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.


The dark side of Victorian London (Kaye Jones)


London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City by Drew D. Gray
London, Continuum UK, 2010, ISBN: 9781847252425, 280 pp, Price £20

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
London, Canongate, 2002, ISBN: 9780857860019, 838 pp, Price £9.99

‘I am what you would call a Fallen Woman, but I assure you I did not fall – I was pushed’ (Faber, p. 336).

Meet Sugar, a 19-year-old prostitute and protagonist of Michel Faber’s novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. Forced into prostitution at the tender age of 13, Sugar plies her trade at Mrs Castaway’s, a brothel in the St Giles area of London. Set in 1875, the fictional Sugar exists in a world that has not yet witnessed the brutality and depravity of Jack the Ripper – the focal point of London’s Shadows by Drew Gray – the second book of this review.

Gray begins London’s Shadows by stating that he is neither a Ripperologist nor does he intend to contribute to this already vast body of work. Instead, Gray uses the Ripper murders as a focal point for his investigation, arguing that this spate of brutal murders refocused public attention, primarily within the urban middle class, to the social problems of poverty and vice that existed on the streets of London’s East End.

Defining this area of London is not an easy task; contemporary social commentators and modern historians, like Paul Begg and Alan Palmer (1), disagree over its exact geographical boundaries. Gray overcomes this difficulty by arguing that we should focus less on these details and more on the ever-changing and evolving social construction of the East End. From industrialisation to EastEnders, Gray argues that the East End, like Jack the Ripper, has evolved into a semi-mythological entity, coloured by images of the ‘plucky cockney’, rhyming slang and the music hall. For the middle classes, it was here in the East End – amid the hotchpotch of cultures and races, the smog and the slaughterhouse – that crime, poverty and sexual deviance, including incest and prostitution, festered and flourished.

Working-class neighbourhoods were the subject of numerous articles, investigations and exposes (Gray, p.1) from as early as the 1830s. In London’s Shadows, Gray relies heavily on such reports, like The Bitter Cry of Outcast London by the Rev. Andrew Mearns (1883) and East London by Charles Booth (1889), but warns against taking these sources at face value. Instead, Gray argues that these reports should be seen as evidence of a cultural, social and economic chasm that existed between the middle and working classes, characterised by ignorance and notions of superiority. This also manifested itself in the social construction of the working class as a ‘different race’ (Gray p. 125).

If London’s Shadows exposes these problems then it is Michel Faber’s novel, Crimson Petal, that truly brings them to life. Rightly considered as a ‘Dickensian novel for our times’ (2), Faber’s descriptions of Victorian London are about as vivid as they come. St Giles, for instance, is described as a place at the ‘very bottom’ where ‘prosperity is an exotic dream’ (Faber, p. 8), where hansom cabs are looted by children (Faber, p. 10) and the ground is covered in human and animal excrement.

While the residents of St Giles can only dream of escape, there are some men, like William Rackham, that just can’t keep away. Heir to the great Rackham Perfumeries, William reads about Sugar in the pamphlet, More Sprees in London, an extensive guide to the capital’s ladies of the night. Described as an ‘eager devotee of every known pleasure’ and ‘a fit companion for any True gentlemen’ (Faber, pp. 83–4), Sugar, it seems, is worth navigating the filthy streets of St Giles for.

Just as the More Sprees pamphlet drives the plot in Crimson Petal, the media also played a role in fuelling middle-class anxieties about poverty and vice in the real East End. The last quarter of the 19th century witnessed the emergence of sensationalism – a new style of journalism (Gray, p. 95). Under intense competition to attract readers, editors needed to find new ways of presenting stories that would keep the public hooked. Crime reporting, in particular, was one way that newspapers could achieve this aim. Focusing less on information and more on entertainment, this ‘new journalism’ became a powerful force in society (Gray, p. 115). Using Stanley Cohen’s theory on moral panics and the garrotting scandal of 1862, Gray convincingly demonstrates the power of the late Victorian press. From a few cases of wildly-exaggerated street robbery came soaring arrest rates and changes in penal policy (the Security Against Violence Act of 1863) (p. 114). Could Cohen’s theory be applied to the Whitechapel murders? Gray thinks not and urges us to remember that the Ripper was so brutal, media exaggeration was unnecessary. Furthermore, despite the public outrage and significant police investigation, the murders never resulted in additions or changes to criminal legislation.

But there were many journalists in Victorian London that were not just interested in boosting sales figures through sensationalist reporting. Away from the authoritative, patriarchal and often judgemental tone of newspapers like The Times, Gray draws our attention to William Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who believed that the influence of the press could be harnessed and used for the greater good. The ‘Maiden tribute of modern Babylon’, for example, was Stead’s attempt to uncover child trafficking in the capital and force parliament to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. In 1885, with the help of a former madam, Rebecca Jarrett, Stead procured a young girl, the 13 year-old Eliza Armstrong. Although Stead’s intention was to show that he could easily buy a child for the ‘purposes of sexual exploitation’ (Gray, p. 155), the breaking of the story resulted in scandal, public outrage and Stead’s imprisonment in Holloway for three months. It did, however, contribute to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and a series of measures to protect young women and girls from exploitation. Gray places the Maiden campaign in the context of an ongoing class war, characterized by the gulf between the middle and working classes. Like the treatment of working women by the CDA, Stead’s campaign began from the viewpoint that women were the passive victims of lustful males instead of ‘a consequence of a deeply unequal capitalist society’. As a researcher interested in female sexuality in this era I would like to have seen more on the trafficking of young women both in and out of the capital, but coverage of the ‘Maiden tribute’ is a welcome addition nonetheless.

Crimson Petal does not shy away from the issue of trafficking and under-age sex either. Prior to his first meeting with Sugar, William heads to the ‘good, cheap brothels of Drury Lane’ to meet Claire and Alice, the twins recommended by More Sprees. After arriving in London ‘as innocents’ and promised help with securing lodgings and employment, the girls were robbed and installed in a brothel (Faber, p. 70). Faber presents the encounter with no holds barred but dispels the myth of young women as sexually passive victims when the twins refuse to succumb to William’s unconventional requests.

In agreement with Judith Walkowitz’s landmark study into Victorian prostitution, both Gray and Faber view sex workers as ‘independent and assertive’ women. Rather than portraying prostitutes as the victims of their male seducers, the authors see them as victims of circumstance. Caroline, the first character that we meet in Crimson Petal, for example, turned to prostitution as a means of paying for her dying son’s medical care (Faber, p. 15). Similarly, Jack the Ripper’s victims generally fell into prostitution as a result of ‘failed marriages, lost children’, or the inability to find paid work in a more respectable profession (Faber, pp. 164–5). Attempting to reconstruct the experiences of these women and understand city life through their eyes is a highlight of both books, especially considering the scarcity of primary source evidence.

That prostitutes were frequently targeted by Christian reformers, missionaries and do-gooders has been well-documented.(3) The middle-class need to ‘raise up, rescue and reform’ these fallen women led hundreds of individuals, particularly women, to enter the slums, roll up their sleeves and attack this Great Social Evil (Gray, p. 62). Reformers weren’t always sure how best to tackle the issue and Gray deals with this dilemma in chapter five. He identifies individualism and collectivism as the two competing reform ideologies of the later Victorian era. Espoused by the likes of Beatrice Webb and Helen Bosanquet, he makes no attempt to tell the story of this ‘intellectual war’ in any great detail. Rather, Gray places this ideological battle in the context of the country’s journey towards the welfare state. His comparison between this Victorian reform dilemma and the modern preoccupation with ‘benefit scroungers’, notably within the tabloid press, is an interesting point. Returning to prostitution, the one criticism of this section is that Gray could have focused more on specific prostitution reforms, outside of the Contagious Diseases Acts which have been extensively documented.

The devout widow, Emmeline Fox, is Crimson Petal’s spirited reformer. Working daily with the Rescue Society, Fox views reform as a crusade to cleanse the streets and save the souls of the fallen women of St Giles. Armed with her Bible, Fox is driven by apocalyptic fears where the souls of St Giles become the property of the devil. Technological progress, like the factory or the Underground, has moral consequences and is responsible for tempting people away from God. But Fox and her mission are rarely taken seriously by others of her class. Even Henry Rackham, her confidante, is more interested in forming a romantic liaison than in her work at the society. Despite her efforts, Fox encompasses the ignorant attitude described by Gray – that judges and condemns the behaviour and culture observed in St Giles rather than attempting to understand it.

Merging the themes of gender, sex and religion, it is with the character of Agnes Rackham that I became most intrigued when reading Crimson Petal. In complete contrast to other female characters in the novel and to contemporary domestic ideologies, Agnes is the mad woman locked away in her bedroom and hidden from public view.  While the omniscient narrator informs us that Agnes’ mental health problems are caused by a brain tumour the size of ‘quail’s egg’ (p. 218), Dr Curlew has identified her troublesome womb as the culprit. Though Agnes has no idea about the internal workings of her body, she is still expected to perform as a wife through intercourse and bearing a child. Ironically, it is these acts that have caused much of her psychological damage. For Dr Curlew, Agnes is, for the most part, a lost cause. Along with leeches, laudanum and internal examinations, his advice to William is to pack Agnes off to the asylum – lest her madness infect the rest of the household.

Faber should be applauded for bringing Victorian constructions of female sexuality, reproduction  and mental illness into the wider public arena through his characterisation of Agnes. While she retreats deeper and deeper into her imaginary world (where she is cared for by nuns from the Convent of Health), Faber draws the reader’s attention to the patriarchal ideas and practices, from rape to the ‘wandering womb’, that have controlled and determined the fate of her life.

Returning to London’s Shadows, Gray tackles the Victorian construction of the so-called criminal class in chapter 7. Standing below the respectable working class and existing entirely from crime, this underclass first emerged in the writings of Henry Mayhew. This idea was further developed by the prominent psychologist, Henry Maudsley, who argued that ‘heredity and environment’ were factors in determining deviant behaviour rather than an individual choice. This belief was also echoed on the Continent where Cesare Lombroso began developing a criminal classification based on physical features. This biological theory of crime affected the way that contemporaries viewed and dealt with the criminal, from the old days of reform, through education and religion, to a new era of taking photographs and measurements to determine the specific attributes that made him behave in this way (p. 200). But what sort of crimes did this class commit?

To answer this question, Gray has compiled criminal statistics from London’s Central Criminal Court between 1850 and 1899. The historian’s work in compiling this type of data is made far easier with the Internet’s greatest resource on the history of crime, the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. From his analysis, theft, including burglary and simple larceny, was the most commonly committed crime at 49 per cent. Gray brings this section of the book to life by recounting tales from the proceedings that give some idea of the opportunistic nature of these crimes.  (Faber also echoes this sentiment of opportunism in his description of the hansom cab looting in Crimson Petal). As ideas about criminals changed and the keeping of records and statistics increased, it was much easier for the authorities to identify and label habitual offenders. Running parallel to these developments came debates about the nature and purpose of prison, most notably the introduction of a more regimented system, led by Edmund Du Cane. Despite these changes, Gray believes that internal management issues and ever-increasing costs prevented the Victorians from successfully dealing with recidivism. Furthermore, the concept of a criminal class prevented them from ever truly understanding the motivations of offenders.

In chapter eight Gray deals specifically with the police hunt for Jack the Ripper. Although the failure of the police to catch the killer has attracted criticism, both in the past and more recently, Gray takes a more sympathetic view of the Victorian police. With limited resources and criminal detection techniques still in their infancy, it is hardly surprising that they were unable to bring Jack to justice. Added to this were a number of hoaxes, false leads and other crimes to attend to.

Like the Ripper’s victims, there is no happy ending for the women in the Crimson Petal. Without revealing too much, Sugar may have escaped St Giles but she find that life is no more pleasurable as William’s mistress or as governess to his daughter, Sophie. Extremely well-researched, clearly informed by current historiography and described in almost painstaking detail, this tragic story keeps the reader hooked to the very last page. Combined with the recent BBC television adaptation, Crimson Petal should be applauded for bringing to life and into public focus the harsh realities of this period.

Gray is not the first historian to investigate the darker side of Victorian London but his book is well-researched and accessible, making it a welcome addition to this existing historiography. Both Gray and Faber highlight the tremendous social cost of industry that contemporaries recognised but could not remedy. Though the streets of London may be cleaner and the slums replaced by modern redevelopments, the then-and-now approach of London’s Shadows offers a stark reminder that poverty, deprivation and inequality are as problematic today as they were in the 1880s.

1                    See Paul Begg, Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History,(London, 2004) and Alan Palmer, The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, (New Jersey, NJ, 2000).

2                    Kathyrn Hughes, ‘Whores, Porn and Lunatics’, The Guardian, 28 September, 2002 <> [accessed 8 August 2011].

3                    See, for example, Paul McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform, (London, 1980), Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, (Cambridge 1980) and Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860–1914, (London, 2000).

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


Reform and Renewal, Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal by G. R. Elton
CUP: Cambridge, 1973; ISBN: 9780521098090; 188pp. £27.99

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
London: Harper Collins, 2009; ISBN: 9781861975966; 672pp. £5.99.

When a late-medieval or Tudor historian is asked to compare and contrast a historical novel with a scholarly book that both take as their subject Thomas Cromwell, and the latter work has been written by the late G. R. Elton, the inevitable disclaimer becomes compulsory unless that historian has spent several decades inhabiting a historiographically-isolated cave during the rise and fall of the Tudor revolution in government. In the present case, I must submit that I knew Sir Geoffrey during his last 15 years at Clare College, Cambridge and I still retain a cache of our letters. I read his publications and the numerous reviews of them, and I on occasion disagreed with the perspicacious Regius Professor verbally in conversations and once in print with regard to his view that Henry VIII’s principal minister, Thomas Cromwell, was the mastermind behind the inchoate modern English state as first described in Elton’s magnum opus on a Tudor revolution.(1)

That written wallop, relevant to this present assessment, occurred when I was asked to write an article on a book he co-wrote with the future Nobel laureate, Robert Fogel. I began by briefly summarizing each author’s past work. I ended Elton’s by positing the query of whether it was Thomas Cromwell behind the Henrician revolution in government or G. R. Elton behind the Cromwellian revolution in history. Upon completing the piece, I asked both authors to read the final draft before submission in case of any factual errors and with the understanding that in effect the article itself was cast in stone. Although neither found any glaring mistakes and thanked me for the endeavour, I must believe that Elton displayed a bent eye as he read my Cromwell quip. With this in mind, I have approached the present dual review from the narratives and conclusions offered by the respective authors, and not from what others have thought of them or written about their books.(2)

Thomas Cromwell is a good subject for fact and fiction. He was and remains somewhat of an enigma both as a visionary for government efficiency and as an ambitious ‘new man’ rising from the obscurity of a blacksmith’s son to perhaps the most powerful man in England save his king, Henry VIII. Moreover, much like his mentor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – the son of an Ipswich butcher – Cromwell’s descent was as spectacular and dramatic as his climb. For both men, historians have tried to untangle how much influence they had over Henry VIII and whether they were the puppet-masters or the puppets in the monarch’s affairs of state and of the heart. Regardless, the arcs that were their lives remained dependent on the whims and commands of a Tudor king.

Mantel pursues segments of the lives of Wolsey and then Cromwell, beginning in 1527 amid the rising turmoil of the Great Matter (Henry’s annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to make Anne Boleyn his queen and progenitor of a male heir) and leading up to the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535. Elton focuses on Cromwell and his legislative roots and actions during the 1530s within the environment of Protestant evangelicalism, humanistic writings and verbal discourse. The authors necessarily pursue different genres and disciplines for their accounts. Mantel constructs lives, images and conversations from what is known about her characters; Elton seeks to establish Cromwell as a thoughtful, purposeful and results-oriented minister based on interpretation of surviving documentation. It is therefore perhaps best to discuss three topics where the paths of the authors intersect. The first centers on the personality of Thomas Cromwell. The second involves the religious and humanistic nature of Cromwell’s beliefs and their effect on his actions and life. The third entails his accomplishments and acumen at survival as the chief minister of Henry VIII. However, the style, format and themes followed by the respective authors will be addressed first to understand better where they are coming from and, if it might be suggested, where they intended to go.

Elton decidedly positions himself as the master of the manuscripts, in this case contemporary documents and parliamentary records from the statutes and the journals of the House of Commons. He comes close to chastising those historians pursuing the history of ideas – he is not a fan – believing that all is for naught unless such ideas can be traced to actions beyond the mental exercise. Indeed, he has little time for More’s Utopia because no proposals were put forth to better the commonwealth, only ‘remedies in the fictional realm of the unattainable’. Elton’s goal is to demonstrate the translation of ‘aspiration into achievement’ and how ‘thought yielded results in deed’. This of course provides a theme and path for his discussion of Thomas Cromwell as the exemplar of a Tudor action hero of sorts, and he takes his readers on a legislative journey portraying a practical minister’s transition into a proficient planner stoked by the reformist fervour of the day.

Elton accomplishes this first by examining three members of Cromwell’s reformist group – Stephen Vaughan, Thomas Starkey, and Richard Morison – although he takes pains to convince that none were part of an official body but rather a ‘company of like-minded men’ who were ‘haphazardly brought together and always on their own initiative’. This may seem to some as flying in the face of the adage that coincidences take a lot of planning. Nonetheless, Elton insists they were not recruited by the minister but simply thought much as he did, although they are labeled ‘Cromwellians’ by the author because they believe Cromwell would reform England along humanistic, Protestant thinking. Then true to Elton’s mission, any contemporary rivals to the man behind reform and renewal are summarily dispatched. He quickly marginalises Cromwell’s predecessor and mentor Wolsey as never doing anything, completely ‘useless’ to a generation of intellectuals and reformers, and the poster child for the old clerical order they deplored. He then finds time to stomp on Thomas More as missing the boat to becoming the Erasmian humanist reformer in favour of concentrating on heresy and the maintenance of the church. This provides a segue to the actions of the minister who got it right – Thomas Cromwell – and what he did during the parliamentary sessions of the Henrician Reformation. Because the book is a compilation of Elton’s Wiles Lectures presented at Queen’s University, Belfast in 1972, they fall under topic headings although Cromwell’s legislation agenda is placed in somewhat chronological order.

The tone and style exhibited by Elton are that of a constitutional scholar in the know, lecturing other historians (often by name) on where they were misled – or failed to lead at all – while forcefully demonstrating Cromwell’s modus operandi through the use of parliamentary documentation. The general public might not grab on readily to the scholarly story being told, but Elton has a self-assured way with words that are understandable and on occasion clever and humorous: Cromwell as the ‘pragmatic prophet’ who receives letters in Latin ‘with Greek bits in them’; propagandist preambles to parliamentary bills embodied with ‘standard commonwealth stuff’. Few would argue at the time of his lectures that Elton contributes to a clearer understanding of how bills were initiated, their chances of passing based on origin (Commons, Lords or support from the king) and the nuances involved in the role of politics and religion, which from a modern perspective were hopelessly intertwined. It remains not so much winning a legislative initiative, which will be addressed later, but the intent and purpose that is at the heart of Elton’s narrative and thesis. The medium Cromwell utilizes, with far-reaching effects for the development of the modern English state, is parliament, through which the laws of England are guided with his steady if not always successful hand.

Mantel proffers a Thomas Cromwell confident in his own thinking and actions regarding the law, a posture developed early on through the reactions of a young boy to his physically-abusive father. This situation is introduced on the first page when as a 15-year-old Cromwell is almost throttled to death – occurrences that later shape his views towards legal reform to protect the helpless. Through intermittent flashbacks and intriguing dialog with key players in the era of Henry VIII, the author constructs a self-made, self-educated man unafraid to face the unknown: living and learning business in Northern Europe, fighting in Continental wars. Both Mantel and her Cromwell are cynical about Roman Catholicism, which she views as a corrupt business founded on practices not mentioned in the New Testament – for this is the time when translations into the vernacular by the likes of Tyndale and Luther unmask the deceptions of the popes and their biblical foundation for authority and practice.

So when in 1527 Wolsey’s trip to France includes granting throngs of people remission for their sins, the author throws out an observation by no one in particular: ‘That’s a few thousand Frenchmen free to start all over again’. Mantel also confides Cromwell’s knowledge that to obtain the right scriptural interpretations or permissions from the pope for marriages or divorces, every ‘opinion’ must be paid for in cash. It is this disdain for the church and its reliance on cash payments from countries in need of capital – such as England – that fuels Cromwell’s search for reform and solvency for his king and country. However, to dispel the irony of a future principal minister cutting his political teeth in the household of a cardinal, Mantel’s Wolsey – a very rich character in the story and in many respects more interesting than Cromwell – shares some of the cynicism of the day against Rome.

It is Mantel’s dialog between Cromwell and major characters and the development of their personas that drives her story. Because of the abundance of personages, a glossary is provided for those unfamiliar with the period. This is not a bad idea because in many respects the reader waits in anticipation for the next tête-à-tête between Cromwell and a variety of people besides important figures such as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, the duke of Norfolk (an avowed enemy turned self-interested ally), Thomas More (portrayed as more of a Torquemada-on-the-Thames when it comes to heretics than even Elton suggests), Bishop Stephen Gardiner, and Jane Seymour and Mary Boleyn (targets of Cromwell’s affections and perhaps more). Historians do not have the luxury of making up dialog – although mental attempts often occur once years are spent studying an individual – and Mantel is wonderfully adept at coloring her characters with attributes well-known to aficionados of Tudor history. Hence, when Anne Boleyn speaks the reader is already aware that when Cromwell gives her a present of silver forks with rock crystal handles one Christmas he notes that ‘he hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people’. To make the point stick further, so to speak, on another occasion when thinking about Anne he confesses ‘you wouldn’t trust her near a sharp knife’. It is largely through these conversations, and the musings of Cromwell, that the theme of a rapidly-ascending powerful and shrewd minister amid court intrigue develops.

While such interplay between people helps advance the story of the rise of Cromwell, the stylistic use of the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to him is both confusing and momentum-halting. Indeed, on several occasions it was necessary to reread a few lines just to determine who was speaking. This uncertainty of voice is compounded by an occasional shifting into first person singular or plural: Cromwell, after being referred to as ‘he’, suddenly says ‘I dry my eyes’; an abrupt shift from being ‘he’ to a new scene beginning ‘October, and we are going to Calais’; a conversation between Cromwell and Henry VIII includes the narrative ‘He watches Henry’s face. He is alive to anything that concerns honour’. Presumably it is Henry alive with the notion of honour. Presumably, if in fact the reader is aware of the king’s obsession with honour as explicated in such historical works as Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book on Henry VIII.(3) While experimentation in writing style is the artist’s prerogative – from Dorothy Parker’s ‘stream of consciousness’ dialog with oneself to the frenzied episodes that comprise James Joyce’s Ulysses – it serves little purpose to push Cromwell away by becoming ‘he’ through most of the book just as the reader tries to get closer to him.

Mantel is intent on staying fairly true to what is known about Cromwell and his life, such as information gleaned from Cavendish’s book on Thomas Wolsey.(4) She also hints at events or attributes that the knowledgeable reader will enjoy but the neophyte might miss unknowingly. So when it is suggested that Anne Boleyn has a ‘deformity’, many readers may be unaware that she has been attributed to having, among other things, six fingers on one hand – an improbability given Henry’s superstitious nature that nonetheless has brought about much discussion, including an essay in a medical publication.(5) The king of England’s trip to the Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais in June 1520 to meet with the king of France is mentioned several times but without the visually-interesting story of Henry VIII being thrown to the ground in a wrestling match by his regal cousin Francis I: fodder for further character development of a Tudor king Mantel portrays as paranoid, constantly hunting and bedding, and doubting of his abilities and his future. Those aware of these inside stories will gain a greater embellishment of the world of Thomas Cromwell and how he acts and reacts within it.

Elton’s Cromwell is a far-horizon thinker and it is through the minister’s surviving papers that the reader encounters a man jotting down ideas for future actions: improving the system of taxation (clearly an age-old problem for king and commoner alike); addressing the enclosure of pasture and farmland by sheep owners at the expense of farmers. While ignoring Wolsey and the possibility that many such reforms were first addressed by the cardinal without follow-through or result – a circumstance similar to many of Somerset’s non-starters under Henry’s son, Edward VI – Elton sees Cromwell as a visionary bent on converting ideas into actions that succeed. Part of this image stems from an innate work ethic and drive, and Elton relates that Stephen Vaughan tells his friend Cromwell that he is overworking as the king’s minister. Moreover, to support the idea that having what we would call a Type A personality and being a workaholic are forces for Cromwell’s personal mission, Elton paints a portrait of an erudite analyst with an eidetic gift that allows him to memorize Erasmus’ Latin version of the New Testament – no mean feat. He is also represented as an intellectual equal to the Oxford man and humanist Thomas Starkey, for whom Cromwell obtains a position as a chaplain to Henry VIII. Indeed, Elton argues that Starkey’s writings are influenced by discussions with Cromwell, more often at the minister’s house with other reformers at what is referred to as a ‘learned salon’. Cromwell’s view of pursuing a middle way (via media) is part and parcel of the like views held by these men. The minister thus avoids the extremes and this possibly is a reason he was able to survive throughout the 1530s amid social and religious upheaval in England.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Cromwell’s personality and political outlook is, according to Elton, a belief and reliance in the efficacy of the law and its use to reform and transform England. Cromwell’s vision of a self-contained realm – the phrase ‘this realm of England is an Empire’ illuminates the preamble to the 1533 Act of Restraint of Appeals that removed papal authority from England – becomes a focal point for laws that encourage growth and stability internally and commerce with Europe. In spite of his often grandiose schemes, Elton notes that Cromwell is nonetheless a realist aware of the opposing forces to change: the church, the nobility, the gentry and often the king himself. This is perhaps why Cromwell relies on couching bills in rhetoric pointing to precedents and age-old practices: a means to demonstrate what has always been, not what must now become.

Curiously missing from Elton’s portraiture is a discussion of the Great Matter or even Cromwell’s involvement with the monumental affair. This is perhaps because the core concerns of Elton’s Cromwell are reforms through parliamentary action, rather than the larger issues of cause and effect during the break with Rome. However, Cromwell could hardly ignore the fact that his mentor Wolsey fell from grace over his failure to achieve the ‘Divorce’. Nor could he fail to understand that much of the legislation he proposed dealt with the severing of financial and religious relations with the vicar of Christ, once Henry VIII moved from a wayward Roman defender of the faith threatening papal authority to an independent head of his own church and state. One can say that keeping all the money destined for the church or making the bible more accessible to the populace were reforms long overdue (or more likely long in the making). But it is difficult to ignore the trigger for this flurry of legislation in parliament: Henry’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It takes away little to realize that Cromwell and his king could each have their cake and eat it too by abandoning Rome – one seeking to reform age-old or emerging iniquities, the other desperately in need of an unquestionable male heir.

Mantel, of course, can paint broad strokes on a large canvas that is the Cromwell in her mind’s eye, and it is most enjoyable to view. She does an admirable job of bringing in contemporary stories and historical sketches concerning Cromwell’s traits, including much that is in common with Elton. When Cromwell talks about a book of mathematics and its lesson of balance, Mantel is echoing the via media views often expressed about the minister. She notes that when Cromwell writes ‘this realm of England is an empire’, he does so almost in passing – it is obvious to him and it is a means to an end. As Cromwell reflects on parliament and drafting bills, he says ‘like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world’. Nevertheless, because the minister realizes that it is difficult to implement ‘new things in England’, he says ‘there can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old’. Mantel carries this English viewpoint to other characters: when Cromwell tells Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary Tudor that Henry’s rule over the English church is based on ancient precedents, Mary replies such precedents were ‘invented these last few months’.

Where her tones and colors for individuality resonate are in the personal qualities of Cromwell. For one, he is a clever, ambitious man with a quick mind bordering on the cynical and the brazen. When a self-righteous Thomas More tries to bait him into heresy, Cromwell dodges and parries verbally with great effect. Mantel uses his famous portrait by the court painter Hans Holbein (also a character) as a means to reference the ‘hard Cromwellian stare – the equivalent of a kick’ that many fear once he becomes the king’s chief advisor. This goes hand-in-hand with a self-assuredness not often seen in a Tudor courtier. His first long conversation with Henry VIII reveals an almost flippant Cromwell, and although his stark honesty no doubt brings him into Henry’s trusted graces one wonders if he truly sparred with words in his meetings with the combustible king. Mantel, like Elton, recognizes Cromwell as the chief architect of many statutes of the realm. When Katherine of Aragon introduces him to her daughter, Mary, she says ‘This is Master Cromwell. Who now writes all the laws’. Near the end of the book it becomes clear that ambition is part and parcel of Cromwell’s persona. In thinking of his various properties he muses ‘all this is small stuff. It’s nothing to what he intends to have, or to what Henry will owe him’.

Cromwell is also a vindictive man with a long memory and the patience to wait for the right time to bring down an enemy – Mantel says he keeps a mental enemies list of those who have crossed him. When his mentor Wolsey is arrested by Henry Percy, the author writes of Cromwell: ‘God need not trouble, he thinks: I shall take it in hand’.  On another occasion, when he hears rumors of Anne Boleyn having an affair with Tom Wyatt, Cromwell overlooks it but notes that he will ‘bear it in mind’ for the future. He also places people in his debt, running the gamut from merchants and clerks to nobles and queens and the king himself. He pays for the installation of his nemesis, Stephen Gardiner, to become the bishop of Winchester, creating a future accounting for the prelate.

There is a sensitive side to Mantel’s Cromwell not usually considered by historians of the period. Cromwell cries in talking about the loss of his wife and two daughters to the periodic sweating sickness that killed those of low and high birth with impartiality. He is compassionate for the poor, feeding vagrants at his gate and bringing a poor mother and her two children into his household – but telling her she must learn to read. He also has an affair with Johane, the sister of his dead wife, and he is portrayed as possessing strong feelings for the likes of Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn and the king’s future wife, Jane Seymour – two very risky attractions considering they at various times are placed in Henry VIII’s bed during the story.

Cromwell’s religious beliefs and humanistic opinions are of import to both authors and are seen as driving forces in his actions.  Elton tells of a Cromwell who is patron to scholars and a ‘man of the gospel’. Reformers wanted new laws, and Elton describes a process where experts in Cromwell’s employment discuss reforms, draft them as laws and encourage their master to bring them to the king and council for promotion to parliament. A slight glitch in this analysis is noted: Elton admits it is difficult to ascertain if Cromwell was annotating a private petition to reform something he believed in, or whether he was merely helping a private interest.  Although unemployment is identified as the main target for reform (high rents, enclosures, loss of trade opportunities), Elton sees four areas Cromwell pursues for his reformist program: the church, removing special privileges and constitutional diversities such as in Wales and Ireland, overhaul of the central administration of state to make it less personal, and socio-economic problems. However, while these areas are targets for both commonwealth reformists and Protestant adherents, many of them had been addressed in varying degrees before – Elton observes that impeding enclosures dated back to a statute in Henry VII’s reign and the subsequent 1517 Enclosure Commission spearheaded by Wolsey. The impression given is that Cromwell hopes to succeed where others failed, and he could attempt to do so within the maelstrom of the retreat from Rome and a willingness for parliament to take bold actions for the king and their own self-interests.

Mantel places Cromwell and his beliefs in a world where Christianity and pagan practices are balanced to hedge one’s bets. Henry VIII is a good Christian son who believes he rules by divine right and is in touch with the Supreme Being. But he also keeps astrologers close at hand and listens to the rantings of a so-called holy woman who predicts the future. Cromwell is religious in the sense that he compartmentalises what may be divine from what may be politically useful. He can therefore seek religious reform, including getting rid of the non-biblical concept of Purgatory, yet at the same time pay for seven years’ worth of masses for his deceased wife while his nieces pray with rosary beads. Where there is no compromise to him is the law. To Cromwell, Christ did not bestow lands and property on people – that is done through earthly authority and none higher than parliament. Indeed, Cromwell believes that the king derives his power from the people and the laws of parliament – if Henry VIII did not at least recognise this in practice, Cromwell would not follow him.

When it comes to accomplishments and the art of survival, each author takes a different route with varying results. Elton seems to see the act of proposing legislative reforms as both an end unto itself and an achievement. Yet he is hard-pressed to show that Cromwell overall was successful during the Reformation Parliament up until his execution in 1540. It is clear that this was a very busy minister, but the success rate getting reformist bills passed was not earth-shattering. The 1536 Enclosure Act he shepherds through the Commons loses much of its teeth along the way. Cromwell’s attempt at a Poor Law, part of the reformist agenda, is eventually watered down and fails. His efforts to limit sanctuary and benefit of clergy – the latter where men could easily claim the privilege to avoid common law prosecution – was addressed by Henry VII and subsequent statutes without Cromwell’s imprint. When Cromwell attempts to restrain sanctuary in a 1540 bill, it is defeated after his fall. Much of the legislation in the last years of the Reformation Parliament involve law enforcement, not law reform; those law reform bills initiated fail, including a bill to prosecute rigged juries. In all of this, Elton makes clear that Cromwell can only do so much to push through a bill, and fairly little if the king is against it.

Ironically, Elton undercuts his argument after outlining Cromwell’s legislative reform failures by noting that in the last four parliaments after Cromwell’s fall, 12, 13, seven and 14 acts deemed commonwealth bills actually pass. Nevertheless, Elton entitles his last chapter ‘The achievement’, although admitting that most plans for the common weal through Cromwell’s endeavors ‘came to little or nothing’. Some that succeed were for terms, lasting until the next parliament or the death of the king. One is left with the impression that a hard-working minister, undeterred by defeat and opposition, doggedly pushes bill after bill through an institution without result. Thomas Cromwell perhaps believed in parliament more than it believed in Thomas Cromwell and his purpose. His survival through these turbulent times is not directly addressed by Elton, nor are much of the politics beyond parliamentary procedures. Nonetheless, it is clear that Cromwell had the trust of the king during the uncertainty of Continental responses to the Henrician Reformation and the demise of three wives until both court intrigue and an unfortunate painting of Anne of Cleves cost the minister his life.(6)

Time and again, Mantel portrays Cromwell as adept at manipulating Henry VIII. There are many examples throughout her story: instructing Henry that it is the king who is now head of the church of England in place of the Roman church in England; ‘teaching’ the king to call the pope the bishop of Rome; interpreting Henry’s dream in the middle of the night as a call to take charge of the realm; telling Henry that the monasteries are corrupt and useless, and thus ripe for dissolution. It is, after all, the caprice of a ruler – yesterday and today – that determines the rise or fall of a minister. Cromwell is a master of his master, and therefore of survival amid court plotting, back-stabbing and the volatile nature of a king losing his youth, his health and his hold on a viable dynasty. Mantel has Cromwell play the game as well as anyone in the Tudor orbit. Moreover, because of his ability to accomplish what his monarch wants – and here she only mentions those laws that passed – this unlikely minister through tenacity and ruthlessness was able to survive and thrive until, ironically, the Reformation was legislatively complete and England was, indeed, its own realm.

Mantel’s book as a whole sets itself up for a sequel, and those familiar with the period have a sense of what will happen to many of the characters presented, including Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Thomas Cromwell. A word should be mentioned about the title, Wolf Hall, since it is more descriptive of what it portends than what it has to do with the present book. The Seymours live at Wolf Hall, and it will be Jane Seymour who succeeds Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s next wife and the one who fulfills his quest for a male heir. Other than mentioned in passing, it is only discussed briefly on the last page and in fact the last sentence. Cromwell, whom we know is emotionally attached to Jane Seymour, intends to visit her and the Seymour family. The book ends thusly: ‘Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.’ To the reader waiting for the relevance of the title, it is a long wait indeed and perhaps without any meaning for the entire story. It is the author, in her notes published at the end of the novel, who admits as much: ‘Wolf Hall, the Seymour house in Wiltshire, is where we’re going at the end of the book. But, of course, I chose it primarily for its metaphorical resonance: who could resist it? The whole of Henry’s court is Wolf Hall.’

It might prove useful to read both books, beginning with Elton’s, if the reader desires to understand first what it was that preoccupied most of Thomas Cromwell’s time before entering the social and political world he dealt with on a daily basis during his rise to become the chief minister of Henry VIII as narrated by Mantel and Cromwell himself. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend a life solely through a fictionalised account, no matter how well researched, without becoming grounded in how things worked, or why they did not. Both authors have a great respect for their subject, and together they have taken a lesser-known Tudor figure in the popular mind and created a major component in one of the great events of English history: the Henrician Reformation, with its cast of famous characters caught up in this uncertain time.

1    G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridg, 1953).

2    For a good summary of Elton’s thesis and a revision of his conclusions, see Ethan H. Shagan, ‘The Tudor Revolution in Government fifty years later: rethinking Geoffrey Elton’s vision of political modernization’, paper presented at The University of Chicago Nicholson Center for British Studies Conference: Modernizing Politics? (21–2 May 2005).

3    Lacey Baldwin Smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (London, 1971).

4    George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. Richard S. Sylvester, Early English Text Society, 243 (London, 1959).  Cavendish was a gentleman usher in Wolsey’s household.

5    Félix Martí-Ibáñez, M.D., ‘The “Anne Boleyn” syndrome’, MD Medical News Magazine, 18, 10 (Oct 1974), 11–16.  There are no contemporary descriptions of Anne’s deformities.  The notion of having six fingers (polydactylism), a goiter and ‘moles’ occurred years after her execution and most likely by anti-Anglicans seeking to portray the attributes of a witch who enchanted Henry VIII into his divorce from Katherine and the papacy.

6    It has always been my feeling that once Henry VIII viewed the unfortunate lady in person and recognized the disparity between pictorial rendition and reality, it should have been the artist, Hans Holbein, who went to the block and not Cromwell.  After Cromwell’s demise, Henry lamented the execution of his minister and might have come to the same conclusion.  Holbein died in 1543, possibly from the plague.

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