Friday, 6 June 2014

'It is only my eye that fixes things'

Mia Morgan is in her late thirties and adrift after the sudden death of her older lover, John. Returning to her roots in the Welsh marches, her complicated relationship with her now-blind father also drags her down. What's keeping her afloat is the book she is helping to research for one of John's friends, which focuses on the life of Lady Brilliana Harley, a Puritan noblewoman who successfully defended her home when it was under siege during the Civil War. (Though the novel doesn't mention this, Brilliana was only one of several women on both sides of the conflict who were left in charge of ancestral seats when their men went off to war; another was the Royalist Charlotte de la Tremouille, who also saw off the first parliamentary siege of her home, Latham House; Charlotte is commemorated in the fabulous Steeleye Span song They Called Her Babylon.) As Mia puts it, she is 'no scholar… no academic'; she's simply helping a friend. However, she becomes increasingly enthralled by Brilliana's life as she becomes bemused by academic research methods. In a memorable scene in the parish record office, she muses over how she can be expected to piece together all these fragments of skin and dust into a living human being again, dutifully copying a list that itemises Brilliana's household furniture. In a slightly overwritten later incident in the British Library, she follows the same train of thought as she watches her fellow readers gorging and regurgitating books.

Darkling, which is the first of Laura Beatty's two novels I've read, is a beautifully-written, but slow and meandering read. The opening is reminiscent of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, as Beatty focuses her attention on a hawk circling in the Welsh air: 'To the hawk, whose ground this is, the world is not an anchored place. It is more like a tray, tilting its grass surface this way and that, as he swings it about on his eye-beam… It is only my eye, he thinks, which fixes things. Because he can do that.' The strength of the writing, however, was not enough for me to fall in love with this novel. A major problem for me was Mia herself. Despite her virtues - her love for her father and loyalty for John - I found her increasingly irritating. This was largely because I disagreed strongly with her musings on history. As an historian, I'm always super-critical of this sort of thing, and this probably won't bother most readers at all. However, I found myself taking issue with her low estimation of the historian's craft - and craft, I think, is the appropriate word. While she seems to find her fellow readers in the British Library divorced from the reality about Brilliana that she wants to perceive, I wanted to ask what she thinks they're searching for in all those books; how else she thinks she will get closer to Brilliana now. I'm not an early modern historian myself, but I'm continuously impressed by how much can be discerned from limiting and unpromising records like Mia's wardrobe list, which I found fabulously evocative. Indeed, given how many of Brilliana's letters survive, she's a fantastic subject - and Beatty makes liberal use of the surviving sources by quoting them, probably a bit too heavily, throughout the text. The novel, as indicated in its opening lines, seems to be grasping at a post-modern theme that history is created in the mind of the historian, but I found this both too tired a question, and signposted too heavily, to be really interesting.

Aside from my quarrel with Mia over history, neither strand of the novel really took off. Brilliana's sections, while taking novelist's liberties with the material, stick closely to the historical record. The result is a bit of an awkward compromise between history and fiction. While I accept that may have been the point, I would have been more gripped if Beatty had allowed her imagination to run more freely. Brilliana's Puritanism, for example, is frequently mentioned, and while she muses over the puzzle of the elect, I never got a sense of the sheer weirdness of this Calvinist streak in the Church of England (as I have from brilliant history lecturers like Mark Goldie in the past). Brilliana is, almost deliberately, not brought to life, but left in a two-dimensional state where we perceive what she may have been like but cannot really get through to her. Perhaps if Mia's story had been vivider, this would have worked, and served as an illustration of Mia's point about the limitations of history - but I wasn't engrossed by Mia either, save for the strong and moving scenes between her and her father. Beatty is a gifted writer, but as a story, this didn't work for me.

I received a free proof copy of this book via NetGalley. It's been out since 22nd May.

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