Monday, July 28, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE RED QUEEN” by Gemma Bowker-Wright (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

It’s a great pleasure to read a short story that is perfectly proportioned, closely observed and conveying powerful emotions without hysterics or striving for effect.  
Such a story is “Katherine”, the twelfth and last story in this debut collection by Gemma Bowker-Wright.
Step by step, a man watches his wife slipping into Alzheimer’s, becoming more distant and less capable of leading an unassisted life. She forgets the holidays and social life that they once shared. In the present tense are the wife’s growing incapacity and the husband’s growing depression and social embarrassment. Counterpointing this are the husband’s memories, in the past tense, of their life together. Sometimes, in these memories, the wife acts erratically. With great craft, as the author never spells it out, the husband’s selection of memories implies that what he once saw as harmless eccentricity he now sees as the harbinger of his wife’s disease. The story’s focus is tightened by its narrative voice – in the third person but limited to the husband’s viewpoint. The telling is almost deadpan. You could go carefully through the text and find few words that are designed to direct your feelings. But the accumulation of detail gives it real weight and presence as a domestic tragedy.
“Katherine”, the last story in the book, won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award for short story writing in 2011, when the chief judge was Owen Marshall. The eponymous first story in the book, “The Red Queen”, won the Sunday Star-Times short story award in 2010, when Charlotte Grimshaw was the chief judge. (It was originally published in the Sunday Star-Times under the fuller title “The Red Queen Hypothesis”). Appropriately, the short story writer at the beginning of her literary career has already been saluted by two established short story writers who know their stuff.
This is an engrossing collection. I found its quality so high and its stories so absorbing that I will dispose of my one complaint at this point so that I can get on with the serious business of praise. I think that in two of the stories, Bowker-Wright’s use of symbolism becomes a little pat – especially in the way the stories end. I refer to the imagery of underwater diving to represent the uncertainty and awkwardness of a relationship in the story “Breathing Underwater”. And I refer to the imagery of a man missing on a trek in the mountains to represent the absence and dislocation of a family when a mother has gone, in the story “Missing”. I hasten to add that, apart from this trivial complaint of mine, both these stories otherwise hold up very well to the high standards the author has set for herself.
Gemma Bowker-Wright is a young woman (still in her late twenties) and inevitably most of her stories reflect the concerns of young people. She can do much older characters (such as the couple in “Katherine”) but we are more often in the world of university students (“The Red Queen”) or a young woman in her first job (“On the Radio”) or a young man nervously sorting out his relationship with a new Asian girlfriend (“Breathing Under Water”) or another uncertain youthful relationship (“The Sanctuary”). There is a “liminal” sense in these stories – a sense of young people still learning their place in the world, or wondering if the rest of their lives is going to be similarly trying or (especially in “On the Radio”) working out the rules of social interaction and realizing that much of life is “performance”.
Specifically New Zealand landscape is evoked discreetly – Wellington, Hawke’s Bay, Nelson, the Matukituki Valley, the West Coast – but it is never the centre of any story. Bowker-Wright’s chief concerns are always with close relationships, between siblings, spouses, flatmates, colleagues or lovers. Often the relationships are broken ones, as with the son, long neglected by his father, joining his sister on a visit to the old man and his latest girlfriend (“Cowboy”); or as with the wife, whose own father walked out on her childhood family, having a weekend affair and wondering if she should leave her husband (“Rock Formations”). Adults frequently remember unhappy childhoods. Daunting or unhappy dreams feature in some of the stories and in some, characters raise the question of whether or not one should have children. Five of the twelve stories are told in the first person and most of the rest in the third-person-limited style, reflecting an immediacy of experience and a concentration on how experience affects the individual.
The author’s academic training and work are in science and there is a strong strain of scientific imagery in these stories, with references to evolutionary theory (“The Red Queen”, “Back to the Sea”) nature conservation and the possible extinction of species (“Endangered”, “The Takahe”, “The Sanctuary”) and meteorology (“Weather”). Characters often work in some scientific capacity (the husband in “Katherine” is a lecturer in science).
What impresses here, however, is the ambiguity the author often expresses about science as a template for fully functioning as a human being. In “Back to the Sea”, the narrator’s father is a research scientist who insists on filling his children’s heads with hard facts about evolution. But the narrator’s great-grandmother, halfway towards senility, feeds the children imaginative folktales about selkies. The story balances materialism with imagination and manages to come to no neat resolution. There is a need for both, but there will always be a tension between the two. Not quite on the same topic, but somewhere in the same general areas, there is “Weather” with its contrast of a highly rational woman meteorologist, fastidious about her health, and a somewhat hippie-ish “alternative” cigarette-smoking neighbour who is viewed quite positively. And the image of snow freakishly falling over all of New Zealand suggests the power of the unexpected.
Similarly, Bowker-Wright can also be fruitfully ambiguous about relationships. She will observe a flawed relationship closely while refraining from making any clear judgment upon it. Is the story “Cowboy” a lament or a celebration? The father is a feckless ageing bikie who has neglected and deserted his two children. There is no implication that he has literally abused them, but he is estranged from them and leaves his young adult son with an aching emptiness as he tries to recall the few occasions in his childhood when he had a chance to bond with his father. And yet, while this could be read as a comment on parental neglect, there are parts of the story that almost celebrate the cheerful, amoral, irresponsible happiness of the father, as if he can’t be any other than who he is.
There is one particular skill this author has which I can’t help admiring. That is her ability, especially seen in the story “Endangered”, to allow us to both share and follow clearly the multi-directional conversations of many different characters at a family gathering. This is a skill that the current Old Masters of New Zealand stories about families – Owen Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan – also do so well.
The comparison is not excessive. The Red Queen is a collection of great achievement and promise, and the New Zealand debut I’ve most enjoyed since Kirsten McDougall’s The Invisible Rider.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “MEMOIRS OF A MIDGET” by Walter de la Mare (first published 1921)

I have a very strict creed and I am going to stick with it. The creed says that if an author has written even a few memorable things, then that author deserves to be esteemed. It is hard enough to write even the averagely good, but to write the truly memorable takes great talent – maybe even genius. So I do esteem the Edwardian and Georgian poet, short-story writer and novelist Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). Yes, I know he is a back number, and in the severer histories of Eng Lit he is seen as the type of chap who wrote fey and often whimsical escapist poetry, until the Modernists came along and showed up him and others as antiques. But much of his work is too good to be dismissed that easily. When I was a child, de la Mare’s poetry was often taught in junior classrooms or given to children to learn off for elocution contests. (At least that is what happened to me in primary school – I had to learn “Five Eyes” and still remember “Jekkel and Jessup and one-eyed Jill”). When I was a child, I also loved the poems in de la Mare’s collection Peacock Pie – especially the edition illustrated with Edward Ardizzone’s haunting line drawings. Then there were poems like The Listeners (it first appeared in an earlier collection than Peacock Pie), which have justifiably become classics.
De la Mare captured perfectly that moon-dizzy moment in childhood and early
adolescence when you are half in love with the night and half scared of it. I have found his ghost-ridden short stories for adults, like the much-anthologised Seaton’s Aunt, more laboured and less sympathetic (too much table-rapping and struggling for effect).  But I regard his The Three Royal Monkeys (originally published in 1910 under the title The Three Mulla-Mulgars) as one of the most underrated and neglected of children’s books. I read it twice to various selections of my children when they were young, and we followed with great pleasure the trek of Thumb, Thimble and Nod through a fantasticated version of Africa.
Now this tale of esteeming a writer for his good stuff must, unfortunately, intersect with another story that I have often told on this blog. That is the story of for years intending to read a book that sat on one’s shelves, and then eventually discovering, when one at last got around to reading it, that the book was nothing like what one had hoped and expected it would be.
Walter de la Mare’s novel Memoirs of a Midget (written for adults – not children) was first published in 1921 and won a prestigious literary prize. I own a battered Faber and Faber hardback edition of it, printed in the 1940s. Cued by my prior knowledge of de la Mare’s moon-struck, ghost–haunted, exotic-landscaped poetry for children, I expected some sort of fantasy, but that was not quite what I got.
In a vaguely-defined Victorian setting “Miss M.”, a midget, tells her own story in the first person.
After the death of both her parents, Miss M. goes to live with a Mrs Bowater. She has an intense friendship with Mrs Bowater’s shrewish, minx-like, beautiful daughter Fanny Bowater. The local curate, Mr Harold Crimble, commits suicide when he is turned down by Fanny. Miss M meets a dwarf, “the Stranger”, later called “Mr Anon”, and quite a different type of human being from a midget. She is not as attracted to him as he appears to be to her. She goes to live with the snobbish Mrs Monnerie, who likes to show her off at dinner parties. She feels intensely friendly with Mrs Monnerie’s daughter Susan Monnerie, but she is mocked and teased by the facetious Percy Maudlen. Beautiful cruel Fanny Bowater (who calls Miss M “Midgetina”) comes back into the story. Eventually, cruel Fanny marries facetious, mocking Percy, which serves them both right.
For a while, Miss M allows herself to become a fairground and circus attraction. The dwarf “Mr Anon” joins her and is keen on her company. But the midget is not so eager for the dwarf.  Mr Anon is (I think) killed in a circus accident. So (I think) Miss M, living alone at the end of the novel, has indirectly been responsible for somebody else’s death, just as Fanny Bowater was when the curate committed suicide. And (I think) this is meant to show some sort of symmetry or moral relativism. The beautiful minx and the forbearing and patient midget are as different as chalk and cheese, but to some extent their effect upon others has been the same.
There are, I have to admit, good reasons for the “I thinks” I have inserted into my plot summary above. I confess that I am uncertain of some things that happen in the novel because my attention kept drifting as I read it. Sometimes, indeed, my eyes wandered over pages without taking much in. For the hard fact is that, as a novel, much of Memoirs of a Midget is dull, dull, dull. In terms of their psychology, the characters are so poorly differentiated that it is hard to tell one from another. I was never sure why Miss M changed her address four or five times. Things happen, but motivation (that is, “plot”) is unclear.
Having a midget tell the story could, I thought, have allowed some Swiftian savagery in the telling, when “normal” human traits are magnified and made grotesque (as in Tod Browning’s classic horror film Freaks). But such is not the case. The narration is restrained, ladylike, almost twee. The title and my prior encounters with the author’s work held the promise of a colourful, roguish circus tale. Again, echec! There is little passion here, but only the bloodless rattling of teacups. The book I had imagined before reading it evaporated as I read.
I copied a number of passages into my reading notebook, but looking at them now they are mainly stand-alone descriptions of wind, the moon and the stars as seen by the midget. An unsympathetic reader might even call them purple prose. At the very least, they do show de la Mare straining to produce the type of visual effects he handled better in his poetry. A late passage in the novel (Chapter 41) has the midget sitting in a church and reflecting that this place does not represent her conception of God, Who is found better in the wild outdoors. This could relate to de la Mare’s own dabbling in spiritualism, interest in ghosts and ambiguous attitude towards Christianity.  Apart from this aside, there are two scenes only that reverberate in the memory after the book is closed. One, very early in the piece, is where Miss M brushes past an over-inquisitive cat, which is almost as big as she is. The daunting prospect of a lethal puss does produce a certain frisson. There is also something to be said for a much later scene where Miss M creeps out at night to sit in a tree and watch her favourite constellations.
Yet there is one aspect of the novel that may give it resonance for some readers. To the best of my knowledge, de la Mare was heterosexual, married and with four children (one of whom, working for Faber and Faber, saw many of his father’s works through the press). Yet by her very nature, the midget is a paradigm of the outsider, and this could easily be read as the sexual outsider. A virginal lady to the end, Miss M lavishes her love on other women. She gives loving descriptions of beautiful, heartless Fanny Bowater, Susan Monnerie and others.
At first I saw this as authorial incompetence on de la Mare’s part. As a male writer, he hadn’t “thought himself into” the first-person voice of a woman, and so was describing other women as a man would describe them. But on second thoughts I’m not so sure. After all, it is Fanny and Susan whom Miss M loves, so what we seem to have here is genteel, virginal, late Victorian lesbianism. Perhaps de la Mare really was consciously presenting Miss M’s sexual status in symbolic terms. Consider a passage like the following (from Chapter 16) where Miss M recalls her anguished feelings for Fanny Bowater:
I have read somewhere that love is a disease. Or is it that Life piles up the fuel, a chance stranger darts the spark, and the whole world goes up in smoke? Was I happier in that fever than I am in this literary calm? Why did love for things without jealousy or envy fill me with delight, pour happiness into me, and love for Fanny parch me up, suck every other interest from my mind, and all but blind my eyes? Is that true? I cannot be sure: for to remember her ravages is as difficult as to reassemble the dismal phantoms that flock into a delirious brain. And still to be honest – there’s another chance: Was she to blame? Would my mind have been at peace even in its solitary woe if she had dealt truly with me? Would anyone believe it? – it never occurred to me to remind myself that it might be a question merely of size. Simply because I loved, I deemed myself lovable….”
“Her ravages”????
“If she had dealt truly with me”????
I doubt if de la Mare was unaware of all the meanings of what he was writing, and I have to give him much credit for irony in both this passage and others. But this does not mean Memoirs of a Midget is somehow a challenging or boundary-breaking novel. I put it back on the shelf with the conviction that it was a respectably highbrow novel of a former age, now long past, with its refined and restrained style rendering it now dead as mutton. And, no, my mind is not changed by the fact that Alison Lurie enthusiastically recommends it on the cover of a recent reprint.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
How to eat an apple?
Here are my nine steps to eating an apple successfully.
ONE – Go to the local fruit-and-vege shop, NOT to the local supermarket where many fruits are expensively pre-bagged and even those that aren’t are over-priced.
TWO – Linger in the local fruit-and-vege shop. Enjoy the healthy smells of all the natural produce. Spend a short time fantasising about how, when you were still at school, you would have liked to get a holiday or weekend job in a place like this, but you never did.
THREE – Now, depending on what is available, or what is in season, choose the type of apples you will buy. Avoid Granny Smiths unless absolutely necessary – or unless your wife wants apples to cook. They are boring apples. They are apples you will eat greedily only if there is nothing else available. Consider Sturmers seriously – they have a wonderful stinging bite to their taste, but you have to be careful because you know some members of your family can’t stand them. And you haven’t seen them here for years. Braeburns will do as a substitute. Of course consider the Gala variety. Even consider those rosy-coloured Pacific varieties, the name of which you forget. They are such surprising apples. Hard. A bit chalky. But always sweet. And consider those delicious ones that have dappled and patterned skins. Curse yourself for never having studied botany and not knowing the right names, though you do know which ones you mean.
FOUR – Take home the type of apples you have purchased. Empty the bag. Arrange them neatly in a pyramid on the fruit bowl in your living room. If fate and time have forced you to ignore your own advice and buy them at the supermarket, then spend some moments picking off those annoying plastic labels that some marketing idiot got companies to stick on individual apples.
FIVE – Go up to your study. Vow to be strong. Vow to resist temptation and not to go down to the fruit bowl and start raiding the apples. It’s only an hour or so since you had a meal, for goodness sake. Soldier on writing at your word processor. Yes, soldier on stoically, heroically, ascetically. For about ten minutes. Then get stuck on the right word. Go downstairs. Give in to temptation.
SIX – Pick up the apple you have chosen. [OPTIONAL - Hold the stem between thumb and forefinger of your right hand. Hold the apple in your left hand and twist, twist, twist until the stem comes off. Drop stem in kitchen tidy (or chuck stem nonchalantly over shoulder, knowing it will be picked up in the next vacuuming).]
SEVEN – Bite into the apple. Eat the apple. Avoid swooning. It is like Camembert. It is like salami. It is like Lapsang Souchong tea. It is like parsnips. It is one of those tastes that reminds you there is a God. Yes, there can be disappointments. The floury tastelessness of apples that you did not realise had been refrigerated for a long tome. The hidden rotten spot. But as an apple connoisseur, you know never to throw away an apple with a little rot in it. You take a sharp knife and perform a rot-ectomy and then eat the apple, ignoring the pungent smell that might linger about the crater where the rotten bit was.
EIGHT – Yes, I did say eat the apple. I did not say eat part of the apple. I did not say eat a little bit of the apple and then throw the rest away, or set it aside so that its flesh browns to unsightliness. I said eat the apple. The whole apple. You are not a true lover of apples if you do not eat the whole apple. Eat the flesh and skin around the core. Then eat the core. [OPTIONAL – If you have not already detached the stem, you may at this stage hold the apple by the stem and then eat until there is nothing left but the stem, of which you dispose as instructed above.] Recently, a woman, whom I admire almost to the point of folly, was advising us of habits she detests. They included nail-biting and nose-picking [fair enough]; but they also included eating the core of an apple. I was forced to reconsider seriously my deep admiration for this woman. How can you possibly say you have enjoyed an apple if you have not swallowed its star of pips, not ingested the healthy roughage of its internal chambers? (Fragments of which will pass, undigested, through your body the next time you excrete.) Not to eat the core of the apple reveals you to be a superficial person who skates on the surface of life, taking only the obviously sweet without developing a view of life’s variety, the rough and the smooth. Not to eat the core of the apple is like not ever tasting salt on your tongue, or the sharp smack of ginger. You are probably the bland sort of person who does not put black pepper in your omelette. The core is an essential part of the true apple experience. One cannot be a real philomel without eating the core. Besides, in eating the core, you are performing a public service by not leaving any waste.
NINE – Sigh contentedly. Burp if there is nobody around. Go back up to your desk and resume work. Repeat steps FIVE, SIX, SEVEN and EIGHT as above, three or four times in the course of the afternoon. By dinnertime, begin to notice that the pyramid of apples in the fruit bowl seems to be much lower than you thought. Suggest to your wife that you should buy some more apples tomorrow.
Ah apples, apples! They should be the stuff of song and poetry the way wine is, but poems that directly address apples are lamentably sparse. I know you can go on line and find a list of twenty or so poems relating to apples. But the melophiles who compiled this list were really scraping the apple barrel, as some of the poems that are listed are obscure and unmemorable, or have apples only as incidental details. When I think of apples in poetry, I at once recall W. B. Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Aengus” with its last stanza where he says that he will “walk through long green dappled grass / And pluck till time and times are done / The silver apples of the moon / The golden apples of the sun.” And I think of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” (“I was young and easy under the apple boughs”). But most of all I think of the best fully-apple-oriented poem, by a very minor poet who was generally not particularly good. But in this case he has caught a good part of the apple experience, even if he has not got to the core of it.
Here is Laurie Lee’s poem “Apples”:

Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:
juice-green of July rain,
the black polestar of flowers, the rind
mapped with its crimson stain.

The russet, crab and cottage red
burn to the sun’s hot brass,
then drop like sweat from every branch
and bubble in the grass.

They lie as wanton as they fall,
and where they fall and break,
the stallion clamps his crunching jaws,
the starling stabs his beak.

In each plump gourd the cidery bite
of boys’ teeth tears the skin;
the waltzing wasp consumes his share,
the bent worm enters in.

I, with as easy hunger, take
entire my season’s dole;
welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
the hollow and the whole. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“JOURNEY TO A HANGING” by Peter Wells (Vintage / Random House, $NZ44:99)

            I am sometimes so taken with a book that when I come to review it I feel the urge to rush to judgement before I do an analysis of it. This is the case with Peter Wells’ latest book Journey to a Hanging. I was so absorbed in it that I found it very hard to put it down, and galloped through its substantial text (about 400 closely-printed pages, before endnotes) in a couple of days. It is a vivid, insightful narrative and analysis of a set of tragedies in 19th century New Zealand. It is the product of close research and makes extensive use of the diaries, letters and testimonies of the people involved. It presents a credible set of arguments. And it is very, very readable.
Journey to a Hanging once again involves the printer, polymath, erstwhile Anglican missionary and gadfly William Colenso, of whom Peter Wells wrote his idiosyncratic biography The Hungry Heart two years ago. [Look up on the index at right my review of The Hungry Heart – as well as my reviews of two other books concerning Colenso by other people: Give Your Thoughts Life and William Colenso – His Life and Journeys]. As in The Hungry Heart, Wells sometimes places himself at the centre of the narrative. Among the many, mainly historical, photographs and illustrations that pepper the book’s glossy pages, there are the shots that Wells took while visiting sites where the historical events happened. He speaks of his “contrapuntal method of working.” (p.8) He notes that “my modus as a writer is to go to places, and pitch the historical past against the vagaries of the present” (p.9)
Again as in The Hungry Heart, Wells does not hesitate to speculate on people’s motives and to dramatize what he believes their intentions to have been. This time, however, he is more sparing in his speculations and is more restrained in his facetious asides. For these reasons among many others, I think Journey to a Hanging is a much stronger book than The Hungry Heart.
Despite his presence, William Colenso is not the focus of Journey to a Hanging. By rights, the book should be called Journey to Two Hangings, as that is what it is really about.
The first is the hanging and then the mutilation of the body of the Rev Carl Sylvius Volkner on 2 March 1865. Volkner, a German clergymen working for the Anglican Church Missionary Society, was murdered near his Hiona Church in Opotiki by Maori who were influenced by the Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) religion.
The second hanging is the execution (or perhaps judicial murder) of Kereopa Te Rau nearly seven years later, after his trial in Napier in late 1871. Kereopa was clearly only one of the people involved in Volkner’s death, and his role was indeed murky, but he had been pursued for years as the chief murderer and had taken refuge in Tuhoe country. The Tuhoe, tired of being harassed by government soldiers in search of him, handed him over to the Pakeha authorities and Kereopa’s trial and death followed. The cover blurb refers to these as “the events that set back New Zealand race relations by a century”, a phrase which is sourced to the historian Edmund Bohan on p.131.
Peter Wells is aware that this story has been told many times before, but through the lenses of different ages’ preconceptions and assumptions. Volkner was once seen as a martyr by Pakeha Christians (years after his death, his church was renamed St Stephen the Martyr). His murder, including the decapitation of his corpse and the eating of his eyes, was no more than an outbreak of cannibalistic barbarism. But then along came the Maori renaissance in the 1970s, and suddenly Volkner was recast as a government spy and his murder was the just retribution of Maori people then at war with colonisers and land-grabbers. As Wells writes:
the longer I worked on this story, the more I became aware that, even in the present, the interpretation of the ‘facts’ had an inherent instability. If Volkner had been regarded in the nineteenth century as a martyr, by 2014 he was dumped into the bin of political correctness: he was simply a spy and his death was, by implication, completely valid. He no longer had any narrative use. Kereopa Te Rau, in the same ever-balancing, ever-tilting narrative scales, was now viewed as unjustly hanged for a murder he did not commit. He was the leader of a rational political order whose anti-colonial drive was expressed through traditional Maori tikanga.” (p.12)
However, continues Wells, “The situation is complicated, much more so than the simple opposing points of view (Maori innocent and wounded, Pakeha evil and corrupt) that the contemporary interpretation allows.” (p.14)
Clearly one motivation for writing this book was Wells’ dissatisfaction with currently acceptable views of the events, which do not allow for nuance and which refuse to take seriously the worldviews of people in a past age. He quotes with approval Adam Gopnik when he said that “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” (p.94)
In a chapter tellingly called “Rinsing Away the Blood”, Wells credits Paul Clark’s 1975 book Hauhau: The Pai Marire Search for Maori Identity for the view that
Rev Volkner’s death was a rational political act carried out with, so to speak, all due diligence in terms of Maori tikanga. Clark conceptualised the killing as ‘an execution’ by way of further meshing it in postcolonial political correctness. His analysis did have the value of removing the stain of barbarity and irrationality from the death, but he may have over-emphasised the spy charge and under-emphasised Te Rau’s role in the killing. What his account also left out – understandably, as it was the very force he was trying to provide a corrective against – was what Bishop Williams called the ‘phrensy’. Clark, a dispassionate academic, downplayed it entirely. Yet witness after witness used a single adjective to define the tenor of the events of the first and second of March 1865 – and this word was ‘mad’.” (p.149)
In effect, Wells is saying here that the revisionist view of the event prettifies it and cleans it up – “rinses away the blood” – and refuses to see that it was an act of violence carried out in conditions of near hysteria by people who had somehow been inflamed. This is of a piece with other of Wells’ warnings against prettifying or sentimentalising Maori history.  For example in his considered “Postscript” he notes “Once again I get a sense of how Maori life and history was [sic] so powerfully informed by the effects of the inter-tribal killing fields – almost as much as by colonisation, if we are all being honest.”(p.366)
None of this means that Wells wants to return to the simplistic view of Volkner as martyr, any more than he wants to see Kereopa as helpless victim. He wants to enter the minds of all the major participants in this story, and establish some balance by determining the worldview each had
He does this by dividing his narrative into two parts.
The first 150-or-so pages of Journey to a Hanging are called “Walking at Night Without Stars” and concern Volkner. He is characterised, sympathetically, as an outsider in colonial Pakeha society. Offered no funding or livelihood by the North German Missionary Society, which had sent him to New Zealand, he switched to the Anglican CMS. But he was at first offered no parish and had to play something of a servant role to missionaries like Robert Maunsell.  Like so many missionaries, he was often isolated and lonely. One conspicuous “success” in his life, in worldly terms, was marrying Emma Lanfear, ten years older than he was and a woman who brought money into the marriage. Wells does not caricature this marriage, as I feared he might, but presents it as a harmonious one, noting:
 “Carl Sylvius, in marrying her, may have hoped for late children. More practically, both may have chosen each other, seeing in it a union which offered to the other individual gifts. That is was not a great romance does not mean that deeper feelings did not develop. Many an arranged marriage ends better than those that start off in a full cacophony of love and its intoxications. Indeed there is every evidence, in the careful actions and tender sentiments that Carl Sylvius and Emma Lanfear later expressed, that they had found in each other a soul mate.” (p.62)
Wells’ chief interpretation of Volkner is that, as a German, he often misread the intentions of his English colleagues, and sometimes pushed himself forward in rather tactless ways. He appears to have lobbied and volunteered for the Opotiki parish, especially at a time when the Anglican mission was worried at how well Catholic missionaries were then doing in that area. When war came to the Waikato in the 1860s, Volkner did indeed send letters to Governor George Grey informing him of the movements of Maori forces (the “spy” charge). But, argues Wells, this was very much the action of a German who was still trying to establish his loyalty to an English polity. Besides which, the information he sent to Grey was no more than that which he shared with other CMS missionaries and they with him.
Volkner went to Auckland with his wife when the war sucked the local Whakatohea people in and placed the missionaries’ lives in danger. Wells says Volkner returned to Opotiki for genuinely religious and pastoral reasons. The Whakatohea had suffered defeat and Volkner saw it as his duty to comfort his parishioners at that time. Unfortunately for him, and partly encouraged by Pai Marire (“Hauhau”) missionaries, the Whakatohea now saw Pakeha missionaries like Volkner as part of the reason for their defeat. And so he returned to his own death. Wells quotes in detail the many graphic – and conflicting – accounts of how Volkner died.
The second part of Wells’ narrative is headed “Journey to a Hanging”. For 200-plus pages it examines the circumstances of Kereopa Te Rau’s trial and death. A year after the murder of Volkner, five Maori men had already been tried and executed (in Auckland) for their part in Volkner’s killing. At that trial, no witness gave a leading role in the killing to Kereopa. But by 1871 Kereopa, largely because he was the Pai Marire missionary who arrived in Opotiki just before Volkner was killed, was generally seen by Pakeha as the man who had incited Volkner’s killers to murder. And he had eaten Volkner’s eyes. (Wells is unflinching about this fact, much as it has been “rinsed away” in some other accounts.)
Wells spends much time characterising the Pakeha society of Napier where the trial took place, and the difficulties of making the trial a fair one. He notes that:
the dangers of creating a jury in a small town were great. But what made things even more difficult was that many of these men [on the jury] occupied positions in the quasi-military volunteer units of which the town proudly boasted. In Te Rau’s case, many of the men sitting in judgement on him held positions in either the Napier Rifles or the Napier Artillery. Pakeha men had a double presence, an invisible shadow in the small town. They were not only civilians, they were semi-conscripted fighters in a colonial war.” [pp.170-171]
As to the Crown’s case against Kereopa, he writes:
there was a problem with the case; a whole lot of problems. Let’s call them eyewitnesses. It was shockingly unclear as to who did what to whom in the actual event in which Rev Volkner was killed. Like the hanging of Mussolini or the killing of Saddam Hussein, these were crowd events, a tumult of people carried along by a wave of emotion. There were many hands arising from the crowd, and the precise problem was, looking back over the span of six years, it was no longer clear who was responsible for the act of murder itself. This was complicated even further by this extraordinary detail: the eyewitnesses being produced had actually participated as perpetrators. It was impossible to be present without, in a sense, being an accomplice. The problem of war is that there is no innocence. ‘A dirty period requires dirty men’ is a saying in contemporary war-torn Syria and this was definitely a dirty period in New Zealand’s brief history.” [pp.244-245]
The witnesses the Crown produced had, in effect, their own reasons to dissociate themselves from Volkner’s murder and to load the blame onto Kereopa. Wells does not present Kereopa as blameless. As he languished in Napier’s claustrophobic little prison before, during and after the trial, it is clear that Kereopa tried to ingratiate himself with the authorities, and evade the gallows, by dobbing in other people. He wrote a memo telling the Crown exactly where they could find the “rebel” Te Kooti if they wanted to capture him [p.331]. In the end, though, Wells presents Kereopa as asserting his identity in a very Maori way and as a man who clearly had some part in the killing of Volkner, but was not the chief instigator of it.
Naturally Wells spends time characterising the major Pakeha players in Kereopa’s trial, the judge (biased and unfair), the prosecuting counsel (experienced, tricky, and given all the advantages by the judge) and the defence counsel (willing but inexperienced, and not allowed to introduce evidence that would have established the context of the murder). He is more concerned, however, with three Pakeha who did not appear in the courtroom.
First, the defrocked former Anglican clergyman William Colenso. Colenso, as the trial got underway, wrote an extensive pamphlet “Fiat Justitia”, arguing that there was no real case against Kereopa, that the trial was excessive Pakeha “utu” when others had already been hanged for Volkner’s death, that the trial was unnecessary, would inflame Maori feeling and was based on unreliable evidence. Wells notes that Colenso’s arguments were never raised at the trial, but it is clear that the prosecution was aware of them and (without ever mentioning Colenso by name) that the prosecution attempted to quash any sympathy for Kereopa that Colenso may have aroused.
Second, the Anglican Bishop William Williams of Waiapu, in whose notional diocese the murder and trial took place. Wells does not characterise Williams very sympathetically, seeing him as longing nostalgically for the settled, paternalistic relationship of missionary and Maori that had existed before the wars. Williams had, however, been brave at a time when Pai Marire first arrived at his mission station. Says Wells:
 “Whatever else one can say about Williams – that he was a land thief, a hypocrite, a political animal, a church functionary – he was certainly not a coward. He displayed remarkable calmness in a frightening situation. He is also all for clarity and certainty – in a situation in which absolutely nothing is clear.” (p.214)
By this, Wells is implying ironically that Bishop Williams tried hard to reach a clear-cut decision about Kereopa’s case, but extensive letters he wrote to Donald McLean and others show that he was in fact very troubled in his mind about the trial. But he never broke ranks publicly with majority Pakeha opinion.
Bishop Williams was severely antagonistic towards the third Pakeha figure upon whom Wells focuses. This was the French Catholic nun Sister Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert. Under the sincere impression that Kereopa had been either baptised or confirmed a Catholic – before he became Pai Marire – the bustling 36-year-old Aubert gained access to Napier jail and tried to arrange for a Catholic priest to hear Kereopa’s confession and accompany him to the gallows. She was, as she saw it, trying to save his soul. News of this outraged Bishop Williams, who saw Aubert’s intervention as the interference of a denomination which he detested anyway (as did the Low Church Colenso).
In the event it was Williams’ son, the Rev Samuel Williams, who accompanied Kereopa to the gallows, willy-nilly.
Wells’ own attitude towards Christianity is ambiguous at best (in the introductory chapter there is a slightly ironical smirk as he tells of his participating in an Anglican communion service at the Opotiki church). An element of farce creeps into the way he presents Aubert’s manoeuvres and Bishop Williams’ counter-manoeuvres on the night before Kereopa was hanged. Nevertheless, Wells’ sympathies are more on the side of Aubert and of Colenso than on the side of Bishop Williams. Like Volkner and like Kereopa, the French nun and the defrocked gadfly are to him “outsiders” from the mainstream of Pakeha opinion. Or perhaps they show that Pakeha colonial society was more diverse than recent revisionist history has allowed? Wells writes:
            “It is only too common to dismiss New Zealand’s colonial society in terms of its worst aspects but at times it is also necessary to expand our understanding and include the alternative universes of remarkable individuals like William Colenso and Mary Joseph Aubert. They were also members of colonial society.” (p.263)
Wells, by the way, has another reason to say positive things about colonial Pakeha society. After all, it was literate and “the entire trail of deceit and obfuscation of the Kereopa Te Rau trial is only available to us today because of the excellence of a nineteenth-century colonial bureaucracy.” (p.325)
I found this book completely absorbing and its nuanced arguments quite persuasive.
I save a few misgivings for the end.
There are times when Wells does rather overdo the pictorial scene-setting and the dramatization, allowing his imagination to get the better of him. I find this in passages such as:
But first we must creep along those dark, echoing hallways. It is another hot day, close, even though occasional showers skitter across the ground. We have to stand outside a cell and wait patiently for the turnkey, perhaps Thomas Maloney, to select the correct key, enter it into the lock, turn the lock then pull it back” etc. etc. (p.325)
I am a little dissatisfied at the way Wells presents the (small and incidental) role of the French Catholic priest Fr Garavel. Some months before Volkner’s murder, Garavel, coming to Opotiki from the Waikato, carried to the Whakatohea people a letter from Wiremu Tamihana, which turned out to be urging them to join the war against the British. It is highly unlikely that Garavel (who was quickly hustled out of the country by his superior Bishop Pompallier) was aware of the specific contents of the letter, but Wells leaves the matter painfully ambiguous. He says that Garavel “either wittingly or unwittingly” carried Tamihana’s incitement (p.85). On p.235 this becomes “either knowingly or unknowingly”. This is an odd statement from a writer who is elsewhere so ready to reach conclusions about people’s motives.
I would also express my dissent from Wells’ characterization of Pompallier as “in person profligate and seemingly dishonest” (p.236). At least I’m glad that Wells included that word “seemingly” there, but this judgement is still glib to say the least.
I must declare a personal interest at this point. Five years ago, I was commissioned to write a biographical history of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland, which was published under the title Founders and Keepers in 2011. I included a detailed and documented chapter on the changing reputation of the far-from-perfect Pompallier. I will say, however, that Wells’ attitude towards Pompallier and Catholic missionaries in general is far less negative than that of Paul Moon in his various writings. In fact, for all his sincere efforts to reach into the worldviews of all parties, there are times when Wells is equally dismissive of all Christian denominations in their endeavours. Repeatedly he uses the term “franchise” for each Christian denomination, as if he is naming nothing other than a set of commercial companies. This shows a certain failure of empathy when, as far as both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were concerned, they were engaged in life-and-death matters of profound spiritual importance.
In this connection I must arraign one dopey wisecrack by Wells when he is considering some of the evidence of Sister Aubert’s and Bishop Williams’ activities the night before Kereopa was hanged. He remarks:
 “they help us to plot the dance of the night, move by move, as Catholic sought to outwit Protestant and Protestant sought to outwit Catholic. And as Te Rau, too, used the competing religions to create a space for himself in which neither could actually ever completely reach him, appropriate him and hence claim him as – I am afraid I have to write this – a scalp.” (p.336).
Well actually no, Peter Wells, you do not have to write something so insufferably facetious and I don’t think you’re really “afraid” of having written it either. In fact, I suspect you think you have written a king-hit bon mot.
But here I admit that in all my misgivings over the last few paragraphs, I have been nitpicking.
Journey to a Hanging is an extraordinary book. Despite the few failures I’ve noted above, Wells’ sympathies are wide and he recreates a whole society vividly. How we conceive of the past is always changing. There is no “final” history. But in reading Journey to a Hanging I felt that the wheel had turned, and that we are at last moving on from the type of postcolonial history that overcompensated for earlier triumphalist colonial histories by equally un-nuanced imaginings of the past.
If this does not make it into the finals of New Zealand’s next round of book awards, then I will say that somebody goofed badly.

A Few Silly Footnotes:
I am interested to learn that Robert Maunsell, having translated the whole of the Old Testament into Maori, had to re-translate it all after his only draft of the translation was destroyed by fire (p.48). This puts me in mind of Thomas Carlyle’s heroic feat of re-writing, from memory, the first volume of his The French Revolution after the only manuscript copy of the volume was accidentally burnt by John Stuart Mill’s maid. Open fires were very destructive things in the nineteenth century.
If I were Peter Wells I’d have a quick word with my proof-reader or copy-editor. On p.293 he refers to a non-existent work called the “St. James Bible”. Obviously this is the King James Bible, and I have seen the mistake made by other hasty writers. However, it’s the type of thing that an alert copy-editor should pick up. Other than this, the production of Journey to a Hanging is excellent
HOWEVER, I would have preferred a full and conventional bibliography at the end, rather than only the source-giving endnotes.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

 “THE FRENCH REVOLUTION” by Thomas Carlyle (first published 1837; revised 1857)

            About twenty years ago I was an infrequent attender of “Slightly Foxed”, a pseudo-literary-cum-antiquarian club in Auckland, composed mainly of bibliophiles who wanted to talk about old books. Prior to one of our club meetings a topic was set – name your ten favourite books and explain why you like each. I sat down over a week and diligently produced a list of ten books, with a long explanatory note on each. I won’t annoy you by naming all the books I chose, for the simple reason that I no longer agree with all the choices I made, so much are one’s tastes modified by the years. Some that I chose (such as Don Quixote) I would still include if I were asked to make a similar list now. Others I regard almost with embarrassment. I am not embarrassed by having included Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution on my 20-year-old list, but it would no longer figure among my ten favourites. Re-reading passages from it before writing this article, I find Carlyle’s present-tense narration vigorous and dramatic up to a point, but quickly tiring, as if the man were incapable of writing in a more reflective, analytical, style. And while I could once have forgiven his views on the revolution as the product of Romanticism, I now find many of them unsympathetic, not to say sinister.
I can claim the feeblest and most notional of family connections with Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). As it happens, he was born in Ecclefechan, the same Scots Lowland town from which my mother’s family the Burnets had come to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. As a child, I visited this unco dour Presbyterian town when my mother was in search of her ancestral connections, and saw the statue of Carlyle in the main street. Obviously that was the first I’d ever heard of the man. As an adult, I read The French Revolution in the old illustrated two-volume Collins Clear Type edition, running to a bit over 1,000 pages, which still sits on my shelf.
The story of the gestation of this book is well known. John Stuart Mill was commissioned to write a history of the French Revolution. He didn’t have time, so he passed the project on to Thomas Carlyle, who was then about forty. Carlyle worked away at it for about four years, eventually producing a three-volume work. But when he sent the only copy of the manuscript of the first volume to Mill for Mill’s comment, one of Mill’s servants accidentally burnt it. Carlyle re-wrote the volume from memory. This is one of the heroic stories of Eng Lit. Equally egregious, however, is that the type of “grand narrative” Carlyle produced is exactly the sort of thing that is now regarded with suspicion by academic historians. While teaching a paper on historiography five years back, I quickly found that Carlyle’s work, and his contemporary the American William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico and Peru, are now seen almost with contempt as Victorian bestsellers which tell vigorous stories but which are not to be trusted as history. And certainly The French Revolution has none of the scholarly apparatus that would now be essential in an academic work of history – no footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, naming and evaluation of sources etc. Just the sweeping narrative, where we have to trust that the author is not making it up.
Though first published in 1837, two years before Queen Victoria’s reign began, The French Revolution was indeed a Victorian bestseller and made Carlyle’s name with the public. Carlyle revised it in 1857 and it had a big impact on imaginative writers, most notably Charles Dickens, whose slant on the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities is very much indebted to Carlyle (as Dickens acknowledged). Also worth bearing in mind is how recent the French revolution was when Carlyle was writing. 1837 was a mere 42 years after the date (1795) where Carlyle chooses to end his history. It is as if we were to write about the 1970s.
As I now clearly see it, Carlyle was writing to a thesis. He was a big one for Capitalising Abstract Concepts, so his thesis about the French Revolution, as I understand it, goes like this:
Carlyle’s enemy was “Analysis”, meaning the querulous and endless chattering of intellectuals, to which he opposed “Belief”, meaning a core of unquestioned values, which he saw as necessary for a nation’s survival. But if Belief becomes routine or ritual, then it is a mere “Form” or Formula. To this Carlyle opposes Reality or Fact, the hard physical events of history. Thus his thousand-page history of the French Revolution reads as the Age of Analysis (philosophes, Voltaire, Montesquieu etc.) being swept away, the old Formulas (Catholic belief, absolute monarchy) crumbling, the terrible Facts marching through bloodily, leading to a new Belief, vital and real, which regenerates the nation.
 Carlyle despises the political bases of pre-revolutionary radicalism, and often refers scathingly to the “Evangel of Jean-Jacques [Rousseau]”, which he sees merely as a new Formula. He hates particularism, mammon, self-interest. The nation can’t be federal, can’t be money-mad and must have a common purpose. What he lauds is a sense of national purpose under strong leadership. This leads him to admire “men of destiny” (although he never actually uses that term) – those strong men who overrode what he sees as mere parliamentary squabbles and who took bold decisions at crucial points. King Louis XVI lacked decision before the new “Facts” of the Third Estate. In turn the Girondins, although the best and the brightest of France, failed because they continued to analyse and debate instead of recognising the “Fact” of Sansculottism and the force of radical Jacobinism (much as Carlyle hates Robespierre, the most prominent Jacobin). Carlyle hates Anarchy (also always capitalised), which he tends to equate with popular democracy. He laments eloquently the endless horrors and murders of the revolution. At his worst, he seems to admire most simple power and well-organised brute force.
Who emerges most sympathetically in his account? The general Dumouriez (for his decisiveness in battle); Danton (for his sense of Reality in rallying the nation against invasion), and, of course, Bonaparte. Carlyle’s history begins with the death of Louis XV in 1774 and ends with Bonaparte’s “whiff of grapeshot” in Vendemiaire, 1795. In effect, the whole revolution becomes a prologue to the emergence of the enlightened despot Napoleon.
This 19th century British “myth” of the revolution is quite different from the received 19th century French “myth” of the revolution as articulated by the republican democrat historian Jules Michelin. Michelin divided the revolution into an “heroic” early period of idealism and necessary reform (“l’epoque sainte”) and a “sombre” later period of violence and terror (“l’epoque sombre”) when the masses were forced to excesses by external dangers. This has tended to remain the standard French view (no matter how much it has been modified by Marxists, postmodernists and others). Recently, on the indispensible Youtube, I watched the two state-sponsored movies (each nearly three hours long), which French television broadcast in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the revolution. They are divided into “Years of Hope” and “Years of Sorrow” in true Michelin style. Jean Renoir’s famous 1938 movie La Marseillaise, made in time for the 150th anniversary of the revolution, deals only with the early years of the revolution, and therefore sticks with the “years of hope” (one hostile reviewer said it made the revolution look like some sort of cheerful outdoors public demonstration). It too was a distant child of Michelin. On the other hand, there is also the persistent myth of Napoleon in France. Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoleon, made in the 1920s, has scenes that could almost have been cribbed from Carlyle. One shows the young revolutionary general in his study, watching from his window a bloody riot in the street, looking at the copy of The Rights of Man and the Citizen hanging upon his wall, reflecting that this is what has led to such anarchy, and resolving to save the nation. Like Carlyle’s book, it is undiluted “Great Man” theory of history.
All of which has led to the most persistent criticism of Carlyle. By his “Great Man” theory and his contempt for popular democracy and his desire for a unified, ordered state, he is in effect a precursor of the Fascism of Right and Left. Flash forward a century and his satire on “Analysis” translates into Mussolini’s tirades against rotten liberal democracy; his man of destiny recognizing brute Facts and saving the nation is simply Hitler’s Fuhrerprinzip; his despotism of innate genius is Stalinists and Maoists seeing their Great Leader or Great Helmsman as the incarnation of the popular will. Add to this his lectures on Hero Worship and his admiring double-decker biography of Frederick the Great (read enthusiastically in Germany) and, much as it simplifies things a bit, the criticism seems to me a valid one
And did I mention the racial element of Carlyle’s The French Revolution? Racial assumptions run as an undertone through this long book, perhaps connected with Carlyle’s North European Protestant and Calvinist background. The impulsive “Gaelic” (i.e. Gallic or Gaulish) temperament is contrasted unfavourably with the “Frankish” and Germanic sense of stoicism, firmness, resolve and duty. In a way, Carlyle’s French revolution is the history of a disorderly and potentially anarchic “Gaelic” rabble awaiting “Frankish” discipline and leadership. Germanic courage is of course what he emphasises when he describes the massacre of the Swiss Guard.
            There are other blind spots in Carlyle’s vision. For all his stated theory, Carlyle’s sympathies are large and his feeling for common suffering is genuine (see particularly the chapter “Grilled Herrings” in the last Book). But when he considers pre-revolutionary France, what moves him most is not the misery of the people, but the “Sham”, the “Quacks”, the Formulas and the Analysis – in other words the lack of Belief and a vital force to unify the nation. His understanding of Catholicism is minimal – he sees and accounts for only the decadent aspects of the pre-revolutionary church, largely misses the regeneration of faith during [and after] the revolution, and seems convinced that the revolution has destroyed Catholicism. He pays little attention to rural France, or France outside Paris, except when giving evidence of the “Terror” there, and he does not really have the patience to analyse the political doctrines of the various parties. Debate in times of crisis is to him absurd. He also, especially in the earlier chapters, assumes the reader knows certain facts. For example, while he frequently refers to Cardinal Rohan as “Necklace-Rohan”, he never gives an account of the pre-revolutionary “Queen’s Necklace” scandal that might justify this sobriquet.
As the origin and foundation of the major “myth” of the French Revolution among English-speaking peoples, especially as reflected in popular novels, Carlyle’s book created durable, if highly questionable, portraits of the leading personalities. King Louis XVI is likeable but slow-witted – a devoted father but lacking resolve (this is one portrait that seems to square with later and more detailed historical research). Mirabeau is the great chimera and aristocratic factotum, mainly quack and charlatan, but at least recognising the great Fact of leadership. Danton is the “big” man, the true incarnation of the soul of Sansculottism and Patriotism. By contrast, Robespierre is spiteful, “small” and “sea-green” (Carlyle hammers both epithets to death). Incidentally, Carlyle accepts implicitly the idea that Robespierre attempted suicide just before his arrest, an idea which is now strongly contested by the evidence that his shattered jaw (at the time he was taken to the guillotine) was more likely inflicted by a shot fired by one of the arresting soldiers. Curiously, while his detestation of them is plain, Marat and Hebert are shadowy figures who play little part on Carlyle’s account – at least until the virginal heroine Charlotte Corday kills Marat.
            When he comes to the heroines of his story, Carlyle has that ecstatic worship of virgin purity and sacrifice characteristic of his age. In this manner, he treats the deaths of Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland almost as martyrdoms.
            How do I now assess this maddening and fascinating book? Much of it is airy, windy, repetitious, epithet-laden rhetoric. Certainly it can no longer be read as a serious history of classes and causes and economics and ideals. It is a panorama, a pageant, a series of dramatic scenes. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right to refer to it as a “poem”. Yet it does have a sense of vitality, of movement en masse. There is deep involvement in events rather than the detachment of a scholarly historian. At one and the same time we can say that this is and is not the way it happened, and yet it is the way it must have seemed to thousands of those who took part. Thus, paradoxically, it is a ‘true history’ – a history of feelings rather than of accurate facts.
What lingers in the mind are the individual dramatic episodes. When I first read the book, I listed the ones that most impressed me thus:
* The march of Parisian women to Versailles (Part I, Book VII)
* The “Feast of Pikes”, or first celebration of Bastille Day on the Champs de Mars, 1790, with its ludicrous portrait of Talleyrand having his mitre filled with rainwater (Part II, Book III)
* The royal family’s flight and capture at Varennes in 1791 (Part II, Book IV)
* The meeting and jibber-jabber of the inexperienced new Legislative Assembly in 1791-92 (Part II, Book V)
* The massacre of the Swiss Guard (Part II, Book VI)
* The sufferings and death in jails during the September Massacres of 1792 (Part III, Book I)
* The excesses of blasphemous “de-Christianisers”, especially in the chapter “Carmagnole Complete” (Part III, Book V)
* Danton’s execution (Part III, Book VI).
Carlyle’s account of the taking of the Bastille (Part I, Book V, Chapters 3-7) may be the most oft-quoted passage in the book, and is filled with phrases and allusions showing clearly where Dickens gained his inspiration for the parallel passage in A Tale of Two Cities. Oddly enough, though, this passage struck me as confused and over-written, lacking the narrative power of the other passages I have listed here.
I conclude by quoting the passage which I believe shows the best and the worst of Carlyle. It comes from Part II, Book III, Chapter 1 and concerns that first anniversary celebration of Bastille Day:
Alas, what offences must come. The sublime Feast of Pikes, with its effulgence of brotherly love, unknown since the Age of Gold, has changed nothing. That prurient heat in twenty-five millions of hearts is not cooled thereby; but is still hot, nay hotter. Lift off the pressure of command from so many millions; all pressure or binding rule except such melodramatic Federation Oath as they have bound themselves with! For Thou shalt was from of old the condition of man’s being, and his weal and blessedness was in obeying that. Woe for him when, were it on the heat of the clearest necessity, rebellion, disloyal isolation and mere I will becomes his rule!
Yes, Carlyle was quite right to see that good intentions and displays did not of themselves solve anything. Yes, his satire on talkers and planners is apt and funny. Yes, he perceived accurately that once a revolution had begun it could not be stopped by fine words. Yes, he noted correctly that a society needs binding values and there has to be more to it than atomised individual self-interest. But his craving for “command” led to an admiration of a new sort of tyranny, and in time it proved to be more terrible than the one the revolution had overthrown.