Submission and cross-dressing: Tennyson’s The Princess

tennyson-5We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.

The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.

tennyson-1Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.

So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.

note the chaps in disguise
note the chaps in disguise

Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.

This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).

The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.

photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess
photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess

Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.

But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.

tennyson-2Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.

The 1947 Club: Mistress Masham’s Repose by T H White

white-4I reread this less-known novel by T H White for the #1947Club because I had a Folio Club edition that I’d never read. My paperback copy of Mistress Masham’s Repose fell apart through overuse many year ago, so I was very happy to find this large, illustrated, embossed edition in a fancy cardboard slipcase, lurking under a shelf in a second-hand bookshop. But the problem with a slipcase is that it anonymises the book inside, and so for years my eye would glide over its dull whiteness without remembering the glory of the novel inside. It did protect the fine red watered silk binding, so I’m pleased about that.

This is a glorious novel, and will remind you of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite novels (which I must also reread), since they too are set in an alternate history and landscape and feature a horrible governess villain who torments the imprisoned child hero in a vast country estate (published 1962 onwards). It helps if you’ve already read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, since Mistress Masham’s Repose is a fanciful continuation of the plight of the Lilliputians, but this is not a requirement, since everything is explained.

white-5When Gulliver left Lilliput and its six-inch-tall people he boasted foolishly about them to the sailors on his ship. Once he had been landed safely, the ship tore back to Lilliput, looking for manikins to exhibit at fairs to make the sailors’ fortunes. One group of kidnapped Lilliputians escaped while on tour in Northamptonshire, and found their way to an island on an ornamental lake, which contains a folly of a temple called Mistress Masham’s Repose. The lake is in the large ducal estate of Malplaquet, which is something like Blenheim Palace and Stowe and Stourhead combined. Without anyone knowing, the Lilliputians settled, married, had descendants, and became Lilliput in Exile, farming, hunting and managing as best they could on their untropical island.

white-3Enter Maria. She is the ten-year old orphaned daughter of the Malplaquet family, kept in poverty by her horrible governess Miss Brown and the vile Vicar, Mr Hater, who are siphoning off her inheritance and working out how to remove it from her completely, with accidental murder a possible option. The Malplaquet estate is truly vast, but practically derelict. The house has 365 windows, all broken but six, fifty-two state bedrooms, and twelve company rooms … It had been built by one of her ducal ancestors who had been a friend of the poet Pope’s, and it was surrounded by Vistas, Obelisks, Pyramids, Columns, Temples, Rotundas, and Palladian Bridges. White gleefully renames the dusty, neglected rooms to puncture the ducal pomposity, and exaggerates the ruinous extent of the palace, for it really is a ducal palace, not just a stately home, to reinforce Maria’s parlous plight of poverty, semi-starvation, and ignorance, for she is barely taught anything.

Maria runs away from Miss Brown one day, decides to visit the lake called the Quincunx, and visit the artificial island and its temple. For the first time Maria penetrates the thicket of brambles that surrounds the Repose. To her amazement the grass is short and cropped, and there is a miniature baby sleeping in a cradle made of a walnut shell. She seizes the cradle in amazement, looks down to notice that she is being stabbed in the foot by a tiny, furious woman armed with a harpoon, and seizes her too. She goes home, puts her new toys safely in a tight drawer, and goes down to the kitchen to have her supper.

white-2Cook is one of Maria’s only two friends in the world. The other is the Professor, who lives on the estate on almost nothing apart from Cook’s discreet food parcels, and Maria takes her toys to show him the next day. The Professor explains that these are people, and that Maria must take them back: ‘people must not tyrannise’. This she does, and communications begin between Maria and Lilliputians. They can speak an eighteenth-century form of English, and the Professor, to his delight, finds a basic dictionary of Lilliputian in the Malplaquet library (probably left by Swift on a visit to the first Duke). The Lilliputians and Maria exchange gifts, and they tolerate her rather rampageous ways, realising that she is a very young Giant. They become her allies in her long and bitter battle against Miss Brown and Mr Hater. These villains spot and capture the Lilliputians, and imprison Maria in the dungeons, and then in the Vicarage. Cook rides her bicycle frantically to the Lord-Lieutenant’s house to raise the alarm before murder is done.

white-1This splendid story was written while White was beginning the research for his The Age of Scandal (1950) and The Scandalmongers (1952), which are anthologised studies of the later eighteenth century in England and its rackety, murderous, scatological, oversexed ways. Mistress Masham’s Repose is nothing like those two works, but it shares a passion for the period (even though it is set in the 1930s or thereabouts). It is a searching and eccentric investigation into what life could be like for Lilliputians in the wild, and how a young girl with good intentions but not much knowledge might be able to help them. The Professor is a repeat performance of White’s most famous scholarly creation, Merlyn from The Sword in the Stone (1938), in modern tweeds. The Lord-Lieutenant is King Arthur’s foster-father Sir Ector all over again, and Maria could be a female version of the Wart, but with less humility.

Maria’s poverty and isolation, and her matter-of-fact, make-do-and-mend ways remind us that this is also a post-war novel, written for a population still living under rationing. White is not sentimental about this child’s sufferings, and expects her to get on and make the best of the grim situation in which he has written her. The Lilliputians are refugees, still hoping to return to the Lilliput that none of them can remember, and Maria is a survivor among the ruins created by enemy action and neglect. The villains embody the tyrannical rules and regulations that White would resist all his life. It is not a charming novel, but it is brave, honest, delightful and inspiring.

 

Dogged mid-West endurance: Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark

Cather 1This time in the Really Like This Book’s podcast script catch-up, I’ve gone west, to Willa Cather’s beautiful novel The Song of the Lark from 1915. If ever there was an advertisement for idyllic American settings, this novel is it. The descriptions evoke desert life near the Mexican border, clean and tidy Scandinavian-immigrant town life in Colorado, and the railroad life in mining towns on the edge of the mountains: all in the late nineteenth century. City life in Chicago and New York is, in contrast, seen from confined rooms and vehicles. Cather’s heroine, Thea Kronborg, an aspiring musician and singer, travels to Chicago for two winters to study, and it seems to be raining there all the time. New York, where she sings important parts from Wagner for the first time in public, is a lot more glamorous, since we see her there in hotels, restaurants and theatres, but it always seems dark, and is also wintry.  The sun is in Colorado, where Thea grew up, and that is the heart of the novel.

Cather 2Thea is a woman who really works hard for her career. We first meet her as a young girl lying ill in bed with pneumonia while her mother is giving birth to the seventh child of the family. Thea’s talent as a musician is obvious, and her mother has to protect Thea from the jealousy of her siblings in a rather crowded house. Thea takes piano lessons from an itinerant German musician, Herr Wunsch, who lives with the Kohlers, an old German couple at the edge of the Swedish settlement of Moonstone, where Thea’s father is a rather lazy pastor in the Swedish church. Thea also sings in the church choir and at funerals, but only because these are the only church-related duties that she can stomach.

Cather 4Thea likes Moonstone, but she doesn’t like the people much, except for her particular friends, who are all older than her, and understand her musicianship. Dr Archie is the most respectable of these friends – respectability matters in Moonstone – but even he is gossiped about because of his dreadful stingy wife, and his habit of sitting for long hours in his office late at night rather than going home. Ray Kennedy is also respectable, but he’s a working man, a brakeman on the freight railroad, who has plans to marry Thea when she’s 20. Thea doesn’t know this, of course, and scarcely thinks of Ray except as a means of seeing the country around the town when she can travel with him in short trips to Flagstaff or further afield. The kind Kohlers, whom Thea sees every time she takes her lesson from Wunsch, are semi-respectable, but they don’t live in town, they live in a little house surrounded by a garden on the edge of the desert, and grow German trees and flowers, and keep doves in a dovecot, to remind them of home. Wunsch is not respectable, but he has talent, so the town tolerates him, and let him lead the town orchestra and give their daughters piano lessons. But when he goes on a drinking binge, and starts to chop down the dovecot, and is found in a stupor lying under the railway bridge, he loses his pupils, and he leaves town to go travelling again, all respectability lost. The fact that he is a musician worth nurturing and protecting means nothing to the town. Thea’s least respectable friends are the Mexicans in their community outside the town. The townsfolk are smugly superior about the Mexicans, calling them dirty and lazy, but they can’t appreciate what Thea hears in their music. Thea sings and dances with the Mexicans, and learns songs from Johnny Tellamantez, who is as big a binge drinker as Wunsch, and a passionate wanderer.

Cather 8Thea grows out of Moonstone. She leaves school at 15 to teach piano, and earns money from extra singing at funerals, but she is trapped. She doesn’t know what she can do to release the talent inside her. Her horizons are very limited: she only knows about the local towns of Flagstaff, and Denver. Wunsch’s eccentric teaching has missed out important areas of musical theory and the great composers, but even though she isn’t aware of these gaps, she knows that music is her life. Ray gives her the way out, by leaving her his life insurance. His six hundred dollars, the price of a man’s life, gives Thea a winter in Chicago where she expects to learn a little more piano, enough to set her up as a professional music teacher. She works like a demon at her lessons with Andor Harsanyi, a concert pianist of great kindness and perception, and is so focused on piano that she forgets she has a voice. Harsanyi discovers her voice when she casually mentions that she sings in a church choir in Chicago to pay her rent. Her lessons with him become part voice, part piano, until Harsanyi can do no more with her and sends her to Bowers, an unpleasant man but the best voice teacher in Chicago. Again, Thea works like a demon, playing accompaniments for Bowers’ rich society pupils to pay for her own lessons. She takes no care of her appearance, she is too naïve to understand how to dress or where to buy things, so she looks like a scarecrow when she meets Fred Ottenburg, the rich son of a brewing dynasty. He is also a passionate devotee of music, and makes sure that she eats properly, sends her flowers when she’s ill, and introduces her to the great music-loving Jewish families in Chicago. He shows Thea how to enjoy life as well as work. Not that she stops working: Fred’s care doubles her energy, but she’s still lost, looking for a way to express her talent.

Cather 6After a long second winter being ill and still struggling with her voice, despite Fred’s nurturing, Thea spends two summer months in Arizona. She’s staying at Fred’s family farm, and recovers her health and interest in life by simply soaking up sun and playing among the rock caves in a long double-sided canyon. Fred comes down to visit, they explore, they play, they grow and they are quite aware that they are in love but that’s not important. The important thing is that Thea’s music is getting a sense of direction: she knows now what she must do. But the love thing complicates matters. They want to marry, but Fred urges Thea to keep considering her options, to not rush into anything, and suggests that they go down to Mexico and live together to see if he suits her. For a novel set over a century ago, this is an outrageous modern suggestion, but in the context of being a music student, and as a mighty contrast to the demand of respectability, Cather pitches the reader into a dilemma. Fred is from a very rich family, but also a musical one. Thea’s comparative poverty might be a drawback, but Fred’s German mother would embrace her talent. Why don’t they just get married?

I’ll skip over that bit: the upshot is that Thea asks Dr Archie for three thousand dollars to allow her to study singing in Germany: it’s time for her to take music more seriously than Chicago can allow her to. She disappears from sight for a while, and we only hear about her successes and unexpected triumphs through Dr Archie’s reminiscences, ten years on, and his conversations with Fred, now a close friend. Thea has become a vibrant emerging operatic talent, and she’s singing in New York. Fred and Dr Archie see her performance, and the next evening are about to take her out to dinner, when a phone call comes through to her hotel room. Mme Gloeckler has been taken ill and cannot complete her performance: could Miss Kronborg take over the part of Sieglinde for the final acts of Die Walküre? Thea has an hour before she would have to go on stage: she has never sung Sieglinde in public though she’s rehearsed the part in Germany. She’s in the cab in seven minutes, with her wig and shoes, and she studies the part in the twenty minutes it takes to get to the theatre. And, of course, she is a triumph.

Cather 7This is the moment that all her work has led up to: to show American audiences what an American singer can do after many sacrifices a life of continual hard work. Her performance makes her one of the new stars, ready to displace the old and ailing divas, if they will only make room for her, and if the management of the New York will offer Thea a contract for forty performances. The epilogue to the book shows Thea ten years later, through the eyes of Moonstone and her eccentric aunt Tillie. Thea is now touring with the New York company, she is married, she is a great American opera singer. She never stops working, throughout the whole novel, but the definition of her work is completely misunderstood and underestimated by Moonstone. Is Moonstone the only community that matters? Thea never returns there, she has no interest in its people, because Dr Archie has moved, and her mother and the Kohlers are dead. But Moonstone opinion is small-town American opinion: they admire hard work when they see it, but they don’t often understand what it means.

Thea is a marvellous character. She’s a nerd until she matures, she’s prickly, focused and blinkered about music, so that her life is unbalanced and uncultivated until Fred takes her in hand. We might like her, but would she like us? I don’t like Wagner’s music so it’s often surprised me that I love this book so much, when I have so little appreciation for the music at its heart. Thea’s passion for working hard at the one thing that really matters is what resonates with me most.

 

 

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

CharnockAnne Charnock must have been SO ANNOYED when Ali Smith’s prize-winning, multiply lauded novel How to be both hit the bookshelves in 2014. This is because her own novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, published on 1 December, shares the same central, unusual conceit, of a medieval Italian artist who has to struggle against the rules about women to succeed and be fulfilled as a painter.  Smith’s novel also shares Charnock’s idea of telling the story through parallel narratives set in the present-day and in historical mode: oh, the irritation … This past twelve months, while Charnock completed her novel, had it accepted, and saw it through production, must have required sustained self-confidence in her right to tell the story she had first thought of, even though someone else had had the same idea just a little bit earlier. I’m impressed also that 47North, her publisher, had the confidence in Charnock as a writer to keep going with Plan A and not demand that she rewrote the story with aliens or a Palaeolithic setting. (47North is an imprint for science fiction, acquired by Amazon in 2011.)

Now that we’ve ushered the elephant out of the room, let’s talk about Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. It’s very good, no question. I’ve not read Charnock’s first novel, A Calculated Life, which was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for a debut novel in speculative fiction, but now I really want to (shame on you, Forbidden Planet, for not having it in stock when I looked last week). However, I don’t think Sleeping Embers is going to be shortlisted for many prizes because it combines science fiction and historical fiction in a way that will probably not be acceptable to the bookselling and prize-winning niches that we are expected to adhere to in our reading tastes. She uses three parallel strands of narrative to tell the story of women and men who slip out of memory, and how their memory is maintained. One is in fifteenth-century Italy, where the great artist Uccello finds a way to let his most talented child Antonia remain an artist in a society in which women must get married, to a man or to Christ. The second is in the present day, in which the teenage Toni is layering memories and new experiences in embroidery and art history to stop remembering her mother’s death. The third is set in the 22nd century where art historian Toniah is finding ways to make her own life by leaving her institutionalised job and her parthogenetic household.

Antonia Uccello, by Paolo Uccello
Antonia Uccello, by Paolo Uccello

The three names are similar, but they don’t connect: there is no link between these characters in blood, only in the ideas they have, and by Toni and Toniah finding out about Antonia Uccello’s forgotten and hidden life and art. The connections between the three narratives are linked by the theme of unfinished or untold lives. Antonia slips out of her family into a convent’s seclusion, and nearly kills herself painting. Toni and her father find the wartime grave of her forgotten great-great uncle whom her mother never knew. Toniah and her sister Poppy track down their mother’s oldest friend to ask about the small boy in the photo on their mother’s lap. He is another dead uncle, and another life only traceable because someone took his picture.

The strongest aspect of Sleeping Embers is how it uses art to give people’s lives meaning and justification, as well as to connect them to the families which have lost them. Sleeping Embers is really three intertwining novellas with a lot to say about what we leave behind us. The few science-fiction details in Toniah’s story are beautifully handled: parthogenesis as an expensive, new but socially acceptable way of having children; old people in rest homes can buy avatars to replay their memories to keep them company; and email arrives retinally. They are details that lift the story into the future very effectively. Likewise, Antonia’s story is a work of delicate and detailed historical imagination, beautifully done, compellingly told. If I’d been Charnock’s editor, I’d have suggested keeping those two strong and indelible narratives and ditching Toni’s story, which is rather too much of a lesson on how to read paintings, and not as compellingly relevant to the theme of missing lives. I want to know much more about Toniah’s backstory and future, and why her century isn’t over-crowded or apocalyptic. I also want to read more about Antonia’s manically paint-spattered room and how she fitted into the convent, and for how long. Charnock is an expert novelist, in both genres. I admire her combining the two in Sleeping Embers, and can see the patterns that she wants us to notice. It will be fascinating to see which directions she turns to next.

Anne Charnock, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015, 47North), ISBN 978-1503950436, available in paperback as well as e-book versions.

Lindsey Davis, Ancient Rome and Marcus Didius Falco

Falco 1In 1990 I bought a book to read on the way home on the train, and when I got there I wasn’t in London, but in Londinium, for such was the power of Lindsey Davis’s first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs. I read her novels addictively for years. My favourite is not one of the 20 Falco novels, but the first novel she wrote, not published until some years after Falco became a hit, The Course of Honour, from 1997. In that novel  – I will get to Falco in a minute, but I’ve got to tell you about this one first  –  we hear about probably the most exciting, dramatic and crowdedly ruled years in Ancient Rome, from the reign of Tiberius to the accession of Vespasian. It overlaps quite a lot with the territory covered by Robert Graves in his Claudius novels, but goes right past Nero and into the Flavians.

DavisThe charm of The Course of Honour is due to its narrator, the strong-willed Caenis, who began her working life as a clerk, and became a secretary, first as a slave and later as a freedwoman, to the Emperor Claudius’s mother, Antonia Minor. Apparently Lindsey Davis was inspired by a line from Suetonius which noted that Vespasian had had a mistress called Caenis, formerly one of Antonia’s secretaries. Her story of the secretary who survived close proximity to the murderous palaces and politics of Ancient Rome, is also a wonderful, witty, passionate love story. This novel gave her the idea to write the Falco novels, but I have reread The Course of Honour more often than any Falco because it is funny, thrilling, and deeply absorbing in how Davis describes daily life in Ancient Rome as seen and lived by a woman. The feminist possibilities in this idea are many and looming, but thankfully Davis just gets on and tells her story, without getting lured into anachronistic consciousness-raising, of what it could have been like for a woman in Caenis’s position to survive in Ancient Rome. It is a superb novel about politics and murder in Ancient Rome seen from a woman’s perspective.

Falco 2But now I shall tell you about Falco, since I have just begun a leisured re-read of the series from the beginning. Marcus Didius Falco is a former Roman army soldier, he lives in Rome, he looks after the tiny bundle of snapping fury that is his mother, he avoids when he can his shifty and probably criminal auctioneer father Geminus, he lives in a seriously grotty slum six floors up, and his best friend Lucius Petronius is a policeman. We first meet him in the early years of the rule of Vespasian. Falco is a private informer, which means that he investigates cases for hire, which means that he is a private detective. Lindsey Davis’s brilliant idea was to combine archaeology and Latin history and literature, with the hard-boiled detective novel genre in the style of Raymond Chandler. But Falco is lots better than Philip Marlowe.

Falco 3He’s lovable, for a start. Falco has Marlowe’s ethics combined with high standards, and is an excellent man in a fight, but he also gets bullied by his mother and sisters, and is sneered at by all his nephews and nieces and revolting brothers-in-law. He is, in fact, the put-upon Roman family man who doesn’t have a family of his own just yet (though he looks after his dead brother’s illegitimate daughter and her feckless mother), but his sense of family responsibility is very strong. In The Silver Pigs he meets Helena Justina, an angry senator’s daughter whom he is hired to escort home to Rome from that muddy and wet Empire outpost called Britain, and he falls in love. They spend several novels having delightful arguments and falling in and out of bed, and are in fact destined to be together for ever. Not just as a married couple, mind, but as professional partners in detecting crime.

Falco 4In The Silver Pigs we learn about the importation of spices, the failure of the Roman sewage system, lead mining in the Mendips (Falco goes to Britain to solve a case of large-scale embezzlement, not just to be an imperial courier) and how brothels work. In its sequel, Shadows in Bronze, Falco goes on holiday with Petro and his family to Naples, and sells lead piping as a sideline to track down imperial plotters, and ends up fighting Helena’s unfortunately vile husband in a mansion stuffed with smashable treasures. Next, in Venus in Copper (I hope you are noticing a theme with the book titles so far), Falco solves a series of murders and eats a great many sticky cakes. We learn a lot about the catering and slave side of suburban villa life, and how rickety some old buildings could be. This is the one where Falco entertains Helena and his entire family, plus the Emperor’s son Titus, to a dinner of a turbot served in a Gaulish shield, probably my favourite Falco scene of all. In The Iron Hand of Mars (more metal!) Falco and Helena go north to the uncivilised German border regions to buy some new Red Samian ware dishes and casseroles for their new house, hunt down a lost legion’s standard, and get Helena’s nice young army officer brother mixed up with a forest prophetess.

Falco 5And so it goes on. The titles get very silly at times – my personal favourite is Three Hands in the Fountain, about an axe murderer and the public aqueduct – and the settings give you a tour of the Roman Empire. We go to Spain in A Dying Light in Corduba, to Syria for Last Act in Palmyra, and Britain, three times, in The Silver Pigs, as mentioned, and also in The Body in the Bath House and The Jupiter Myth. We learn, most entertainingly, about the professions one could practice in Ancient Rome: journalism, in Scandal Takes a Holiday, publishing, in Ode to a Banker, and the legal profession, in The Accusers. Most of the novels have at least one episode in Ancient Rome, so those of you with a passion for tracing events as they happen in Ancient Roman streets will love these novels. But there is also a strong literary quality to Lindsey Davis’s writing: she is no mere hack writer churning out more of the same. She’s a clever technician and an excellent historical novelist.

Falco 6To start with, she’s using a classic form in new ways. As her website says, some of the novels come about because she deliberately sets out write specific types of detective fiction: Time to Depart is a police procedural, but, as she points out on her website, in Ancient Rome the fire brigade, or the vigiles, were the equivalent of the police, so Time to Depart is really a Fire Brigade procedural, and very good it is too.  Venus in Copper is, as she says, a ‘classic private eye dilemma’. In many of the novels Falco is pursued by women after his good will and favours, although we know he’s got Helena Justina waiting at home, or, more likely, around the corner doing her share of the investigation, so we observe with interest how he removes himself from these situations. He’s a very faithful and loyal private eye, and his moral core is the toughest part of him, which gives added gravitas to the stories. We know that he will never let us, or Helena, down, although the circumstances might. Lindsey Davis does not mess about with postmodernist cynicism or grubby shades of grey in place of black or white. Her characters have heaps of nuance, and they do good and bad things all at the same time, but we always know in her novels where the line between good and bad is drawn. Every character has a choice to step over that line, or not, and as a reader I find that so reassuring. It is why the detective novel genre exists: it restores order, finds the wrong-doer, explains why X had to die, and sometimes avenges the victim.

Falco 7Davis’s hard-boiled narrative technique is beautifully balanced. It gives more than the standard model because Falco doesn’t take himself seriously all the time, unlike poor gloomy tedious Philip Marlowe, and so the novels can switch unexpectedly from high farce to serious sadness in half a line. The hard-boiled habit of saying ‘I knew then that I was going to die’ by a narrative voice relating a story in the past tense, thus proving, logically, that she or he did not die, is a delicious paradox that no reader will bother trying to unravel, because the power in reading ‘I knew then that I was going to die’ is quite enough to sweep us into the next dramatic episode without sane reflection. Just get on and give us the story. Davis is very, very good at that. She is also mercilessly good at a more advanced variant of the same technique, of Falco insisting that X is X, and then the story immediately taking a twist to show us that, no, X is Y. Falco’s utter confidence in his statements is simply dramatic tale-telling, in the past tense, that we believe completely, because our disbelief has not so much been suspended, but has been dropped out of a tenth-floor window. The utter conviction in her storytelling sets us up to believe again and again and again. It’s roller-coaster story-telling, and I love it. Read Lindsey Davis and you will love Falco, and love her version of Ancient Rome.

Lindsey Davis’s website gives full details of The Course of Honour, all the Falco books, and also her new series about Albia, Falco’s adopted daughter from Britain who takes up detecting, which I’m not warming to quite so enthusiastically. I may have to read more of them before reporting back on those.

(This is an edited version of a podcast from Really Like This Book, because I’m rereading Falco now and had said most of what I wanted to say in the pod.)