Arguing about our ancestors

<i>Slammerkin</i> by Emma Donoghue (Virago, &pound;14.99, 420pp); <i>The House of Sight and Shadow</i> by Nicholas Griffin (Little, Brown, &pound;16.99, 343pp); <i>The Temple of Optimism</i> by James Fleming (Jonathan Cape, 16.99, 313pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

We look at the past, and the past we see looking back at us is always a creature of our own intellectual fashions. At any level other than the romp which uses the past as a playground, historical fiction dates badly because its setting is totally a creation of the time of its writing. We draw different morals from the same sorts of story and all these morals have in common is what E P Thompson called "the massive condescension of posterity". We believe ourselves better than the puppets with which we portray our ancestors. Yet we are what has grown from the best of them.

We look at the past, and the past we see looking back at us is always a creature of our own intellectual fashions. At any level other than the romp which uses the past as a playground, historical fiction dates badly because its setting is totally a creation of the time of its writing. We draw different morals from the same sorts of story and all these morals have in common is what E P Thompson called "the massive condescension of posterity". We believe ourselves better than the puppets with which we portray our ancestors. Yet we are what has grown from the best of them.

The 18th century, for example, is now no longer the Age of Reason; it is an age of blundering attempts at reason, of bullying attempts at kindness, of oppression hidden by cant of liberation. These three novels take a high moral tone about a century itself not loath to moralise. One wonders what the point is in shouting at people who cannot hear you.

Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin sees the historical circumstances of its heroine as a trap, impossible to escape from alive. We know that Mary Saunders is going to hang and burn for a crime she was always going to have committed. Rarely since Hardy at his most doom-laden have circumstances so totally combined to put a heroine in the death cell.

Donoghue knows the period to a point that one's cavils are almost all nit-picks: the life-span of an unsuccessful Covent Garden whore, the garments they would be wearing or pawning, the number of stitches in each undergarment. Mary's adventures as whore, as penitent, as runaway and as servant are sensuously vivid, and for once we get a sense of religious life as something more than hypocrisy. Yet our pre-knowledge of Mary's end means that all this lived experience comes to seem no more than a theorem that will end by confirming what it began by announcing.

When Joseph Bendix, hero of Nicholas Griffin's The House of Sight and Shadow, arrives in a rather earlier London to study with the reclusive anatomist Calcraft, we realise we are in Weird Science territory. Calcraft acquires the corpses of the hanged to render down for medicinal extracts. Bendix falls in love with Calcraft's albino daughter, acquires an interest in her father's schemes to find the right essence of criminal to make her well - and gains a working knowledge of London's underworld. This novel is at its best when most penny-dreadful: when Calcraft is scheming with the thief-taker and fence Jonathan Wild, or when Daniel Defoe shows Bendix around a dangerous metropolis. But the dénouement - Calcraft mad, Wild hanged, Bendix hideously dying of his experiments - is too contrived, as well as too dependent on the dramatic irony derived from hindsight.

There is rather too much of this in the later stages of James Fleming's The Temple of Optimism, as events in Revolutionary France impinge on the investments of villainous Anthony Apreece and make some sort of happy ending possible. Fleming starts with something of a tour de force as we come to know and love the improving landlord Nat Horne, only to have him suddenly dead and the plot move forward a decade to the arrival in Derbyshire of his impoverished dandy heir.

Apreece coveted Nat's land and thinks young Edward Horne a soft touch who can be tricked into selling up. Edward, on the other hand, has a quiet toughness by no means at odds with the sensibility that makes him fall in love with his lands and Apreece's put-upon wife. Fleming's plot depends rather too heavily on intrigues. Yet his people are precisely what we go to a good historical novel for: credible individuals whose motives map more credibly onto their time than on to our own.

Comments