The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court by Ford Madox Ford

September 27, 2011

The court of King Henry VIII provides a fascinating framework on which a master stylist such as Ford Madox Ford (or Hilary Mantel) may hang their art. There is intrigue enough for a thriller, marriages enough for romance, and high ideas enough in the politics, religion, and literature of the time to supply, and possibly overwhelm, even the most gifted writers. Mantel focused on Thomas Cromwell, bucking the historical trend of villainizing the man, investing him with a noble, even democratic, constitution. The man, in Hilary’s telling, pulled himself from nothing to be the maker of kings on an unbendable will and almost limitless talents:

He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. (Wolf Hall)

Mantel’s Wolf Hall is, reputedly, the first of a planned trilogy. My hunch is that she took more than a little inspiration from The Fifth Queen, also a trilogy.

Where Mantel gives us Cromwell’s perspective, Ford Madox Ford chose Katharine Howard for his lead. Like Mantel, Ford lists the considerable talents of his star:

She had some Greek, more than a little French, she could judge a good song, she could turn a verse in Latin or the vulgar tongue. She professed to be able to ride well, to be converseant with the terms of venery, to shoot with the bow, and to have studied the Fathers of the Church.

The resonance between the passages is but one example of many where Ford’s version is amplified in Mantel’s rendering. Mantel made Cromwell her hero, but Ford held him in some regard as well. In his non-fiction, Ford approvingly cited a scholar who described Cromwell as “a mighty minister & a consummate diplomatist, skilfully [sic] balancing the Powers one against another & crushing out seditions with a strong but necessary & beneficient hand.” (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 7) The essay excoriates Professor Goldwin Smith for, among other things, condemning Cromwell on no better evidence than “the accusations of his enemies, for Cromwell was not even tried.” (p. 7). The implication is that Cromwell was, at least, no worse than other men.

Ford says about Henry that he “was a man very much of his age.” (p. 8.) Ford’s characters take a very similar view of Cromwell, such as when Katharine Howard expresses distain for him:

“Men are not such villains.”

“They are as occasion makes them,” [Throckmorton] answered with his voice of a philosopher. “What manner of men these times breed you should know if you be not a fool.”

Mantel’s Cromwell was ruthless when circumstances demanded it and Ford’s characters have a similar view. I like this particular admonishment of Katharine for her idealism.

“It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world’s weapons.”

Mantel’s minute focus on Cromwell is matched by Ford’s examination of his fictional Katharine Howard. Katharine arrives at Henry VIII’s court idealistically naïve. The spy Throckmorton tries to disabuse her of simplistic notions of good and evil:

”But your eyes are so clear,” he sighed. “They see the black andwhite of a man. The grey they miss. And you are slow to learn. Nevertheless, already you have learned that here we have no yea-nay world of evil and good…”

“No,” she said, “that I have not learned, nor never shall.”

“Oh, aye,” he mocked at her. “You have learned that the Bishop of Winchester, who is on the side of your hosts of heaven, is a knave and a fool. You have learned that I, whom you have accounted a villain, am for you, and a very wise man. You have learned that Privy Seal, for whose fall you have prayed these ten years, is, his deeds apart, the only good man in this quaking place.”

The conflict in this first installment of the trilogy is between Katharine’s uncompromising views on good and evil and the realities of English politics. One gets the sense that she will be every bit as tragic a figure as Mantel’s Cromwell. Katherine’s are good and laudable principles, but either she or they must be ground down between the stones of national and religious politics.

Ford’s style is impeccable. The above quotes capture his ability to put passably 16th Century language into the mouths of his characters without sounding either ridiculous or counterfeit. The dialogue is simply beautiful.

Likewise, his treatment of minor characters adds depth and flavor to these high level intrigues. An old man is angry with Cromwell for building a wall through his garden and gives vent to his son and a printer. The scene feels intimate and real.

“A wall,” [the printer] muttered; “my Lord Privy Seal hath set up a wall against priestcraft all round these kingdoms—”

“Therefore you would have him welcome to forty feet of my garden?” the old man drawled. “He pulls down other folks’ crucifixes and sets up his own walls with other folks’ blood for mortar.”

The printer said darkly:

“Papists’ blood.”

The old man pulled his nose and glanced down.

“We were all Papists in my day.”

Early vignettes like this one acclimate the reader to time and place sufficiently that the novel feels dark and dank. However accurate the history presented is, it becomes a lived history and, for better or worse, all the more real because of that. Ford would say this as it should be:

For in their really higher manifestations History & Fiction are one: they are documented, tolerant, vivid; their characters live & answer & react one upon another each after his own sort. Fiction indeed, so long as it is not written with a purpose, is Contemporary History & History is the same thing as the Historic Novel, as long as it is inspired with the Historic Sense…the Historic Novel with a wide outlook upon peoples & upon kings. (“Creative History and the Historic Sense”, p. 13)

The Fifth Queen is, certainly, a Historic Novel. I would recommend it to anyone awaiting Mantel’s next installment. As proof of my sincerity, I plan to read the remainder of the two trilogies in tandem.


The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

July 15, 2010

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.


The Immoralist by Andre Gide

July 9, 2009

I have been going through old classics on my shelves recently. A couple months ago, I re-read Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER and THE FALL. My own view is that THE FALL (published in 1957) is a more mature and a deeper work than THE STRANGER (published in 1946). However, reading them back-to-back enriched the effect of both. Camus was obviously influenced by his good friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was also influenced by the literature of Andre Gide. I decided to ride the theme and re-read THE IMMORALIST.

TheImmoralistTHE IMMORALIST (written in 1902) precedes Camus’ works both chronologically and in the philosophical sense. Gide posed questions with which Camus later grappled. I probably should have read Gide before Camus, to follow the historical progression, but reading Gide out of order probably gives me greater appreciation of Gide. Gide’s work is outstanding.

He wrote in the preface: “One may without too much conceit, I think, prefer the risk of failing to interest the moment by what is genuinely interesting — to beguiling momentarily a public fond of trash.” Whether conceited or not, Gide did tackle the genuinely interesting. I am very glad he did.

Most of the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Michel. However, Michel’s narrative is related to us secondhand through one of his friends. The novel begins with a letter from one friend of Michel’s to a government official. The short letter poses an opening question: “Can we accommodate so much intelligence, so much strength–or must we refuse them any place among us?”

While the question is posed in the context of a letter examining whether Michel could be of use to the state, I think this is the question Gide is really asking the reader about such supermen and society. (Nietzsche’s WILL TO POWER was written one year later.) Gide does not answer the question. He explained: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment.”

The text of the letter is followed by a purportedly verbatim account by Michel of his recent life. Michel’s account begins with his marriage to Marceline, a woman he did not love; unless “love means tenderness, a kind of pity, as well as a good deal of respect.” Prior to the marriage, Michel was single-mindedly bookish. He tells his friend that his “excessively sedentary life…weakened and protected [him] at the same time.” His wife, in contrast, was physically strong and healthy.

Michel describes the transformation of his life by marriage:

I had lived for myself or at least on my own terms till then; I had married without imagining my wife as anything but a comrade, without really supposing that, by our union, my life might be transformed. I had just understood at last that the monologue was ending now.

Michel’s wife seems more engaged in the marriage. When Michel contracts tuberculosis in a small desert town, Marceline dutiful nurses him. Michel is sure “that her devoted care, that her love and nothing else, saved [him].” The disaparity in their affection for each other persists throughout the novel. Marceline seems always to be trying to win Michel’s affection while Michel more often sees the marriage as an obligation. The view presented of marriage is rather bleak. But then, Gide’s own marriage ended unhappily when he eloped with the sixteen year-old son of his best man. While Gide warned against confusing Michel with Gide, Gide was at least writing what he knew.

Michel’s illness awakens him, he believes, to life.

What matters is that merely being alive became quite amazing for me, and that the daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance. Till now, I would think, I never realized that I was alive. Now I would make the thrilling discovery of life.

Michel’s recovery is slow, if sure. In his recovery, he determined that he must redefine “Good” and “Right” to mean “whatever was healthy for [him].” This is an important turning point. However, despite his earlier assurance that only Marceline’s “devoted care” saved him, he soon sees her as, if not an impediment to recovery, then a irritant. He discovers that Marceline has been become acquainted with a group of local boys and rejects Marceline’s company in favor of the company of the boys. The boys are, after all, vigorously alive and youthful.

Michel spends the rest of the novel exploring the world and his newfound philosophy of life. For Michel, “sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.” Gide magnificently manages Michel’s transformation from a dependable, bookish man of means to a rather self-centered, erratic, pleasure-seeker. But Michel’s pleasure-seeking is not simple hedonism, he is trying to navigate between living in the past (as in his previous vocation as scholar of history) and living only for the future.

A man Michel meets, Menalque, encourages him in his new life. Menalque explains his own philosophy:

I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?

The conflict between Michel’s “will to power” and his obligations, including those to Marceline, provides the tension for the remainder of the novel. Marceline becomes ill and it is Michel’s handling of her illness that poses the most serious question to the reader. Michel is bent on living the remainder of his life in the present, yet he cannot quite abandon Marceline, at least not completely.

For long stretches he is preoccupied with new friendships, all of which are interesting and illuminating. His obligations as a landlord constrict him and social obligations oppress. But the central pull, preventing Michel from living entirely as he would, is Marceline and her illness. By the end of the book, Michel feels he has liberated himself, but that: “This useless freedom tortures me.”

As one would expect from a writer who inspired Sartre, Camus, and many others, Gide has written a book with the power to be life changing. At the least, THE IMMORALIST raises profound questions that are difficult to ignore.

I am already partial to the absurdists and the existentialists. Gide is a necessary part of that group. If you do not have a similar bent, you may not get quite the same enjoyment from THE IMMORALIST, but it is almost certain to be intellectually stimulating. While I would not go so far as to say that I consider THE IMMORALIST to be an essential novel like Camus’ THE FALL, I do think it is one of those novels than can enrich one’s worldview and, certainly, enrich one’s appreciation of Camus’ absurdism and Sartre’s existentialism.