finds himself increasingly at odds with the intrigues and behaviour of the crusader lords in Outremer. Having defeated Saladin’s army at the Battle of Montgisard by taking it by surprise in dense fog, the jostling for power among the political factions soon leads to murder, the disastrous Battle of Hattin and ultimately the fall of Jerusalem, in which only Arn’s friendship with Saladin spares the inhabitants of the city. It is also Saladin who ‘persuades’ the Grand Master of the Templars, Gerald de Ridefort, to release Arn of his vow so that he can begin his long journey back home to the northern edge of Europe.There is much in this book that will be familiar to readers. The meeting and friendship between Arn and Saladin is similar to the storyline in Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman and the book as a whole has much in common with the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, although Guillou’s book was of course published prior to the film, in 1999. Guillou also weaves other familiar legends and stories into his narrative. For instance, anyone au fait with classical literature will recognise the scene in which Arn attempts to mediate in a dispute between two local men over the ownership of a horse, a case which the knight settles by cutting the horse in two and giving the men each a half (p. 235). Guillou furthermore follows a well-known theme throughout the book of the crusader states being run by power-hungry individuals, supported by an incompetent Latin Church. Jonathan Riley-Smith is just one of many scholars to have built up this theory and his The Crusades: A Short Historyexplicitly spells this out in several places (p. 55, 60, 85).Guillou is the master of political intrigue and he has done his research well. One of the ways in which the author quickens the pace and heightens the suspense of The Templar Knight is to alternate the chapters so one follows Arn and events in the kingdom of Jerusalem while the next covers Arn’s beloved Cecilia and the civil war over the Swedish crown. Furthermore, while Arn himself may well be a fictional character, those around him are usually not and the author paints realistic portraits of historical figures such as Count Raymond of Tripoli, Gérard de Ridefort and Arnoldo de Torroja. Guillou also shows that not only has he done his research on the characters, but his account of the settlements and the daily life in and around the fort of Gaza reflects in the main what historians know. For instance, chapter four of Riley-Smith’s The Crusades details life in countryside and town, explaining how each village was run by a council of elders presided over by a headman, the workings of the Muslim tax, the diversity of indigenous communities in towns, and the adaptations of local government (pp. 61–9). Riley-Smith also discusses the use of turcopoles, mercenaries fighting with Muslim equipment, and the fact that the number of Latin fighting men in the East was never particularly high. Such details are fully visualised in Guillou’s work and a large part of the book is dedicated to showing Arn learning and adopting these practices in government and as military tactics. In addition, like any scholar, Guillou has consulted the primary sources. Thus for the crusading part, there is much that will be familiar to those with an acquaintance of William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, while events in Sweden and the main characters are largely recognisable from saga material. Here, however, Guillou has been hindered, or possibly helped, by the fact that there are scarcely any contemporary Scandinavian sources detailing the events of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Nevertheless, the author has used what few short annals, brief mentions in Danish sources, papal letters, and later legends available to great effect.

In many ways, then, The Templar Knight is underpinned by rigorous research, which is what one would expect from someone who previously earned his keep as an investigative journalist. Of course, like most works of fiction it is not necessarily the historical accuracy that keeps the reader hooked. Instead, it is Guillou’s ability to construct likeable, or not, characters, and their interlinked relationships with and to each other that fascinates. Often, the author says just enough to make the reader want to find out more and while reading this I continuously found myself looking up the various characters in academic books. Furthermore, the main character’s main attraction, to me anyway, rests not with being the best warrior, which the author portrays him as being, but rather in him never being quite clever or power-hungry enough to partake in the wildest political intrigues of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Though this is on the one hand annoying, it is also what makes this particular ‘hero’ human. He does not always do or say the right thing, but it is his integrity which makes Arn so appealing because he is that ideal to which everyone (or maybe just me!) aspires; that is, he has convictions which he obeys not just for reasons of personal gain or glory. Guillou shows this in many ways. For instance, when Arn has to fight three newly-arrived Franks to stop them crusading against an innocent Bedouin village, he only wins at great personal cost as one of the Franks thrusts his sword into Khamsiin – the Arabic horse Arn has ridden since a young boy (p. 280).

Representing character and emotion in this way is usually where academic historians fail their readers, primarily because the sources rarely tell us much about people’s motivations and emotions. This, and plentiful and lengthy footnotes and bibliographies full of titles in several modern and ancient languages, tend to make academic history books rather dry. The footnotes, perhaps rightly, are usually the first thing to go in history books aimed at a more general audience, as is the case with Riley-Smith’s The Crusades. This particular book is furthermore extremely informative while written in a simple prose free from academic jargon with any foreign words given a short explanation. As Guillou alternates his narrative by moving between Outremer and Sweden in each chapter, Riley-Smith, rather than giving just a chronological account of each crusade, has inserted chapters on related matters such as ‘The holy places and the Catholic patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch’ (chapter three) and ‘The Latin East’ (chapter eight). Each chapter is, moreover, divided into several sub-chapters so that the reader is never presented with several pages of factual text without any breaks. The bibliography is short but contains the most useful works and there is also a list of primary sources in translation. One particular highlight, I feel, is that The Crusades also has no fewer than nine maps, allowing the reader to follow the events closely. Here, Riley-Smith’s book has a distinct advantage over the novel because while the original Swedish version of The Templar Knight contains a map of the Holy Land detailing the most important forts, cities and battles, the English version has no map of the Kingdom of Jerusalem nor of Sweden in this period. This is particularly regrettable since parts of Guillou’s narrative are dependent on an understanding of the lie of the land.

The Crusades: A Short History is easy and good reading and provides not only an insight to the crusades as a movement but also an excellent format for writing history aimed at a more general audience. By contrast, The Templar Knight is a good story but it is not the best book in the trilogy. At times it is plodding, primarily because as a historian I found that the crusading events are just too well-known and thus the plot is predictable. This series has obviously been translated into English as ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ because the crusades mean sales. However, it is not really about the crusades but about the formation of the kingdom of Sweden. As a whole, the trilogy traces how the experiences of Arn and Cecilia enabled them to build up the social, military, commercial and legal framework within which their dynasty finally assumes power. Like so many historical novels, the books in the trilogy are not meant to conform exactly to current historical research or offer new interpretations, but to affirm popular beliefs about the creation of a nation, religious beliefs, and well-known individuals and events. The trilogy does exactly that. It follows the legendary Folkung (lit. ‘folk king’) dynasty and their loyal support for the Erik clan in their battle for the crown against the backward Sverker clan, who are supported by the ‘wicked’ and more advanced Danes. It reaffirms many commonly-held beliefs and plays on feelings of ‘Swedishness’ by presenting certain events, such as the famous battle of Gestilren, as a triumph of Sweden over Denmark. Hardly surprising then that the trilogy has sold over two-and-a-half million copies just in Sweden – a country with a population of around nine million – and that its popularity has resulted in a surge of public interest in the history of medieval Sweden and also in historical novels about Scandinavia as a whole.

Having said all this, the first and the third book in ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ are extremely readable and the first book, The Road to Jerusalem (Vägen till Jerusalem, 1998), detailing Arn’s coming of age at a monastery under the tutelage of a Cistercian and former knight, and the third, Birth of the Kingdom (Riket vid vägens slut, 2000), charting Arn’s return to Sweden and his efforts to build a lasting peace, have both received critical acclaim. Each book can be read as a standalone, but as a whole the trilogy is an epic tale of intrigue, faith, and struggle. But then, as a Swede, I would say that.