Bring on the beshi: C J Cherryh’s Hammerfall

cherryh-1This is the first C J Cherryh novel that I’ve read, and I’m aware that I’m about to step into a sinkhole of opinions about her works. She has published loads of novels, in a tremendous, productive lifetime of writing, and her fans are legion. I admired her story ‘Cassandra’ in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s anthology Women of Futures Past (2016), so I tried Hammerfall (2001). The first third was good, then it sagged a bit, and then picked up to such an extent that I wasted a perfectly good sunny day gobbling it up, unable to stop myself.

Superficially, Hammerfall shares some similarities with Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), which I like immensely. I enjoyed the desert environment and plot’s insistence on the rules of water conservation, the threat of attack by wild creatures if you stray into the wrong areas of sand, the tribal codes and social structures, and the closeness of death in a harsh environment. The rule of the Ila, a mysterious benign dictator with white skin and red robes, in her great city of Oburon, is fascinating, since she has extra-worldly powers that enable her to live eternally, and control her household and guards, who in turn ensure that she controls the people of this world. There is something like a power matrix protecting the Ila’s person, and her complete control of the complex tribal and village societies rests on more than personal charisma.

The novel opens with a caravan of the mad being taken under guard to Oburon. The Ila has ordered that all mad people must be collected together and brought to her unharmed, and Marak has been handed over by his disgusted warlord father Tain. His madness gives him visions and seizures, and – more and more – overwhelming him with a voice demanding that the afflicted must travel east, which is into the desert, so obviously this is a suicidal impulse. To be mad is to be cast out from one’s family and tribe, so Marak has no hope as he trudges towards the city and – he assumes – certain death. His only wish is to accomplish his father’s guerrilla campaign against the Ila, and kill her before her guards kill him. This doesn’t work. To Marak’s astonishment, the Ila orders him to lead a caravan east to see what is there. By now his madness is giving him visions of a tower, and flaming spheres falling out of the sky. The Ila wants to know what is happening.

So far, this is a brilliantly imaginative and stimulating scenario. Marak is a strong and believable character, kind, dogged, a born commander, and a good husband, to two of the other mad people in his caravan. He did not intend to collect a wife on this journey, and certainly not two wives, but Hati chose him as her husband, and poor soft mad Norit of Tarsa village as her wife. When a tribeswoman of the an’i Keran takes a husband, he goes with her, along with anyone else of her household. Thus the gender politics in this novel are nicely equalised: the leading protagonist and most important person in the plot is male, but his two wives and his enemy and lord are female, and they deal equally with each other.

The plot is a sequence of journeys: to the city in a caravan of the mad; to the tower in the same caravan but properly escorted and watered; back to the city with a scant handful to warn the Ila and city of an imminent attack by aliens; and back as far to the tower with the entire population of the continent (perhaps I got that bit wrong?) before the apocalypse. (In its saggier moments, this novel seems to be nothing but trudging through sand. My husband got lost there and gave up.)

The tower is a landed spaceship, now a colony on the other side of the continent. The aliens about to attack are fiercely suspicious of the Ila and what she has done to the planet by her gene manipulation, and the apocalypse has to be withstood by the terrified people in canvas tents riding the most wondrous of sf creatures, the beshi: warm-blooded, hairy camel-like burden-carriers and steeds who are absolute darlings compared to their probable gene ancestor, the dromedary. The storms generated by the alien’s planetary assault are terrific, and the dangers lying in wait for travellers along the road are ferociously, efficiently omnivorous.

Cherryh’s invention is tremendous in this novel. The gene manipulation explanations can wash over your head if you just want to enjoy the desert experience and its social intricacies so necessary for survival. I relished so much the details about the importance of the folding of an aifed and orderly arrangement of unrolled sleeping mats in the communal open-sided tents. Most fascinating of all are the au’its, red-robed veiled women who record all that happens in their leather-bound books, writing busily as they ride, eat and watch. They are the Ila’s eyes and ears, and are so sacrosanct no-one even asks them their names. Marak travels with one particular au’it for months, and never knows her name, barely hears her speak, and knows that everything that he does, thinks and says is recorded inexorably in her book. The small practical detail of the carriage of these books – the equivalent of the Ila’s civil service archive for generations – as the city goes on its long march to the tower, is an endearingly human concern that grounds the story amongst Marak’s desperate struggle to keep the caravan moving, the people alive, and their water and food stores intact. Hammerfall is a very good read.

 

 

Rachel Ferguson’s A Footman for the Peacock: a hatchet job

ferguson-1There is a good novel buried in this sprawling, self-indulgent fantasy of irony and class consciousness. Rachel Ferguson wrote A Footman for the Peacock (1940) right at the beginning of the Second World War: it was her eighth novel and fourteenth book. Comparing it to its immediate predecessor, Alas Poor Lady (1937), one can only assume that the frustration and gloom of impending war had addled her sense of proportion. Her earlier novel, the triumphant, magnificent The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931) is now her most well-known novel due to the Virago reprint of 1988, and rightly so: it is a work of pure fantastical genius. Alas Poor Lady, also snapped up by the unerring eye of a successful reprint publisher, is one of the novels that epitomises Persephone Books’ project of rescuing unjustly neglected novels for their literary quality and the gifts of their social commentary. Both novels are written with control and sensitivity, matching Ferguson’s precise observations to her magical ability to conjure pathos out of the ludicrous by showing the power of human feelings over all social considerations.

Compared to these novels, A Footman for the Peacock fails embarrassingly. I haven’t always been too enthusiastic with what the Dean Street Press have kindly sent me to review (A Chelsea Concerto was the dazzling exception). My impression has been that either my taste in books is very different to their collective taste, or they are reprinting novels that other reprint houses are not bothering with for good reason. Of course, it could just be me. Earlier reviews of A Footman for the Peacock had me wondering if I had read the same book. But its publicity is also bizarrely at odds with what I actually read, so much so that I seriously considered whether their back cover blurb had been written by a marketing person who had been told about the book, but hadn’t read it for themselves. This is the first offender:

‘The peacock … Waiting? Listening? Guiding. No. Signalling.’

What utter, utter tosh. There is a peacock. It prowls the lawns of the English country mansion, Delaye, and keeps an eye on the Roundelay family and its servants. It attacks Angela, the younger Roundelay daughter, when she offers it half a hard-boiled egg, but the alert reader will already have spotted the reason for that when it occurs. The peacock has a close connection to the eighteenth-century family’s running footman Thomas Picocke, who died bloodily in the top attic bedroom, due to his murderously exhausting job. It waits, presumably; listens, possibly; but it does not guide, and it certainly does not signal. As for the succeeding line, ‘may be aiding the Nazi cause’, this interpretation comes from the original Furrowed Middlebrow review of this novel, which is a straightforward misreading. It’s undoubtedly useful in the blurb, to pull in readers attracted to a plot about Nazi avian espionage. The niche readership will be disappointed, but they’ll already have bought the book.

Other assertions in the blurb may be due to the Furrowed Middlebrow’s knowledge of British social and literary history. It says that the novel was ‘controversial when first published’: well, no, it wasn’t. It was peculiar, Margery Allingham gave it a ‘guarded’ review (not unusual for her), and Punch loved it. If there is any evidence to prove the ‘controversial’ tag (so useful for whipping up sales), Dean Street Press don’t prove it.

The next phrase mentions ‘a loathsome upper-crust family dodging wartime responsibility’. Yes, they’re upper-class; yes, they’re dodging war-time responsibility by resisting billeting of evacuees, but most novels of the war written before the Blitz will depict this. So are the Roundelays ‘loathsome?’ No, I don’t think they are. Ferguson spends the entire novel making us feel how dear and charming and nice these people are, as well as vague, eccentric and exceedingly old-fashioned. She creates people, and shows us their lives, makes them live with human preoccupations, tirednesses, aggravations and struggles, and then presents them in wartime, struggling to cope as everybody had to cope, in peculiarly individual ways. Not loathsome, no: just human. The blurb and I will have to disagree on this one.

Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s
Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s

Getting into Ferguson’s plot, the novel’s fantasy elements of the strange other-worldly village of Rohan, Angela’s shuddering sensitivity to the haunted room with the glass inscription, the mystery of Sue Privett’s relationship with the peacock, and the eighteenth-century mysteries of the running footman’s death, the sacking of Polly Privett and Marguerite Roundelay’s fatal self-exile to Revolutionary France: all these belong in a potentially excellent mystery novel that Ferguson never allowed herself to write. Instead, she clarted her plot with a slapped-on morass of witticisms, as if she were clearing out a hoard of old jokes, clever take-offs and satirical interjections (some are very good). She romps for pages and pages, sending-up high society and its ways, forgetting that she’s supposed to be writing a novel with a plot. Characters appear and then wither away, forgotten. Tag-ends of plot lines multiply as if seeded by an anxious editor, hoping to pull some of this farrago together. The chaos is frustrating, because there is so much here that could have been so good. But Ferguson decided (or perhaps just needed to get something published) to throw everything she had into the pot. It’s a mess.

The novel is ill-served by its Introduction, which is expected to cover all three Ferguson novels reprinted in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, and is presumably reprinted in all three. This approach is needlessly cheapskate, and fails the novels by only giving them half a page each. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Crawford given the space to do the job properly?

You’ll detect that my exasperation with a good novel wasted is exacerbated by the publishing decisions for this edition, and that this is not a happy review. Many of you will think this beside the point, or needlessly pernickety. But these things matter: if you’re going to do reprints, you should take them seriously as novels, not just sales opportunities, consider their merits objectively, and not fob readers off with material that is so much less than it could have been. I don’t say that A Footman for the Peacock should not have been reprinted, but I would only recommend it for Ferguson completists.

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.