I have to confess I began reading this book in November (!), but life somehow got in the way of my really settling down to it until way after the holiday season. In this case, the title really does say it all: Goldsworthy looks at the Roman world in terms of war and peace and examines what the pax Romana meant for those living within or near the borders of Rome’s empire.
For whatever reason, I am rather fascinated by the Roman world, perhaps for the wrong reasons. I do tend rather to feel that if time travel were possible, we, or at least I, might feel actually more at home in a Roman city in the early decades of the common era than I might actually in, say, Tudor England. Goldsworthy warns his readers against making such faulty comparisons, but in my own defence I say it is very hard not to at times. Certainly, I would argue that as we live in a post-colonial period, attempting to understand how Rome’s imperium waxed and waned and what living under Rome and its understanding of citizenship meant can be instructive. This is not to deny that some aspects of Roman culture, slavery, for example, or gladiatorial combat to the death, appear utterly abhorrent, at least I hope so, to contemporary mores.
Goldsworthy divides the work into two sections: Republic and Principate. Each section is divided into chapters focussing on a particular aspect of Roman life. He also includes maps and photographs, detailed notes, bibliography, and a useful index. While I would not go so far as the Times reviewer Gerard de Groot (quoted before the title page of the book) as to describe the work as “enthralling,” I would say that Goldsworthy’s style is lively and personable without being colloquial. Pax Romana is sufficiently engaging to be of interest to the general reader but also sufficiently reflective and discursive to interest a reader with a more academic interest.
At times, and perhaps this is one of the problems with writing about history, the book seems to be a not much more than a collection of facts. Although the book is organized chronologically in the way Goldsworthy deals first with the republic and then with the emperors, I felt that it didn’t really matter in which order I read the individual chapters within the two sections. This was particularly the case in the second part of the book. At times, I felt the loss of a really strong linear thread, and at others I was glad to be able to read a chapter, put the book and down and pick it up days later without feeling I’d lost a sense of coherence. One thing the book did reinforce in me was the need to fulfil the promise I made to myself ages ago to read Josephus.
I realise the last paragraph may sound a little negative. I don’t intend it to be so. One of the aspects of the work that saves it from being only a presentation of facts is Goldsworthy’s engagement with other historians and his articulation of his own point of view. Further, what I really appreciated were his Preface, “Living in Peace” and his Introduction “A Glory Greater Than War.” These two rather personal essays (I think essays is the best word here) put Goldsworthy’s project into a clear context. He also makes it very clear that while “Lessons can be learned from history, . . .it is wise to take great care to understand a period before drawing any conclusions” (8). The rest of the work is devoted to enabling his readers to understand the Roman period and underscoring just how different the Romans were from us even if they seem similar. He concludes in similar vein reminding us that “Our world is very different from the Roman era, for which we should be grateful” (415). I tend to agree; however, despite those differences between us and the past, I still cannot help but feel that having some understanding of how the Roman world of the past functioned may well contribute to our being able to engage with the post-colonial world we inhabit today and possibly give us some tools to avoid tyranny.
The photos are all my own.
I’m fairly sure this is the first novel I’ve read by Andrew Taylor. I’m wondering how I’ve managed not to have met his work before. The Ashes of London is a who-dunnit set in London during and after the great fire of 1666. It’s a tale of betrayal, self-interest, and politics. And of course, since it is set only six years after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, politics includes religion.
The setting of the story is for the most part the old city of London, much of which has been destroyed by the fire, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the ruins of which is discovered the corpse of a man who is not a victim of the fire. He’s been stabbed through the neck and his thumbs tied behind his back. Another victim similarly disposed of is found a few days later in the Fleet ditch. Could there be a serial killer stalking London’s streets? The task of solving this mystery falls to James Marwood, a young man employed as a Whitehall Clerk. He’s fortunate to have this position, for his father was an ardent supporter of the Commonwealth and in an “act of folly” (18) has chosen not to accept a pardon under the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion.
James’ story is told in the first person. The story of Catherine Lovett is told in the third. Cat is also the child of a puritan. More than a simple Calvinist, Thomas Lovett is a fifth monarchist and a regicide whose whereabouts are unknown. Since her father fled, Cat has been the ward of her father’s brother-in-law and wealthy city merchant, Master Alderley. She lives with him, his second wife, Olivia, his son Edward, and an old servant of her own family, Jem. The Alderleys are arranging a marriage for Cat that is totally repugnant to her. The two story lines at first run parallel and ultimately, as one might expect from a mystery novel, converge to a satisfactory solution.
The Ashes of London is way more than a simple murder mystery, however. As did Ian Pears’in An Incident of the Fingerpost, which I reviewed last month, Taylor leads us into the fraught times immediately following upon the return of Charles II. Despite the euphoria that apparently greeted the king on his return in May 1660, not all of his subjects were overjoyed. While the historical record tells of the punishments dealt to powerful figures of the Cromwellian period, it reveals little about the ordinary people whose beliefs encompassed neither the Anglican Church nor a monarchy. The Ashes of London somewhat remedies that situation. Taylor evokes a time of anxiety, not only about the fire. Some of the glitter of the king’s return has tarnished slightly. In a time of change, Londoners and the country as a whole have to navigate the new political reality, coming to terms with the past and facing a somewhat uncertain future. Individuals have to choose whether to cling to the past or to look ahead. He also captures the way in which St. Paul’s cathedral stood, then, as many would argue it continues to stand, as a symbol for the city itself. If you are familiar with London you may well find it fascinating to plot the action and imagine the streets and places you know now as they were then.
All in all, The Ashes of London is a highly readable and satisfying book.
Just before Christmas, our local educational television channel, Knowledge Network telecast the Channel 4 television 2016 documentary Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge. Depending upon where you are, the documentary is available for watching on-line on various platforms. Part of that documentary included the new-to-me information that a previously unknown manuscript of a Potter story would be published in the fall of 2016. Since I have all of Potter’s books, I felt I should complete my collection and ordered a copy of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots from my local bookstore.
For whatever reasons, the tale was not published in 1914 when Potter wrote it. Neither were there any Potter illustrations. Penguin—Potter’s original publisher Frederic Warne is now an imprint in Penguin Young Readers Group—commissioned Quentin Blake to illustrate the newly discovered work, and he writes a note to the book detailing some of the “odd coincidences” between the life of the book and its author and his own. Miss Kitty’s full name, for example, is St. Quintin. He lives “a few minutes’ walk” from where Beatrix Potter grew up in London.
Kitty-in-Boots tells the story of Miss Catherine St. Quintin, a supposedly “serious, well-behaved young black cat” (11), who lives with “a kind old lady” who “lived in constant fear that Kitty might be stolen” (12). While the old lady thinks Kitty is a quiet, home-loving cat, the “very common cats” Cheesebox and Winkipeeps who called Kitty Q (Cheesbox) or Squintums (Winkiepeeps) know better; they have seen “Miss Kitty in a gentleman’s Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots” (14). Miss Kitty is in the habit of going out hunting at night while Winkiepeeps takes her place at home. The story tells us what happens to Miss Kitty on the night when Winkiepeeps insists on accompanying her and when she refuses to lend her air-gun to Slimmy Jimmy and John Stoat-Ferret who are planning on “doing rabbit holes” (21). Suffice it to say, the evening does not end particularly well for Miss Kitty, who for the rest of her life has “an elegant limp” and finds “quite enough occupation about the yard catching mice and rats; varied by tea-parties with respectable cats in the village, such as Ribby and Tabitha Twitchit” (66).
From this brief outline, you will see that as in most of Potter’s other stories, the main character learns a lesson. I was particularly reminded of Jeremy Fisher and Jemima Puddle-Duck, and, of course, Peter Rabbit, himself. Some of the characters whom we know from our reading of the other books make brief appearances in this one. We also find that close juxtaposition of anthropomorphism and extreme accuracy that we associate with Potter in her presentation of her animal characters. They may dress in elegant dresses, wear boots, gaiters, or “a blue coat” and carry an umbrella, but they remain animals. In Potter’s books, a frog remains in danger from the pike. Foxes plan menus that include roast duck. A hedgehog fears a cat may eat her. Ferrets hunt rabbits. The fate of most pigs is to become pork. A cat who meets a fox is in as much perhaps more danger as a rabbit who invades a bed of lettuces.
On the whole, humans are somewhat removed from the action in Potter’s stories, or they feature as somewhat ogreish creatures whose worlds impinge on the world of the animals. To a certain extent, there are parallels between Peter Rabbit and “Jack and the Beanstalk, for example. If I remember correctly, only in Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and The Tailor of Gloucester, do we have close interaction between the concerns of the human world and that of the animals. In Kitty-in-Boots, the old lady is described as “kind,” and revealed as anxious about her cat, but she plays little active role in what happens, and is somewhat lacking in insight. It is the omniscient, somewhat ironic narrator who notices “that there were in fact two black cats” (17).
This kind of authorial intrusion reminds one somewhat of Fielding’s gently humorous interpolations about the moral condition of his young heroes. Here, you may accuse me of being too serious. Think again. Consider the narrator’s parenthetical comment “(I ONCE saw a copy-book heading to the effect that Evil Communications Corrupt Good Manners; Miss Catherine’s manners were not improved by association with poaching ferrets . . .” (36). What do we make of the inclusion of the epigram, a paraphrase of I Corinthians 15:33, which itself recalls Menander and possibly Euripides? There is more to Kitty-in-Boots than simple entertainment for children.
In a very Victorian/Edwardian way, the story is an “improving” tale offering children a moral and social lesson. It interested me that at the beginning of the story Potter uses the word “hunting” (19), but later in the book, the narrator “fear[s] Miss Catherine was a born poacher” (42), and later records Miss Kitty’s asserting, “Never again will I poach.” (64). Hunting is what you do when you have the right to hunt, shoot, or fish over land or stream. Poaching refers to “hunting” game that belongs to someone else. In Potter’s time, hunting and shooting rights belonged to landlords. To be caught taking a land owner’s game resulted in fines and imprisonment. The story makes its point very clear: it’s dangerous to fool around with ferrets, guns, and foxes. There is also the underlying class assertion: nice kitties do not fool around with the bad boys who “lived in the woods” (68). Kitty learns to know her role as a middle-class female: pouring tea in the drawing room.
The illustration on the page opposite that describing Miss Kitty’s tea-parties shows her and her guests in ankle-length dresses with ruffles high about the neck. The table, with its white cloth almost to the floor, is almost too small to hold all the tea things (67). There is little freedom here. The only danger might be to the best china tea service if someone were to bump into the table. Miss Kitty is safe but confined. BUT, and it’s a very significant “but,” the story does not end with Kitty having tea parties with Tabitha Twitchet et al; it ends with one line on a page all to itself: “But Winkiepeeps lived in the woods” (68). Quentin Blake’s final full-page illustration opposite that line shows a cat leaping so high as to be almost flying, a cat free in the entrancing and dangerous wildness of the forest (69).
What does one make of this? For the first part of her life, Beatrix Potter was confined by class and gender. By the time she wrote Kitty-in-Boots she was already forty-eight, and most of her books were behind her. Ahead were the years devoted to becoming the defender and saviour of Fell Farming.1 One could say, I suppose, that Beatrix Potter left the drawing-room for the sheep-fold and the life of a working farmer: not quite the woods, perhaps, but at least a life unconfined by the walls of upper-middle class shibboleths. Certainly, the end of Kitty-in-Boots suggests the world of the woods is more authentic than that of the drawing room, but there’s a suggestion that women are denied access to that kind of authenticity.
In many ways, all Potter’s books present in miniature a picture of primarily rural England before the first world war. It is a world where everyone knows his or her place, a world of self-sufficiency, a world where the rag and bone man (in this case “Mr. Worry Ragman, a knowing little terrier) still drives “about the country in a little rattling cart” (24).
Potter captured that world in both text and detailed, realistic water colour pictures. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are more stylised, edgier than Potter’s. Potter’s illustrations often seem as if they could stand alone. In fact, when I was a child and perhaps still, it was the pictures themselves more than the stories that pleased me. Potter’s landscapes gave and continue to give me intense pleasure, drawing the eye up, up, up the fells or following a path deep into the woods. Blake’s drawings are more vigorous than Potter’s and, in many ways, more closely aligned with the mood and action of the text they illustrate. He has the art of all the great cartoonists of conveying so much with just one line, with the placement of one curve. His style underscores Potter’s gentle, satirical tone.
Another difference between Kitty-in-Boots and the original versions of Potter’s other stories is its size. Potter wanted Frederick Warne to print her stories in sizes suitable for small hands. Kitty-in-Boots is larger, being approximately 8 x 10. The print is large, about Times New Roman 14 point, suitable for beginning readers (or elderly readers who need new glasses). The first free end-paper includes a space asserting “THIS BOOK/BELONGS TO:/ A Serious, well-behaved . . .” . Then there are two lines for a name. The previous owner of the book did not claim the book. Perhaps he or she could not claim to be either serious or well-behaved. I am faced with a dilemma. Can I claim the book myself? I think I can in all honesty claim to be well-behaved, but I shall have to think about whether I am serious.
1 You may recall that I reviewed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District in the fall of 2016.
The title of Margaret Drabble’s latest novel comes from D. H. Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” and the work is prefaced by two lines from this poem and by Yeats’ “The Wheel” with its assertion “that what disturbs the blood/is but its longing for the tomb.” You might want to read Lawrence’s poem in its entirety, https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/html/1807/4350/poem1251.html for, together with “The Wheel,” it gives a framework and context for Drabble’s novel. There are two versions of the Lawrence poem, and Drabble quotes from the first, somewhat darker in perspective than the second, in her meditation on old age and approaching death, The Dark Flood Rises.
Her characters respond to their old age in different ways. On the death of her second husband, Francesca Stubbs gave up the Highgate home they had shared and moved into a council tower block where the lift doesn’t always work. She devotes her life to chasing all over England inspecting retirement homes for a charity and to taking plated meals to her ex-husband, Claude, who is bedridden. Bennett Carpenter and his partner Ivor Walters have “burned their boats” (55) and decamped to the Canary Islands. Fran’s old friend Josephine is living in a luxury apartment for the elderly outside Cambridge, teaches WEA courses in literature, and on Thursday nights meets a fellow resident, Owen, a retired professor with whom she has what “they both consider a ‘civilised’ arrangement” (88) of drinks and conversation. “They vie with one another to provide yet more interesting beverages, a competition that requires little effort and no culinary input (88). And then there’s Teresa, once Fran’s next-door neighbour and childhood companion, an expert on special needs education, a Roman Catholic, and dying of cancer.
Perhaps it is Drabble’s shifts in setting and focalization, which take the reader so closely into the points of view of her different characters that made me see the work in dramatic terms and to define it as an ensemble piece. The supporting cast is made up of Fran’s son and daughter Christopher and Poppet. There are walk-on parts for characters such as Claude’s carer Persephone, for Paul a social worker Fran meets at conferences, and for his dementia suffering mother, Dorothy. I found myself wondering if this novel would one day be a movie with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Patterson, Bill Nighy, et al. In many ways, it seems tailor-made for them.
The work is also vintage Drabble. I remember years ago, when The Radiant Way came out in the nineties, mentally reviewing Drabble’s work up until then and commenting to a friend how I’d noticed that as Drabble aged, her protagonists aged also. This situation has remained the case.
Then I saw it as something of a failure in imagination. Now, I’m not so sure.
The advice given to beginning writers is “Write what you know.” For a young writer to write convincingly about the old may well be something of a stretch. For an old writer to write of the young is surely possible. Think of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Galsworthy, and Robertson Davies, for example. The difficulty comes when age and situation remove a writer so far from the world of the contemporary young that he or she faces problems with idiom and a real sense of how another generation thinks and lives. This happened to Agatha Christie in some of her later works. However, as I think about this topic more, I find myself thinking of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, of C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers, series that follow their protagonists through decades. Perhaps that advice to young writers should be “write what you feel.” For some of us, perhaps, what we feel is specific to our age. I’m not really digressing here: well, not too much. One of Drabble’s strengths remains her ability to capture her characters’ emotions, and to reflect the spirit of their milieu.
Being only fractionally younger than most of the characters in The Dark Flood Rises, I found it almost disturbing how their thoughts echo my own. Just how do we come to terms with the fact that life is terminal and there comes a time when we must face up to the fact that we are way closer to the end than we were? Do we seek for comfort or do we fill our days with activity, anything to assert that we are still here? Do we sink into nostalgia and regret or plan for the future? What are our responsibilities to those whom we will leave behind? How do we learn to die?
Another element of the novel that appears in much of Drabble’s work is engagement with literary studies. Her characters recall the critical debates of their youth; they discuss the literary canon, referring to novels they’ve read or taught, likening their own situations to those of characters in novels. There is always a hint of the enthusiast for literature in Drabble’s novels, something that recalls the excitement of being involved. I don’t intend this as a negative criticism, just as an observation; I often feel that Drabble’s primary audience is the former English major who has never lost joy in the subject. Her ongoing success is testament to her ability to please a much wider audience, of course, but I always feel when reading a Drabble novel that I am in a place where somehow I feel intellectually at home. Then, perversely, I feel that the discursions into literary theory no matter how well integrated are something of a self-indulgence on Drabble’s part. Perhaps this is because her style is not noticeably “writerly.” Her prose does not draw attention to itself, so a reader isn’t necessarily expecting the kind of intellectual challenge one might expect from reading a magic realist or Joyce, for example. I’m not saying here that Drabble’s style is unsophisticated, by no means. I’m saying it is fluent and apparently not experimental. It’s the ideas more than the mode that appear to interest her. As I read this, I see that I am returning to the point I made about writing what one feels and Drabble’s skill in capturing the nuances of the times and the emotions of her characters.
That said, I do find myself wondering how younger will readers respond to this novel. Will it be too dark for them or in some way interesting? As I said earlier, the old know what it is to be young. The young have yet to experience age. Drabble has her characters Josephine and Fran discuss Samuel Beckett wondering why he spent “his writing life in the contemplation of death” (92). Drabble suggests, “There’s time for that later, plenty of time, as Josephine and Fran have found out” (92). I am still ambivalent about whether for those of us for whom it is perhaps time to contemplate an end this novel is a celebration of life or a threnody.
For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with Munro’s Bookstore in Victoria, BC, suffice it to say that in 2016 it was rated by National Geographic the third best bookstore in the world beating out Powell’s in Portland, which came fifth. (https://www.straight.com/blogra/665501/victorias-munros-books-ranked-third-best-bookstore-world) If you ever make it to this part of the world, Munro’s is a “must visit.” I and my spouse were treating ourselves to a couple of days of gracious living in Victoria just before Christmas, and, of course, a visit to Munro’s was essential. I came home with several “must-have” books one of which was Georgette Heyer’s Snowdrift and Other Stories. If you’ve browsed through older posts, you will know I admit to a guilty pleasure in Heyer’s novels, especially her Regency novels.
This book is a reissue of Heyer’s 1960 collection of short stories Pistols for Two with the addition of three stories unseen since their earlier publication over sixty or even eighty years ago in magazines and including a Foreword by Jennifer Kloester, Heyer’s biographer (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller and Georgette Heyer’s Regency World). Kloester tells us that when she discovered the stories she had to restrain herself from doing “a happy dance right there in the middle of the [British] Library reading room!” (vii). I hasten to add that while I was intrigued to find Snowdrift I did not break into dance, not even a little pirouette of excitement, in Munro’s. I just bought the book, and I read all the stories over the holiday season.
The stories are quintessential Heyer. Here are the sprightly heroines and dashing, firm-chinned heroes, helpful landlords, stately yet understanding butlers, and anxious, overbearing aristocratic families. What I found lacking in these works, most of which apparently date from Heyer’s earlier days of writing is that the brevity of the form means there is little opportunity for character development and, therefore, I found the number of times couples fell tumbling into love at first sight rather over-stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. As Kloester points out, readers of Heyer’s novels will recognise that some of the plots of these stories are reworked and developed in the later novels. Only the names have been changed.
By the time I came to the end of the collection, I had actually had enough. I was in fact rather irritated with the fact that Heyer ends all the stories with a happy resolution. I realise that the market for which she was writing demanded that she comply with the formulaic happy ending, but . . . .
Despite this saccharine quality, however, the stories do turn a comic lens on the world of women in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. It’s not a world I would particularly like to have lived in, a world where women were basically the property of first a father and then a husband; a world in which an unmarried lady (I use the word specifically) had little place unless she were a governess. Those whose class defined them as women or even merely as persons, in other words lower middle and working-class women, did at least have a function other than as someone’s wife. They were forced by poverty to work, whether married or not. Further, the, to us, extreme youth of some of the heroines, some as young as seventeen, when they commit themselves to life with men approaching or already in their thirties seems not a little disturbing, but this was indeed an aspect of the world that Heyer visits in her work.
For the most part, Heyer’s characters are if not aristocratic then landed gentry, or the children of somewhat impoverished but well-connected clergy. They depend upon the services of others; they aren’t in service. However, in a couple of the stories we find Heyer shifting ground somewhat. In “Night at the Inn,” the main characters are a clerk newly returned to England from working in his company’s office in India and a governess on her way to her first position. In “Pursuit,” Heyer also shifts her attention a little further away from the aristocratic classes; the heroine is a governess whose charge has eloped. In this story, we also find Heyer entering territory she was to visit at times in the novels: the situation, even plight, of women who for whatever reason appear “doomed” to spinsterhood. Miss Fairfax in “Pursuit” is “a lady . . . who would very soon have attained her thirtieth year” (237).
While Heyer is no George Eliot or Jane Austen, she does offer a view of a past world, an antidote to or at least a brief escape from the pressing realities of our own times. However, it does behove us at times to remember that there are some women who are still in thrall to family obligation and societal expectation not dissimilar to those experienced by their nineteenth century predecessors. As current news stories make all too evident, women today still suffer from the attentions of predatory males, and families still have to deal with financial loss, addiction, and war. Look carefully at Heyer’s world: for the most part, her stories and novels are set during the Napoleonic wars or in the years surrounding the French revolution. It’s a violent, insecure world, but Heyer’s comic resolutions do suggest that prejudice can be overcome and that belief in oneself and in one’s own good principles can ultimately be rewarded. I leave it to you to decide whether such a view is naively optimistic or not.
I can’t believe it’s twenty years since I first read this novel. Trite phrases about the passing of time come easily to mind. The novel pleased me then. It pleased me again when I finished it a couple of weeks ago.
Just short of seven hundred pages in the paperback version, the novel is a long one centred on the events surrounding the mysterious death in 1663 of Robert Grove, Senior fellow of New College, Oxford. Was his death natural or not? The truth (?) emerges through four narratives written many years after the event by four men who were closely involved with Grove’s death. Needless to say, all four reach rather different conclusions, and their understanding of what they observed in their youth differs even when they remember the same events. They all tell the truth as they understand it, and as an exercise in point of view, the story is masterfully handled.
It is good, however, that it is not possible to libel the dead. Many of the characters including two of the narrators are historical persons of no little importance. The last pages of the book are a “Dramatis Personae” in which Pears lists all the characters who appear in his novel explaining who are the figments of his imagination and who are not.
Each section of the book is introduced by a quotation from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum Scientiarum (my edition prints Scientarum) that relates to the narrative that follows and making some appropriate comment on how we understand the evidence of our own eyes. For example, the second narrative is introduced by a quotation from Section II Aphorism V of the Novum Organum and reminds us that “we every one of us have our peculiar Den, which refracts and corrupts the Light of Nature, because of the differences of Impressions as they happen in a Mind prejudiced or prepossessed” (197). Pears’ use of these quotations from Bacon does more than simply give context to what follows; at times, they function as witty comments about the pitfalls we may encounter if we take what we are about to read at its face value. Can we trust our narrators? Can they trust themselves?
Introducing the final section in a quotation that gives Pears the title for his book, he, through Bacon, tells us, “Sometimes indeed, these Instances [that illuminate the truth] are found amongst that Evidence already set down” (529). In other words, the answer to our questions may well be right under our noses but we just haven’t seen it, until something illuminates what we need to understand that we’ve seen. Here, I must admit I had worked out what must have happened to Dr. Grove before the novel actually tells us. Sometimes this situation can be disappointing. Not in this case. I found it intensely satisfying. However, the reason I was able to fathom the mystery is because unlike the characters in the novel, even when they are recalling events of their own pasts, I have the benefit of a more modern psychological theory than they do. For example, I know about conditions such as schizophrenia; I know about blood groups, about infection. I understand humours theory only as a metaphor. I also have the benefit of hindsight into the period of the novel, which gives me the possibility of a disengagement from the political situation post-Restoration of the Stewart monarchy unavailable to those who lived at that time.
We know the Stewart dynasty came to an end with the death of Queen Anne. At the time of Dr. Grove’s death, Anne had yet to be born. Her sister Mary was barely a year old. We know how the politics of the era turned out. The constitutional crises, the political and social shifts, the economic and religious developments of the late seventeenth century are of intellectual interest to us. The fate of Clarendon has no immediate effect on us even if the slow movement towards the kind of constitutional monarchy with which we are familiar today has some of its roots in this time.
Just as influential and arguably more tangible are the developments of other late seventeenth century activities that have resulted in many things we today take for granted. For this is the period where in many ways we see the pursuit of knowledge dividing into what we tend to call the Arts and Sciences. The characters in An Instance of the Fingerpost stand at the edge of the period often referred to as The Enlightenment. Alchemy is giving way to the study of Chemistry. The medical treatises of Aristotle and Galen are being questioned. At the centre of this period of reassessment and interrogation lie the questions about what for some of us may still seem the most alien: religious belief and practice in both the private and public political spheres. Where does belief in an immortal soul meet understanding of the circulation of the blood? How is the doctrine of transubstantiation a viable concept when considered in the light of empirical science? These are not only questions from the seventeenth century. Some people struggle with them still. Just how do we derive at truth? Neither Bacon nor Descartes are much help when it comes to matters of the soul, however we define soul. Perhaps we had to wait for Freud and Jung.
It is the way An Instance of the Fingerpost raises metaphysical and epistemological questions and scrutinizes the whole reliability of narratives while keeping us enthralled by a good mystery story (Pears has also written mysteries with an art historian sleuth) that makes the novel such a fascinating and stimulating book: one of those books with which it is a kind of sorrow to part.