It is a hundred years since Baroness Orczy gave us her splendid swashbuckler The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). One great admirer of the book is Peter Vansittart, who has himself written many well-received historical novels, and others with contemporary themes. The Sir Percy Blakeney type – insouciant, raffish, always liable to turn up unexpectedly in tight corners – is one he much admires. Yet, though relishing the Baroness’s work, he was also determined, as an emerging author in the 1950s, to do some something new with the historical novel, to move it on from ‘gadzookery’, or what Robert Louis Stevenson called, half-affectionately, ‘tushery’.
This Vansittart first succeeded in doing with his fine novel set in a (lightly disguised) medieval Burgundy, The Tournament (1958). His great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we
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It is a hundred years since Baroness Orczy gave us her splendid swashbuckler The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). One great admirer of the book is Peter Vansittart, who has himself written many well-received historical novels, and others with contemporary themes. The Sir Percy Blakeney type – insouciant, raffish, always liable to turn up unexpectedly in tight corners – is one he much admires. Yet, though relishing the Baroness’s work, he was also determined, as an emerging author in the 1950s, to do some something new with the historical novel, to move it on from ‘gadzookery’, or what Robert Louis Stevenson called, half-affectionately, ‘tushery’.This Vansittart first succeeded in doing with his fine novel set in a (lightly disguised) medieval Burgundy, The Tournament (1958). His great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we are reading. Here is an example of his gift for poetic brevity and his eye for myth:
Beacons had been lit on the low surrounding hills and on the walls of distant castles, flickering palely in the sunlight like the Forlorn Fires burned by those who had been enchanted; and in the fields, behind the gesticulating mobs, garlands had even been placed on the sheep’s skulls stuck on poles to protect the land against lightning. It was also said that the young men had swarmed the woods and slain a wren that wore a golden crown.For a long time I have found this strange, glinting book a source of fascination, drawn by its extravagant colours certainly, but also by the wayward personalities in it: the Duke, his fool, his courtiers, his moody heir, his estranged wife, his credulous yet practical peasants. So when I got the chance to visit Peter Vansittart, now in his eighties, in his Suffolk cottage, I was keen to find out more about the inspiration behind it. I asked what had drawn him to the theme of the novel, which might seem somewhat recondite. He told me: ‘I was very interested in the fact that Burgundy had no distinctive boundaries and so it had to depend for its existence on bluff, on propaganda, magnificence. The Duchy was so extravagant that it would be difficult to exaggerate it. I read in a history that the Duke of Burgundy had been insulted by another prince, a challenge had been issued, and all sorts of preparations were made. But, the paragraph concluded simply, “The tournament did not take place.” And I suddenly realized it had never been intended to take place, it was just a gesture, all part of an empty ritual. That was like turning a key in the lock; there was my book.’ It is not quite so easy to find the key to Peter Vansittart. Born in 1920, into a family with its own share of eminence, he noted that his father’s death certificate gave ‘Occupation – Gentleman’, but said he knew little else about him (he died before Peter was born). Something of that elusiveness has descended on the son too. He is quicker to tell of the books he enjoys and the fellow-authors he has known than to talk of himself, and one only gradually gathers a sense of him. Courteous, hospitable, gently satirical, alert to irony, full of curious lore, he is like one of the courtiers in his book, where indeed he would not be the only modern, as I was soon to discover. But first we spoke of another major theme in the novel, one that takes it into more sombre terrain. The Duke, for all his pomp, is a ruler, with responsibilities, with hard decisions to make, a steward of lives. This becomes increasingly understood by him as the story progresses. What recalls him to his duty was not hard to imagine, said Vansittart: ‘When I was about 18, I read books on the Black Death and secreted away one or two odd little details – for instance, that doctors wore beaks like birds and the beaks were filled with herbs to protect them. If you got the Black Death, you would try to infect family and friends so they would join you in the after-life.’ Here, then, were the beginnings of the novel; all his life, Peter Vansittart has been an assiduous and retentive reader, and a habitual note-taker, and he makes his books like a mosaic, piece by piece, deftly placing a vivid symbol here, a bizarre belief there. ‘It wasn’t that I did any research specifically for the book,’ he told me, ‘I had just absorbed so much from my reading. Occasionally I would verify things after I had done the writing, but not before or during. One knows more than one realizes. You start writing, and everything falls into place. I’ve always thought the more research you do, the worse the novel. I remember reading as a boy Conan Doyle’s introduction to The White Company in which he says he read over sixty books to prepare for writing it. Even then, I couldn’t help thinking it would have been a better novel if he hadn’t read any.’ Certainly The Tournament does not read like a brigade of textbooks forced into fiction, as some historical novels do. For Vansittart’s characters are richly human, with their follies and foibles, their great weaknesses and little greatnesses. How had he achieved that? Though never in the literary mainstream, in the 1950s he was part of a circle of eccentric individuals whose traits he found irresistible: and, he told me, they all found their way into his book. Philip Toynbee, author of the experimental Holy Grail novel, Tea with Mrs Goodman, was one; he became the Duke’s heir, brilliant, petulant, proud but tainted, ‘a quivering hound on his leash’. Stephen Spender is there as the Chevalier Stephen, the Duke’s righthand man, a brooding, elliptical poet, whose satire is said to have lamed a knight; the philosopher A. J. Ayer appears as the Chancellor, Lord Estrienne, sardonic, saturnine, tilting at the Church: ‘It has always seemed to me disturbing, Your Grace, and also, perhaps, significant, that while we are permitted to hear the words of our Blessed Master, we shall never know the tone of voice in which he deigned to utter them.’ Did they recognize themselves? ‘Oddly, no,’ Peter Vansittart replied. ‘Of course I couldn’t have got away with it in a modern novel as that would have been too obvious: but a medieval court was an ideal chance to portray them without much fear of detection.’ Quite apart from his successful use of myth and imagery, and his engaging characters, there is something in the prose style of The Tournament, some convincing quality that seems to speak in the very tongue and timbre of the times in which it is set. I couldn’t put my finger on this, until its author enlightened me: ‘I was playing Flemish and Burgundian music while I was writing it, so that vaguely the rhythms of the music might enter the rhythms of the prose, might summon up court ritual, dirges, processions, hunting calls. There is a line of Alfred de Vigny; “God! How sad the sound of a hunting horn in the woods.” That stuck in my mind. It summoned up the world of the Burgundian tapestries, which I tried to recreate.’ The Tournament was by no means the last impetus he gave to the under-regarded historical novel. In The Friends of God (1963), he wrote with dramatic, unflinching clarity of the brutal world of the Anabaptists, sixteenth-century German heretics. The Death of Robin Hood (1981) won praise from Alan Hollinghurst: ‘highly original . . . a teeming, vivid, unruly fairground . . . jostling with brilliant detail and palpable immediacy’. In this novel, and in others, Vansittart was one of the first to work with resonances across time: ‘I’ve always believed that although human behaviour changes, human nature does not. We will always build the same images, the same archetypes. So for the writer the interest is in showing how these emerge in different historical times. This is central to what I like writing about. In Lancelot (1978), for example, set in early, post-Roman England, you get a sudden glimpse of Hermann Goering, then of Robespierre. I try to show that there is always a sort of continuum. We cannot escape it, and it is there to be seen, behind all our history.’ His most recent novel, Hermes in Paris (2000), is another fine exemplification of this theme, with an avatar of the ancient god of thieves and trickery and illusions at play in the French capital during the Second Empire; a Fabergé egg of a novel, one critic called it, as brilliant and jewelled. This was the twenty-sixth of his novels, half of which have been published by his staunch independent publisher Peter Owen. He has also written several highly enjoyable literary memoirs, a number of acclaimed histories or biographies (most recently of John Paul Jones, the American buccaneer), several original anthologies and three books of tales for children. Though none of these have become bestsellers, I am far from alone in appreciating his work. A. S. Byatt has called him quite simply ‘a wonderful novelist and storyteller . . . brilliant, unforgettable’, while a guide to twentieth-century literature has rightly noted that he ‘has almost single-handedly redeemed the historical novel from its middle-brow reputation’. The author himself seems sanguine about his lack of a popular readership. ‘At least I don’t have to worry about disappointing my readers, because there aren’t any, or there are hardly any. It allows me to go my own way. Had I written, say, Lucky Jim, I would have been restricted in what I might do next.’ He was only once briefly convinced that wider acclaim might come his way: ‘When I wrote Orders of Chivalry (1956), it got a marvellous review from Dorothy Parker: “The only novel that has made me howl with laughter at 2 o’clock in the morning.” Well, I thought I might almost get a mortgage with that sort of praise, but of course it didn’t make the slightest difference.’ It is not easy to find the work of Peter Vansittart, and when you do, you may take a little while to adjust to such succinct, sustained intelligence, such a personal and peculiar style, such singular mastery both of the undercurrents of history and of the telling details of the everyday. But then you will soon be in earnest quest of the rest.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 9 © Mark Valentine 2006
About the contributor
Mark Valentine has been described by the Independent as ‘a microbiologist of literary fauna’ for his keen interest in overlooked writers. He has written a biography of the Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen, and introductions to works by J. Meade Falkner, William Sansom, L. P. Hartley and others, as well as two volumes of mystery stories.