Book Reviews

These are book reviews with a difference.  Rather than review a book in the usual way we asked our reviewers to compare a historical fiction novel with the historical research that it derived from.  These can be found below or on the Reviews in History website.  Please either click on the relevant link or scroll down this page.

The many faces of Thomas Cromwell (Mark R. Horowitz)

The dark side of Victorian London (Kaye Jones)

The Crusades (Jenny Benham)

Queers, erotomaniacs and Victorians (Harry Cocks)

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

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

Telling Ghost Stories (Judith Harris)

The many lives of John Bale (Matt Phillpott)

Moscow as city and metaphor (Alexander Martin)

Debating the Cultural Revolution in China (Julia Lovell)

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

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


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.

The many lives of John Bale (Matt Phillpott)


Books of Bale by John Arden
Methuen: London, 1988; ISBN: 9780749390303; 520 pp.; Price: Out of print.

John Bale by Peter Happé
Twayne: New York, 1996; ISBN 9780805770483; 174 pp.; Price: Out of print.

The Complete Plays of John Bale (vol. 1) by Peter Happé
D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 1985; ISBN: 9780521190275; 177pp.; Price: £45.00.

Reviewer: Matthew Phillpott (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

For those historians who have studied the English Reformation or the writing of polemics, histories and plays in the 16th century the name John Bale (1495–1563) appears high on the list of English scholars supporting a reformist agenda. Bale popularised the genre of martyrology for an English audience, later taken to its logical conclusion in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Bale helped to preserve England’s manuscript heritage in part through his cataloguing of ancient English writers and texts and in part through his influence on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who became a great patron of ancient manuscripts. Bale is also remembered among much else for his polemics, theological treatises and evangelical plays. In addition Bale’s tendency to write autobiographical accounts makes him the perfect subject for novelisation.

That novel is John Arden’s Books of Bale. The framing sequence is set late in Elizabeth’s reign, when the playwright Anthony Munday finds himself in competition with the newcomer William Shakespeare. The story focuses on the relationship between Lydia (the daughter of John Bale and his wife Dorothy) and her own daughter Lucretia. Lucretia runs away from home at 16 and makes contacts within the London theatre scene. After being separated for some time mother and daughter re-establish their relationship through several connections to John Bale’s own involvement in plays, especially his adaptation of King Johan.

The main portion of the book, however, belongs to Bale’s wife, Dorothy. This is the story of the hidden presence behind John Bale. In her youth Dorothy works as a ‘singing-woman, a dancing-woman, a woman of “the business”’ in and around Norfolk and London (Arden, p. 11). Through an association with Lord Wentworth (1), Dorothy escapes this vagabond lifestyle, and is given premises in the Birdcage (a disreputable performance venue) where she gives birth to Wentworth’s illegitimate son. At the time of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Dorothy’s room in the Birdcage is used as a secret meeting place for reformers intent on putting on evangelical plays. Included among this group is John Bale, appointed play-master by Wentworth under the auspices of Thomas Cromwell. Although Bale’s plays are largely successful the tides of religion are turning against them, as Henry VIII cracks down on the Protestant sympathisers in his government and, in the 1540s, begins to backtrack on many of the reforms that had begun to be implemented during his reign.

Dorothy and John Bale find themselves in exile twice; first during the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and then during the ‘bloody’ reign of Mary I. Dorothy also joins John Bale in Ireland when the latter is appointed Bishop of Ossary. They barely escaped from there with their lives when Mary came to the throne!

Dorothy’s life, as depicted by Arden, is both rich and traumatic. It is, unfortunately, also entirely fictional. Little is known of the real Dorothy other than her Christian name. She is a woman left almost entirely in the shadows of her husband. Bale himself mentioned in his The vocacyon of Johan Bale to the bishoprick of Ossorie in Irelande his persecions in the same (1553) that his wife accompanied him to Ireland – ‘Upon the .xxi. daye of January we entred into the shippe, I, my wyfe, & one servaunt’ (2) – but nothing more is mentioned of her in his account. Bale’s autobiography that appears in his Catalogus notes that ‘I took the faithful Dorothy to my wife, listening attentively to this divine saying: let him who cannot be content seek a wife’ (Happé (1985), p. 147). Bale earlier stated that it was better to marry than ‘to burn’ (Summarium, fo. 243). These appear as odd statements, suggesting that his marriage was part political, part religious and part a search for self-contentment. Indeed in Arden’s novelisation Bale’s motivations cross spectacularly from the personal to the religious in nature. John N. King is the most recent historian to presume that Dorothy was a widow as she married Bale with a child of apprentice age in tow.(3) While this is plausible, Arden’s alternative claim that Dorothy’s child was born a bastard is not inconceivable either, although the chance that it was Wentworth’s illegitimate son seems highly unlikely.

Books of Bale is now over 20 years old. The question therefore has to be asked: why look at it again now? Most of the other pieces written for this special edition of Reviews in History, will, I imagine, focus on books published in the last decade and held in higher critical esteem. Arden’s novel is nevertheless interesting to revisit, particularly because historians who look at Bale find themselves trapped in a web of fiction and mythmaking partly created by the man himself.

The historical Bale is derived in large part from the autobiographical accounts found in his Vocacyon and catalogue of English writers. In both instances Bale has exaggerated or twisted the facts and his role in events to make a point. In his Vocacyon Bale’s intent was to write a polemical account of his escape from Ireland as a parallel to St Paul. In his Catalogus Bale wishes to present himself as one link in a chain of English writers preserving the true faith against the heresies of antichrist. Although both accounts are filled with accurate facts about Bale’s life and career, neither can be taken as entirely true. Indeed, Happé claims that Bale’s autobiography ‘reads like a piece of fiction’ (Happé (1996), p. 19). Leslie P. Fairfield goes even further, charging Bale as being the ‘Mythmaker for the English Reformation’.(4) Fairfield argues that Bale formed a new mythology for post-reformation England and that while his works were basically true they were always written with a set picture of history in mind. The historical Bale is therefore bound within a fictional wrapper partly of Bale’s own creation. He is therefore the ideal candidate for novelisation and a constant enigma for historians searching for accuracy and truth.

It is perhaps telling then, that John Arden depicts his 1988 novel Books of Bale as a ‘fiction of history’. Arden provides little explanation of this choice of description other than to state that ‘the central thread of the whole story is necessarily invented’ while elements of the situations, characters and events are taken directly from known historical evidence.

Arden attributes his research to notes and discussions provided by Peter Happé, Hubert Butler, Maurice Craig, Jeff O’Connell and Mary Joyce. The latter four sources derive from Ireland and seem most utilised in Arden’s chapter six, ‘I am of Ireland’. The final chapters of the book most certainly rely upon Bale’s own account of his adventures as he tells it in his Vocacyon. Happé probably supplied Arden with a summary of the Vocacyon which eventually formed the basis for a modern edition of the text (published by Happé and John N. King in 1990).

Books of Bale was published eight years before Happé published his biography of John Bale and three years after his publication on Bale’s plays (which Arden references).(5) This locates Arden’s novel at a mid-way point between the two texts. Although there have been several previous biographies of Bale (most notably by Leslie P. Fairfield in 1976, Honor McCusker in 1942 and W. T. Davies in 1940) and several vital texts that highlight Bale’s work (such as William Haller’s ‘Elect nation’ of 1967 and Richard Bauckham’s study of the apocalyptic tradition) there is little, if any, sign that Arden had access to them.(6) Arden’s Bale fits very much the description given by Happé in his biography and that given by Bale himself in his autobiographical Vocacyon.

The personality of Bale conceived of in the novel is larger than life, which in part reflects the requirements of a fiction writer and in part relies on a comment by Happé that Bale presents himself in his Vocacyon with a ‘self-dramatizing tendency’ (Happé (1985), p. 2). For instance Bale openly cries in front of Dorothy and others in the story and acts highly emotionally in several scenes, beyond what would normally be acceptable.

The novel’s depiction of Bale’s attitude towards homosexuality is also questionable. Historical accounts and Bale’s own words suggest that he may have been abused as a child by Carmelite friars but there is no evidence that he himself had homosexual leanings, something that is strongly hinted at in Arden’s book. In addition, in the novel Bale seems to have little difficulty ignoring the lesbian traits displayed by his, then, future wife. The depiction of Bale’s character in this aspect of the novel, while reflective of Bale’s tendency to exclaim against sodomy and ‘illicit’ sexual acts, seems intended entirely to add emphasis to the complexity of the character.

The novel dots across the years with no seeming cohesion, at one moment focusing on Dorothy’s early life, then to Ireland, and then back again to her first meetings with Bale and Wentworth, and then back to Ireland again. But this matters little as the book is really about memory, about how various characters recall and live through the events that circle around Dorothy and Bale. Entire chapters focus on different events from particular perspectives: ‘IV: Letters of loyalty’ focus entirely on correspondence between Lord Wentworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt concerning their involvement in reformist plays; ‘III: A Word from Til’ provides a less favourable view of Bale and Dorothy during Henry’s reign and through their first exile, using the recordings of a fictional character called Konrad Spielmann (or Conrad) who describes himself as a pamphleteer and independent Protestant agitator born in the Siegenwald and educated at Wittenberg. Conrad is a forcible presence throughout the first half of the book. In his youth he is a member of Dorothy’s ragtag group of vagabond players. Later he falls in with John Bale and helps produce his plays under the leadership of Wentworth and Cromwell. Then later still he helps Bale out of prison only to be exiled for his trouble along with Bale and family.

Using Conrad as his cypher (Arden, p. 268), Arden stresses the difficulty involved in writing a fiction of history and the limitations of historical sources in providing us with a true image of a person:

‘I am not sure that any of these theories were consistent one with another. I only record them here to show the difficulty of recording anything about so gargoylish a man as Bale, so sphinx-like a woman as La Hant-Jambée [Dorothy]. We can but look at them as they appear to us, shrug our shoulders, write what we see, and that’s it’.

This sentence seems to sum up Arden’s own views about Bale – that despite our seemingly having a fairly full knowledge of his life and career we still, in fact, only have the bare bones. This is particularly the case for Bale who even historically is a difficult man to categorise. He is at once an ex-friar, a bishop, a scholar, a poet, a playwright, a polemicist, a collector of manuscripts, a bibliophile and cataloguer. The list goes on. What we do know of Bale is largely his own invention and has a tendency to lean toward the fictional with more than a little embellishment. It is this difficulty in interpreting the historical evidence that makes a ‘fiction of history’ about Bale all the more enticing. While Arden does not provide us with a truthful representation of the man, he may well have provided a caricature no less accurate than the one we are led to recount by Bale himself.

1          See P. R. N. Carter, ‘Wentworth, Thomas, first Baron Wentworth (1501–1551)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

2          John Bale, The vocacyon of Johan Bale, ed. Peter Happé and John N. King (New York, 1990), p. 51.

3          John N. King, ‘Bale, John (1495–1563)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

4          Leslie P. Fairfield, John Bale: Myth Maker for the English Reformation (West  Lafayette, IN, 1976).

5          Peter Happé, The Complete Plays of John Bale (Vol. 1, Cambridge, 1985).

6          William Haller, The Elect Nation: the Meaning and Relevance of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (New York, 1963); and Richard Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse: Sixteenth-Century Apocalypticism, Millennarianism and the English Reformation: From John Bale to John Foxe and Thomas Brightman (Oxford, 1978).

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.