‘I’m one of those writers who likes to stay with what he knows,’ James Gillespie, the persistently apolitical hero of Ronan Bennett’s third novel, The Catastrophist (1998), says. Gillespie, now a novelist, was once a historian. In his PhD he had argued that ‘the great political and religious upheavals of the 16th century owed little to ideological or doctrinal conviction, and everything to the Tudor state’s perpetual need for cash.’ At the end of The Catastrophist he digs out his old thesis notes in search of material for a new novel: ‘There was a very interesting infanticide case. Well-documented, too, for the times. I thought I could make use of the material.’
Bennett often teases his readers with dismantled or inverted autobiographical references. His first novel, The Second Prison (1991), was published a while after his release from imprisonment on charges of conspiracy with ‘persons unknown’ to cause explosions. The protagonist is a member of the IRA who is released from prison after being accused of conspiracy with ‘persons unknown’ to murder ‘persons unknown’, and who does indeed intend to murder a former member of his unit. Bennett has a thing or two in common with the hero of The Catastrophist. A PhD in history, for a start, although his thesis was notably more politicised than that of his alter ego: ‘Enforcing the Law in Revolutionary England: Yorkshire 1640-60’. And now, in Havoc, in Its Third Year, he has written a historical novel about, among other things, a 17th-century infanticide case and enforcing the law. The novel is by no means a pile of leftovers, however. It has moments of real and zealous beauty, even if there are also in it quite a few of the things that you just have to bite your lip over and bear when reading a historical novel. It whacks its readers over the head with ‘wapentake’ in the first sentence, and includes too many sentences such as ‘I feared for her intellectuals’ or ‘You have had no imparlance then with the doctor about the town’s government?’ Peasants and vagrants seem to have read more of the Authorised Version than is good for them. And it displays many of the same aesthetic consequences of strong belief which might have made many readers of Bennett’s earlier fiction edgy. In particular, it often risks enacting intolerance in the course of representing it. But it’s a book partly about charity, and is good enough to warrant a charitable reading.
The setting is a small town in Yorkshire in the third year after its takeover by zealous Protestants, some time in the 1630s. As the Governors and their Master begin to lose control of the town, they are increasingly keen to whip and hang sexual transgressors and to drive the vagrant poor from their community. The town is never named, and its streets and the villages around it seem magically disconnected from a larger geographical or political setting. Bennett wants to imagine life in a provincial 17th-century town, where people’s minds would probably have focused on their households and neighbourhoods rather than national events. But the uncertain location of the novel serves a further purpose: Bennett wants his town to be an allegorical place, which has multiple resemblances to larger patterns in history, but which refuses to be tied down to a single physical or temporal location. You don’t have to know a lot about 17th-century British history to see that many of the major events of that century are represented in miniature in Bennett’s town: a revolution of the saints has come before the novel begins, while a restoration of the corrupt Lord Savile, and even a great fire, come at its end. Havoc’s aspirations extend more widely than this: as a work partly concerned with homelessness and punishment, it is also evidently about our present.
Allegory in novels comes at a price. Allegories generally favour relatively simple enemies, and places which float away from particularity. Readers of novels tend to want spots of time, places with their own peculiar geographies, and people who are much more than even a complex sum of principles. This means that Bennett’s ability to evoke the flavours of Yorkshire life in the 17th century is vital in grounding the allegorical tendencies of this book. The town is 17th and 21st-century England, but at the same time it is a version of 17th-century Halifax, a parish which from 1593 to 1623 was presided over by a hotly Protestant vicar called John Favour (who figures in the novel, although the historical person was dead by the decade in which it is set). Favour made detailed notes in the parish register about the whoring and adultery of his parishioners, and wrote an anti-Catholic polemic of the most violently tub-thumping kind. He is the stimulus for Bennett’s imagined theocracy, and his intolerance animates the zealous Protestant hypocrites who make up the majority of the minor characters in the novel.
Bennett often lets himself down with his bit-parts, who are sometimes invitations to and sometimes projections of prejudice. Occasionally, instead of delivering a cliché he flips a surprise out of the back of his hand: an English doctor in The Catastrophist initially seems to be a classic Irish representation of an Englishman, whose speech is full of ‘rathers’ and qualifications, which testify to his refusal to recognise reality. But he does eventually (as he would say) do the decent thing. Elsewhere Bennett can let himself have it too easy: the Protestant-imperialist-hypocritical-murdering-bastard-Americans who run the mission in Overthrown by Strangers (1992) are deeply unconsidered, and make it his least good novel. The Protestant rulers in Havoc have a bit more edge and depth, but what edge and depth they have is always being checked by allegorical fiction’s need for the bad guys to be simple opponents of the good. This pressure stops Bennett creating a world that seems imagined equally and from all sides.
But imagining equally and from all sides is never what Bennett does, and there are always strong voices in his fiction that suggest this is not what anyone should seek to do. His writerly energy has always been focused on people who can’t quite bring themselves to be heroes, or who are prevented from achieving heroism either by larger conspiracies or by the disabling poverty of their private motives. Havoc’s hero is a big and memorable creation, as impressive as any of Bennett’s characters so far. He is John Brigge, a Catholic coroner, who investigates a charge of infanticide against Katherine Shay, an Irish vagrant whom the other Governors wish to see hanged. He gradually discovers that she was framed, and that the investigation is leading him to expose a conspiracy within the municipal government. Brigge is eventually imprisoned as the town’s religion becomes hotter and hotter (though not before he has conducted a number of vividly described inquests). During the great fire that apocalyptically marks the end of the book, he releases the town’s prisoners and leads them on a pilgrimage. Bennett’s eagerness to compress all of the 17th century into his book continues right to its end: Brigge enacts a Catholic revision of the entry of the Quaker James Nayler into Bristol in 1656. Nayler caused outrage by having the way before him strewn with palm leaves, in imitation of Christ; Brigge, at the head of his liberated prisoners, leads a madonna (his wet-nurse) and child into neighbouring towns. He is at last set on and beaten to death for blasphemy, and seems for all the world to be another of Bennett’s failed revolutionaries.
But he is more than that, or at least something different from that, and his differences from Bennett’s earlier heroes mark this as an important book for him to have written. Brigge has visions, and although Bennett has in the past written set-piece evocations of the delusions of the dying, he has not done it either as well or as fully as he does here. For the early part of the novel, Brigge’s wife is pregnant, and he cannot forget that he has been unfaithful to her with a servant. Visions of the death of his own child and of his wife weave in and out of his investigation of the infanticide. Katherine Shay appears to him in a recurrent vision and hands him a key. She urges him to imitate Saint Germanus of Paris, the patron saint of prisoners, and lead a pilgrimage of the poor. The visions are deftly and briefly done, and reverberate with each other as the novel develops. And when Brigge’s former apprentice and Protestant convert, Adam, drops the key to the town prison during the great fire, Brigge can make the visions a reality and become a latter-day liberating saint.
It’s a novel, then, that is trying to be both visionary and typological: it represents a small place which figures the history of a larger place and a larger timespan, and it shows a Catholic visionary imagination turning out towards active participation in changing a society. It also asks how far a charitable impulse in individuals can be a sufficient response to poverty: Brigge’s syphilitic servant Starman, who at one point rescues him and whom he seeks in return to cure, says that ‘to feed and clothe the poor is beyond the capacity of a single man.’ The attempts of the main character to make his personal charity do work of which it is structurally incapable make this a novel that evokes the experience, hardly exclusive to the early modern period, of living in a state that does not provide even a viable conceptual mechanism for dealing with poverty, let alone a material means for its prevention. Brigge’s job brings him repeatedly into contact with parents who have killed their children in order to prevent their suffering, and he is uneasily aware that ‘the law had nothing to say about the death of a boy by hunger and neglect. That was the business of men’s conscience and charity.’ Its concluding Catholic visionary crusade hints at a form of idealism more religious than political, while the failure of that crusade indicates a structural problem with a theologically rather than politically motivated response to hardship: virtues and visions stop with one person, and simply won’t become solutions to large-scale social injustices.
In meditating on this problem, Bennett is doing several things at once. He is resisting the tendency of fiction implicitly to universalise the values of individuals: novels might lull their readers into thinking that individual fine feeling can be allegorically salvaged as a general force for human good. Bennett refuses to beguile in this way, and many moments of noble strain in the novel derive from this refusal. He is also addressing in a new key the principal problem both with and of his fiction to date: how to represent in a novel the sovereignty of collective action. Its focus on individual experience does not readily allow the bourgeois novel to represent the force of the collective, and the form’s representations of revolutionary activity remain deeply scarred by the sceptical pessimism of Dostoevsky and Conrad, who are much more powerful (though powerfully negative) influences on Bennett than Graham Greene, with whom he is routinely compared. Novelistic representations of revolutionaries tend to be ironised, or else implicitly demonstrate the insufficiency of individual vengeance or sexual desire as motives to achieve political transformation.
A novelist who is drawn to the power of collective action also comes hard up against the insistence of liberal readers that novels ought to be imagined on both sides. This expectation necessarily predisposes the form towards an implied ethical foundation in which imaginative understanding of others is the primary good rather than political commitment. The only way Bennett has so far found to explore a revolutionary urge within the novel is to represent characters who fail to achieve a larger set of ambitions, which come to seem important because they are beyond the capacities of his heroes. Protagonists lost in crowds, idealists who fail, and individuals assassinated by sinister conspiracies (usually American and often also Protestant) have so far been Bennett’s preferred vehicles for exploring political resistance. In The Catastrophist Bennett makes his most successful attempt to address and defuse this structural problem within the political novel, by making its central character explicitly assume a sceptical disengagement from the larger political designs in which he reluctantly finds himself participating. What Bennett does in Havoc, in Its Third Year is more risky: he pushes the novel out towards typology and allegory in order to see how far an individual can be made to carry a collective significance. Brigge can lead, for a short period and reluctantly, a group of the poor because of his individual assimilation into the collectivity of Catholicism, and because his charity is – almost – a virtue capable of changing the way his world is governed. But Havoc falters on that ‘almost’, and finally gives the impression of having skewed the foundations of its argument because of the asymmetries of its sympathies – the limitations of its own charitable willingness to imagine inside the Protestant law-makers. The investigation of ways in which individual charity might take on a larger and more than symbolic significance is weighted in advance towards a negative outcome because charity fails to run evenly through the novel.