I posted a double review of Frank O’Connor’s autobiographies over on Vulpes Libris: An Only Child, and My Father’s Son. I learned a lot about Irish history, Irish literature, Irish convents and army pensions.
I found these four short novels with a squeal of triumph in an Aberdeen second-hand bookshop, and bought them for £3. That’s right: the four books that are one of Garner’s greatest creative accomplishments, in a pristine box set, for barely more than they cost the original buyer in the late 1970s. I could barely contain my excitement, and gobbled all four stories over the next two evenings.
The Stone Book, Tom Fobble’s Day, Granny Reardun and The Aimer Gate were originally sold as children’s books. I know I read Granny Reardun as a child because I never forgot the image of the mother scrubbing the floor, moving backwards on her knees towards the door for the last time, where the rest of the family were waiting in their loaded cart to move somewhere they didn’t want to go. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember the title, and wondered for years where that story had come from. It came from Cheshire, Alan Garner’s ancestral county, and the Allman family were put out of their cottage because it was built of the last dimension stone in the county, and the vicar’s wife wanted it for her garden wall. This cruelty and injustice is a mere detail in the novel, since the main plot is about Joseph deciding that he does not want to be a stonemason like his grandfather, and how he is drawn to the forge as if he belongs there instead. Mark Edmonds wrote about Granny Reardun in an essay in the Alan Garner festschrift First Light: ‘It is only when [Joseph] sees their connection, in chisel mark and weathercock, that he fully understands. Metal is not asking him to turn his back; it just wants him to know where and how he fits’ (76).
Joseph is Mary’s son, and she is the stout-hearted daughter of Robert, the stone mason of The Stone Book. She climbs a ladder all the way to the top of Saint Philip’s steeple, carrying her father’s baggin in a knotted cloth between her teeth. Once she’s got over the dizziness she’s quite happy, and climbs the weathercock to be whizzed round and round by her delighted father. She wants to learn to read, but the squire doesn’t like his kitchen-maids to read, so Robert tools and knaps her a prayer-book from green flint, with a fossil fern on the back. There is also one more wonder in the story, that only Mary can see: she’s the bravest of all the characters in this quartet.
Joseph comes back in Tom Fobble’s Day, when his grandson William is learning how to stand up to the bullying Allman boy over the loan of his sledge. Joseph builds a sledge that carries William from the top of the top field past the dangerous rough ground near the gate, right through to the bottom field, well past the sledge graveyard where all the smashed ruins of homemade sledges end up. William’s sledge, much better than the shrapnel that rains from the sky as German bombers pass overhead, unregarded, is Joseph’s best and last job. Edmonds again: ‘The frame and rails are a composite of the forge that Joseph had stepped back from, and the loom used by William’s namesake many years before’ (78).
We go back in time to uncover that awkward bit between the fields, in The Aimer Gate, in which young Robert is put to work to move the stones and rubble by his uncle Charlie, back from France on leave in the First World War. Charlie is a sniper, his leave nearly up, and he has the shadow of death around him. Faddock Allman is the legless Boer War veteran now breaking stones in the road, sitting in his trolley. Charlie treats Faddock kindly, and with respect, one soldier to another. Faddock was the boy who threw stones through his own cottage window when he was working for the team who broke it up for the vicar’s wife’s garden wall, which is why Robert’s father William won’t speak to him. The ruins of the Allmans’ cottage make the ridge in the field boundary that smashes the unwary sledges, and will blunt the scythes of Charlie and the Leah brothers if young Robert doesn’t clear it out. Charlie’s last job is to shoot the rabbits and other creatures escaping from the field portion ever shrinking beneath the scythes. His sniping skill is his route out of farming, and stonework, and metal crafting, but his own plans may include something more drastic than that.
There’s a photograph of the Garners in First Light, with Joseph and Charlie and Mary and old Robert. We don’t really need to know that all the stories are true, or near enough. They are marvellous. Harry Lupton, again in First Light, said it best: ‘They are of such a distilled precision, they are so layered, so finely observed, so pregnant with what lies under their surfaces’. They wear like stone, with stories in every layer.
This time in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up I’m in the fourteenth century, immersed in a muddy Norfolk field at the medieval nunnery of Oby. The Corner That Held Them (1948) is a most peculiar and very readable novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner, author of the immortal Lolly Willowes. The Corner That Held Them is a fictionalisation of history, with no heroes and no heroines, and the protagonists jog slowly past our field of vision as we move from the twelfth century through the thirteenth, into the fourteenth. We meet five prioresses, four bishops, one custos (or convent business manager, in modern parlance), and one priest with a rather important secret that has become a nunnery tall tale since he revealed it inadvertently in the throes of a fever, thinking he was dying. Naturally none of the nuns believe him.
The plot, such as it is, begins with how this nunnery was founded. It was built in the memory of Alianor, the dead wife of Brian de Retteville, whom we first meet in bed, just before her lover is killed by her husband. After this rather big life event she has some children and then dies, and – most inexplicably – her angry and resentful husband is full of grief, and decides to build a nunnery, into which he can put their two sickly and uninteresting daughters. The nuns are installed, and get on with praying for the souls of the de Rettevilles, and inhabit the land for the glory of God. Their lives consist of small beer and minor irritations which Warner passes through so smoothly, telling the passing of the years where nothing much happens. There’s a murder, and much political second-guessing in the elections for the next prioress. Nuns have to wait for each other to die before they can change their office to be given work that is more congenial, or less awful. Small acts of kindness are rare, and the acts of ignorance and stupidity are many: this was not an educated period for anyone in England, so actions taken through lack of knowledge and understanding are very influential.
This is such an engrossing novel because it reads as if history is just unrolling in front of you. In my day job I’ve been using a very good recent study of the historical novel as a genre, by Jerome De Groot, that makes several observations very helpful for thinking about this novel. The first one is that the historical novel consciously hoodwinks the reader, we have to agree to be bamboozled into thinking that all this really happened, when really the author is making all of the story up. She’s not making up the history parts, we’re happy to believe the background details as fact. But weaving the fiction of what one character said to another and what they felt about that thing happening: that’s the fiction to blend seamlessly into the history. The reader thinks that the total invention presented as history is real because the fiction slides into our consciousness under the guarantee of the history; it’s a covert act against our rational understanding that we allow.
Another thing he talks about is the growth of the historical romance. The Corner That Held Them is not a historical romance, since there is no romance, no fantastical quest, no romantic love story, no urgent need for emotional satisfaction carried over for hundreds of pages to end in a tidy conclusive ending a few lines before the typing stops. The Corner That Held Them is about how history happens and what the nuns think about the bits of history happening that they notice. They notice rents not being paid so much, and don’t really know what to do about this. They are terrified, with good reason, of the fourteenth-century bands of robbers that prey on isolated monasteries, so they send off their valuable altar vessels for the bailiff to bury, which he does, and then he dies. In one of the most magical parts of the narrative (it’s really not a story), the convent’s custos Henry Yellowlees stays the night at a leper hospital, on an errand for the nuns. The chaplain shows him some remarkable new music, Ars Nova, which is the new polyphony, multivocal music that twines and winds the voices around each other: listen to this by Thomas Tallis and you’ll get the idea. Polyphony was banished from the Catholic Liturgy by Pope John XII in 1322, but fifty years later is being sung with rapture by a priest, a clerk and a leper, in this novel.
In another episode of unexpected emotional pleasure, Sir Ralph the priest goes in search of a hawk (since all medieval priests may fly a hawk as a symbol of their gentility). He meets the recently widowed Dame of Brocton who wants to read him the Lay of Mamillion, which her young husband, recently dead, had composed. This is Sir Ralph’s first encounter with medieval literature, and from the snatches Warner invents for our entertainment it seems to be very like Gawain and the Green Knight, thought to have been written around this time. Thus important developments in English art are connected to the history of this nunnery, but the nuns themselves, being enclosed and very wary of change, don’t know anything about them.
The story (which it isn’t) leaves loose ends dangling like a fraying skirt hem. Dame Adela runs away from the nunnery, and goes to sea with Annis the prostitute: what has happened to the valuable new altar embroidery? We don’t see what is important and what is not important. Take this example: Sir Ralph leaves his room, and (I quote) ‘a brimstone butterfly fluttered into the room’. I had that butterfly at the back of my mind for most of the rest of the novel, but nothing seemed to happen to make it important, so I forgot it. But, in her introduction to the Virago reprint of the novel, Claire Harman points out that simply by making us notice that a butterfly came into the room, and then doing nothing with it, Warner was teasing the readers by pointing out that this was one convention of tidy story-telling that she was not going to obey. Nowadays, officious editors will point out to the anxious author that the butterfly has to be tidied up and made important, please, otherwise why mention it? Things happen and aren’t necessarily important, because, what is important in a life? That’s what this novel is about. For the joy of invention, for the pleasure of leaving an untidy ending. To show that no-one really notices butterflies in real life.
In a way, The Corner That Held Them is more like the ‘naturalist realism’ of the nineteenth-century historical novel, which was as plain and historically accountable as it could be, to be real, and natural. Warner’s interjections and abrupt summaries of a year – ‘In 1208 came the Interdict. In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary’ – sound very like proper medieval chronicles, when there wasn’t very much to remember, or nothing much happened that was important enough to write, on calfskin vellum, which was expensive. The same thing happens to the nuns’ collective memory. They can only work out when the daylight owl began to hoot by thinking back to other events: when the pear-tree blossomed, when the refectory was whitewashed, when Dame Amy had a whitlow. They know about Sundays, but every other day flows past in a nameless stream. This vagueness anchored with memorable events is a familiar habit, we all think of our own personal histories like this. But when history goes into a written narrative, it can do two things. It can become the kind of historical fiction called the ‘felt past’, in which the emotions of characters are up front and palpable, the history illustrating their story of love, or adventure, or revenge.
The Corner That Held Them is not one of those. It’s a historical novel in the school of the ‘recovered past’, when the past is the subject, and history is more important than story. It’s also a women’s view of history, a new way of thinking about how history was written that was developed in the early twentieth century, according to Diana Wallace who studies the historical novel. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of many women writers who redirected the attention of the readers of historical novels to what ordinary lives and ordinary women might have seen, felt, thought or done. Nineteenth-century historical fiction was full of action, drama, high romance, epic adventure, all tough, showy, strong manly stuff, and always fighting. If women appeared in those novels, they were the prizes, or hostages, or useful cleaners and cooks and moppers-up of the heroic blood, backstage. Women’s historical fiction was about the lives of women in history, which could certainly be vague and nameless and undistinguished, just as their lives could be magnificent and heroic and devious and brutal. All of these appear in characters in The Corner That Held Them. It’s a wonderful novel, and a wonderful dip into the unknown muddy stream we call the twelfth, and thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, somewhere in the east of England.
Hilary from Vulpes Libris also reviewed this recently: check and see if you agree with her reading.
I wrote something heartfelt about the process of marking a poetry exam, over on Vulpes Libris.
Lady Baltimore, by Owen Wister, is an extraordinary novel. It wasn’t written as a historical novel, but it certainly is one now: a 1905 depiction of the American South at the turn of the twentieth century, on how life would have been so much better if the South hadn’t lost the Civil War.
I had to do some research on Owen Wister, though I’ve been rereading this novel, and his most famous one, The Virginian, for over twenty years. I knew he was a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, because my 1928 edition of Lady Baltimore reproduces a couple of long letters between them on the subject of race, on which I have something to say in a minute. I had already realised that Wister was keen on the idea of the natural aristocrat, the idea that some people are simply innately better than others, by their ‘breeding’ and their natural gifts. This is how he makes the eponymous protagonist of The Virginian such a hero, persuading the reader to accept his superiority by his actions, and by giving him outrageously attractive virtues. But the idea of natural aristocracy never sounded very democratic to me, so I was confused about how Wister felt about the American ideal that all men and women are created equal.
In Lady Baltimore we see substantial evidence that Wister, or his narrative persona, did not think that all men and women were created equal, since he is firmly (though always with gentlemanly regret) against any suggestion that men and women with black skins might be equal to those with white. The easy urbanity and simple persuasiveness with which the narrator of Lady Baltimore sets out just how impossible it is that black slaves and their descendants can be anything but dependent and lower than the whites, are horribly alluring. It’s the tone that does it. The novel is written as if Mark Twain and Edith Wharton were acting out a script by Jane Austen. It uses a dangerously familiar set of literary echoes, and so we assume we know what we are going to be reading. Jane Austen may have tacitly condoned slavery in Mansfield Park, but she doesn’t say anything about it directly. Edith Wharton was not known for her pro-slavery views, as was not Mark Twain: these are authors on the righteous side of history. We simply don’t expect to fall into the trap of going along with openly racist views in a novel that follows such great literary voices so faithfully.
Lady Baltimore is about the attempts of New York society girl Hortense Rieppe to persuade impoverished Southern gentleman John Mayrant to stay in love with her. He met her in romantic circumstances, there was an idyll and an engagement, he returned home to prepare for their marriage. She followed to make sure that he did not come to his senses, because he is quite unlike her usual beaux, although, regrettably, poor. And her usual beaux are incredulous that she allowed things to progress this far. Hortense’s pursuit is set in Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century when the New Rich of Newport were becoming a horrifying byword for vulgarity and philistinism for traditional Southerners. I can’t find much online about this novel, which makes me think that its subject matter has persuaded scholars to avoid it. I can’t find any reprints except in a Southern Classics series from 1992, and the admirable Librivox have done an audio book version. Tellingly, the blurb for 1992 edition describes Lady Baltimore as a ‘classic novel of post-Civil War Charleston life’. It talks about the theme of North and South becoming reconciled, but says nothing at all about the other major theme, of how the black American should never attain equality with the white. This is a novel that needs investigation, because of its manipulation of the reader. There is something very strange about the process of reading, and loving, I mean absolutely loving, a novel in all its aspects, and then being stopped in one’s tracks by the narrator’s assumption that something we know is utterly wrong is desirable, and that all the readers will agree with this. An analogy might be as if one were reading a great German novel of the 1930s, being totally wowed by it, and then finding out, too late, that it and its author were seriously pro-Nazi. It’s a kick to the intellect.
So that is today’s conundrum: how can you deeply admire a novel for narrative technique, emotional satisfaction, artistry, pacing, etc, even though it is appallingly wrong in so many ways? Have any great modern classics been in the same category? We know Virginia Woolf was a vile anti-Semitic snob and an unkind person from her private diaries and letters, so why does that not affect our appreciation of her novels? D H Lawrence had some seriously odd ideas about women’s relationship to men – apparently he tried to beat up his wife because she was not ‘suitably reverential to his maleness’ – yet he has been an unassailable modern classic in English literature teaching for decades. (Though I did hear a colleague remark some years ago that she could not believe Lawrence was seriously taught these days, so perhaps fashions are changing.) Among the lesser politically right-wing writers, personal views no longer thought of as socially acceptable are more likely to make us disapprove of their work. I can’t read ‘Sapper’ because his views poison his prose. I get enough stick about John Buchan to know that people feel the same away about him. Ditto Dornford Yates. Maybe not so much about Angela Thirkell, but the more I worked on her writing, the less I would have liked to have met her. The emotional satisfaction we get from their novels is tightly bound up with our approval of the ethics or moral values implicit in the narratives.
Going back to Lady Baltimore, I have to repeat: it is an eminently satisfying novel. The first-person narrator, a Northerner called Augustus, is sent to Charleston by his Aunt Carola, who wants him to find archival evidence that he is connected by blood to the crowned heads of Europe. This is a delightfully satirical sub-plot we needn’t think about much, but it brings Augustus to Charleston, and gives him letters of introduction to the old families of the town who approve, in a superior way, of his task. He himself has no great interest in being royally related, but he is a dutiful nephew, and can see that this task gives him the entrée into a society that he is soon longing to penetrate. He meets Miss Eliza La Heu, the daughter of a plantation family working, in a ladylike way, at the Woman’s Exchange, selling cake and light lunches to the upper classes. He also meets John Mayrant, first introduced as an out of breath young gentleman, who arrives at the Woman’s Exchange while Augustus is taking his first lunch there, to order a wedding cake for the following Wednesday: the ‘Lady Baltimore’ of the title.
Augustus finds out from elliptical, ladylike gossip-mongers that John Mayrant’s fiancée is a beautiful young woman, but she has no background, her father ran away from his post at the Battle of Chattanooga, and her Newport friends give her no respectability in the eyes of Mr Mayrant’s elderly aunts. Worse, Mr Mayrant is definitely going off the boil, and Hortense is playing fast and loose with a very wealthy banker from nowhere called Charley. But which one will she marry, and which one does she love? And if John Mayrant is realising that he no longer loves her, and in fact would run a mile rather than have anything to do with her so-called friends, how is he, as a very correct Southern gentleman, going to get out of the engagement?
We need to recollect that Southern manners at the turn of the century were definitely pre-Civil War in origin. It is the pride of the Southern ladies whom Augustus formally visits that they control all gossip and discussion by these antediluvian standards. So Augustus’s progress, and ours, in understanding all the ins and outs is severely constrained by what he can winkle out without being guilty of a lapse in manners.
I found all this completely delightful. When the Displacers – as Hortenses’s set is named by Augustus – arrive in Charleston in their vulgar automobile, and inadvertently run over Miss Eliza’s dog, and offer her money as a compensation because they think from her modest dress that she is a servant or peasant, we can see this is going to be a deeply felt enactment of the manners of the New Rich versus those of the Old Poor.
But I have not forgotten the racism. It begins casually, with a loyal ex-slave called Daddy Ben offering formal sympathy to John Mayrant over his appalling predicament of having a black man appointed as a superior official over him in his job in the Custom House. That’s a bit of a shock. Then Augustus goes looking for a carpenter to make him up a box for posting some fragile items, in the area of Charleston where the black population lives. This is described indelicately, and the black men who do not subscribe to Daddy Ben’s point of view are all categorised as filthy, violent and drunkards. The long discussions between very endearing and admirable characters over the utter impossibility of a black man ever being equal to a white are simply astounding. They should be read against modern fiction by Alice Walker or Maya Angelou, because Wister is so genuine and unconscious, so utterly of his time, and yet so appalling to read now. The complete lack of nuance in these sections is breath-taking, so much so that it seems a different novel. But perhaps, after all, Lady Baltimore is like Mansfield Park, and Jane Eyre, both excellent novels admired for their literary perfection, but with silent elements we do not consider or even notice until we come across them in a post-colonial literature class.
Lady Baltimore is deeply rewarding for the marvellous storytelling, the fun of the extraordinary social entanglements, the clever wit, and for the enjoyment of seeing the New Rich routed, as is traditional for this kind of American novel in the Edith Wharton style. Read it also for a very sobering piece of evidence that 12 Years A Slave was not made up in hindsight.
I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
This time, in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in Ancient Rome, rereading Naomi Mitchison’s excellent novel about very early Christians in the reign of the Emperor Nero, The Blood of the Martyrs, from 1939. You can probably guess the ending already from the clues in the title, but, trust me: it may be a weepy, but it is an outstanding philosophical and theological thriller. It’s set around the beginnings of the Pisonian conspiracy of AD65, which tried but failed to assassinate Nero. The novel’s main protagonists have no idea that a plot is being hatched, because they’re mostly slaves or Romans struggling to earn enough to eat, and the real-life plot only emerges when the main plot of the novel is thundering to its climax.
It’s typical of Naomi Mitchison’s fiction to concentrate on the lives and ambitions of the working-classes and those without power. She was a Scottish socialist novelist who first began to be published in the 1920s and 1930s, and who died in 1999. She published over 90 books, and is most famous for her epic novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), which was about prehistoric fertility rites in Anatolia, heavily influenced by J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Jane Harrison’s pioneering studies of classical Greek myth and religion. Mitchison took research seriously. She wrote many novels set in prehistory and early classical and Roman history, and was a pioneer in using a pure and undateable vocabulary spoken in a modern style so her characters sound unalienatingly familiar. No hists and thous for her: her Roman matron chatters like an English society lady of the 1930s, and figures from the New Testament sound like normal people.
This plot is about slaves and the very poor in Rome who are or who have become Christian, and are struggling to maintain their tiny Churches in an increasing atmosphere of suspicion. The economy of the Roman Empire is based on slave labour, and must continually acquire more slaves to replace those who die from starvation and ill-treatment. Slaves are not considered to be human, though some of their more benign masters, such as Flavius Crispus in the novel, do see the benefit of treating their property with care to have a better return for their investment in long-term service. Sometimes the worn-out slaves who can no longer carry a litter, say, or who have lost a hand in an accident, are not thrown out or sold, but given light work or retired to the family farm as a useful labourer. But most slaves get sold again once they’ve outlived their use to one master.
Another category of non-Roman citizen were the captured children of enemy nobles, who were brought up as fosterlings in nice Roman homes, until the day came when they needed to be put out of the way, perhaps into the army, or married off to someone who would be grateful. The novel begins in a sultry post-coital scene between Beric, a captive Gaulish prince who has grown up in the house of Flavius Crispus, who has just been doing what he’s been told to by his foster sister Flavia, a beautiful, spoiled and very nasty young woman, who hasn’t yet told the besotted Beric about her betrothal, to be announced that evening. Thus the novel begins with an uneven demonstration of power, between the Roman citizen and the non-citizen, between the emotionally cold and the hopelessly dreamy, and between a young woman with a very assured manner and young man who doesn’t know how shaky the certainties of his life are becoming. We can sense his vulnerability right from the first page, and can tell that things are not going to go well.
As Flavius’s de facto son, Beric runs the house for him, and manages the slaves. But once she’s established his life for us, Mitchison changes tack and begins to tell another story, of Manasses and Josias who were captured in a raid, and grew up as slaves in Rome. Their father had known Jesus’s younger brother James, so they were brought up as Christians, and by luck have managed to find other Christians while in captivity. In a third chapter we hear about a beautiful Persian girl born into slavery and taken from her mother (that’s the second girl the poor woman has lost) when she’s old enough to sell. She becomes Flavia’s newest and most tortured maid. And so on. Each chapter in the first half of the novel puts you inside the experience of sixteen slaves or freedmen and women, and gives you their stories in their own words or from their perspective. This technique of multiple voices isn’t nearly as confusing as you think it might be because Mitchison’s control of her material is absolute, and very subtle.
Reading these chapters, and learning how each story fits into the others, and how their tiny Church grew, is a bit like walking around the outside of a building with many windows. Each time you look through a window, or read a chapter, you see characters you’ve already met, or will meet, doing something slightly different or new or in the past or future, so that the composite picture becomes more detailed, and more nuanced. Some of the characters are already Christian when they arrive in Rome; others become convinced that Jesus’s words are for them, to give them something to live for. It’s quite acceptable at this point in the story to look out a New Testament, to read Paul’s letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The tiny group of worshippers that Manasses serves as its deacon is the kind of Church that St Paul was supporting by letters on his travels. He’s in the novel too, in Part Three, when they’re all waiting for the lions, but we’ll get to that.
Every narrative voice in the novel belongs to a character. There is no third-person omniscient narrator, no authorial voice who knows more than the characters or the readers. It’s an egalitarian way to tell a story, which fits beautifully with the Christian ethos that the story illustrates, that everyone is equal and that every person is as important as each other. It’s also a technical tour de force, brilliantly executed, because it’s hard to spot the seamless change in perspectives from one character to another, when – zip – you’re out of Eunice’s bakery and back into Crispus’s house, or into the cellar where the Church meets to worship and receive strength from their beliefs. For a 1930s novel it is also egalitarian in gender and sexuality. Some characters love each other and happen to be men, and also love women: later fans of Mary Renault would have appreciated the delicacy of Mitchison’s touch, who wrote this novel when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Women too have equal status in the Church. A dancing girl called Lalage is a deacon alongside Manasses, because those who are strongest in the spirit become leaders, and she is strong.
When Beric is suffering most from the crumbling of his world’s foundations, he becomes aware that some of the slaves that he commands in Crispus’s household have some kind of belief that gives them strength. He joins their Church just as Nero arranges for some areas of Rome to be set on fire to clear the way for his latest architectural experiments. The blame for the fire falls on the Christians, who are enthusiastically rounded up by Praetorian chief Tigellinus, who is also seducing Flavia, now that she is a safely married and under-occupied woman. One by one the members of this small Church are arrested, beaten up, released, and then arrested again, because Nero and Tigellinus want to please the Roman crowds with a really spectacular Games, featuring burning women, chariot races, Christians and wild beasts and animal hunts. Other Churches exist in Rome as well as Manasses’ Church, but they are widely scattered, and rightly cautious about making contact in case they are betrayed by a smiling stranger. The novel ushers or pulls all the characters towards the Coliseum, some of them towards the spectator seats, and some of them towards the cells as the entertainment.
I mentioned that The Blood of the Martyrs is a philosophical and theological thriller. Many of the conversations are between characters trying to explain to each other what Christianity is, and what you do when you are one. In the third part of the novel Paul is in prison with the other characters, and is arguing with them about what needs to be done, and how baptism should be performed. He dictates his letters to other churches to Luke, the doctor who does his best for the prisoners after their torture, but really there is very little he can do for a raped woman who is about to be torn apart by tigers. Stoics and Epicurian characters are also present in the prison, political prisoners lofty in the knowledge that their intellectually superior beliefs do not let them in for such degrading and brutal treatment. But they are shaken by their inability to watch another person suffer and remain unmoved. By witnessing the deaths in the arena, people begin to be converted, and the seed of belief is transmitted by example and by loving kindness. It is a very moving image, drenched with sadness.
Underneath these small stories is our historical awareness of the Christian church at its beginnings, and of the other faiths prospering in Rome at the same time. The Roman Jews do not receive the persecution meted out to the Christians, but when Mitchison was writing this novel, the Jews were being persecuted mercilessly in Nazi Germany, and worse was to come. It’s pretty clear that Mitchison intended this novel to be read as a parable for the contemporary persecution of the Jews as well.
When I began to reread The Blood of the Martyrs I knew that I had not carried it with me through countless house moves for nothing: it is a marvellous, gripping read. But I also knew why I had not wanted to reread it for over twenty years; it is desperately sad, and full of tragic moments you can see coming, agonisingly, several pages off. Find your handkerchief.