In a few days the mass-market paperback of The Black Prince is published. This is the historical novel I wrote, taking as my starting point an unmade 1970s screenplay by Anthony Burgess, and adopting the approach he identified in an interview with the Paris Review in 1972:
INTERVIEWER: Do you expect to write any more historical novels?Naturally I had to clear this project with Burgess's estate, and the Burgess Institute in Manchester (headed by the estimable Andrew Biswell), Burgess being still in copyright. When I wrote the novel Andrew and I both believed that Burgess's talk of ‘ninety pages’ written was common-garden Burgessian rodomontade, and that in fact he wrote nothing of the novel beyond the (conventionally framed, non-Dos-Passos-y) screenplay. Since the novel came out in hardback Andrew has turned up a first draft page of the actual novel, and about which I shall blog in a little while. But back when I sat down actually to write The Black Prince I had a free hand. In my first draft I tried to retain as much echt Burgess dialogue from the screenplay as possible, but in the event I revised most of that away. Screenplay dialogue is a different quantity to novel dialogue, and one of Burgess's distinctivenesses as a novelist was his extraordinary ear for the idiolects of human speech; so the rather flatter speech of the screenplay needed a bit of Burgessy titivating.
BURGESS: I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel . . . The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.
INTERVIEWER: Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?
BURGESS: The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
One of the things that drew me to this project was that I'd never written a historical novel, never mind an historical novel, before, and I wanted to give it a go. The thought of working on something Burgess initiating was extremely exciting, since I'm a long-term Burgess fan. And quite apart from anything else, I really liked his strange conceit. One advantage of writing in a Dos-Passosish manner is that it allows for a large variety of characters and perspectives, which was fun. Most of my characters existed in their own sections, and become part of the larger tapestry; but two reappear at different stages of their lives, and the stories, throughout: Edward the Black Prince himself, and a regular soldier and commoner called Black George (two other characters, Edward's wife Joan and William Tyndale also have recurring sections, but are less important to the overall scheme of the novel).
Still: my main task, as I sat down at my desk, was: to write a historical novel. To do that I needed a working model of what a historical novel is. So what is it?
Let's say: ‘a novel that tells a story set in some distinct historical period.’
I'm going to go with: ‘nope.’
Obviously, my novel does tell a story, and is set in a distinct historical period. It really is about Edward, the Black Prince, his life and battles, his world and his destiny. I mean, really: it tells that story, at some length and in a good deal of detail, such that if you happen not to know the story (unlikely though that sounds) you'll pick up the key facts. But this is not what a historical novel is.
Which is to say: this is not what a historical novel ought to be. Lots of historical novels are this; and that's fine if that lights your candle. Indeed, I'd say the majority of historical novels in print today are this: characters with modern attitudes, exemplary of modern mores, relatable where modern readers are concerned, dressed up in period-specific fancy dress, riding horses instead of driving cars. Only a few historical periods are covered: World War 2, Victorian Britain, Regency England, Tudor England, Ancient Rome. The narrative is full of incident and colour, passions run high, people speak to one another in readily comprehensible ways although dialogue will be more elegant and expressive than is the case on Love Island and may be primped with the odd by-jove!, prithee or eheu. The reading experience gives a spice of temporal exoticism (it would be crass to talk about temporal orientalism, not least since what's overwhelmingly on offer in the modern blockbuster historical novel is temporal occidentalism; but there's more than a whiff of that in the mode's appeal, I think).
In fact, though, the historical novel is not about people at historical moments, but is rather about history as such. That means these kinds of novels are of course going to be about people, because history is not an abstract process but is, on the contrary, precisely how people have lived over time. But how people have lived has changed, and in more than just the technology they use and the styles of clothes they wear. Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I'd argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.
A historical novel doesn't have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn't estrange has failed, I think.
All this devolves upon another very big question: ‘what is history?’ If you believe that people don't really change, and that history is just one thing followed by another thing, then anachronisms of subjectivity and form won't bother you. Me, I take a more Lukácsian view of the matter. Lukács's still-essential study, The Historical Novel (1937 in Russian, 1962 in English translation) takes Walter Scott as the paradigmatic historical novelist, not because he was the first person to write a historical novel (he wasn't), nor because he was in his day very popular and influential (he was, but that's not what interests Lukács). Rather he identifies in Scott's Waverley novels a dramatisation of the dynamic of history as such.
The typical Scott novel goes like this: there's a protagonist not in himself notable or important, a (fictional) individual living at a time of (historical) flux, and he meets various real historical characters in the course of his peregrinations. Generally this individual—let's call him Waverley, after the protagonist of Scott's first and series-naming novel—is torn between supporting the old and supporting the new. The old is the romantic, thrilling, charismatic but outmoded and unviable past; the new is the practical, bourgeois, in many ways unappealing but viable and inevitable present-future. In Waverley this dyad is: the romantic, doomed Jacobites on the one hand and the Hanoverian succession, which is the future, on the other. Waverley ‘wavers’ between the two, hence his name: drawn first to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he ends the novel a respectable Hanoverian-supporting laird. And, with variations and tweaks, that's the basic Scott paradigm for all his novels.
What Lukács thinks important about this is that Scott (writing decades before Marx though he was) intuitively grasped that history is a dialectical process by which older social-cultural theses come into conflict with antithetical present-day forces and are sublated into a synthetic future. That, in other words, Scott is writing about the dynamic of history itself, and his stories and characters are there to illustrate that dynamic. Scott's historical periods are always in flux, always illustrative of process, rather than being static period backdrops. ‘Through the plot of the historical novel,’ says Lukács, ‘at whose centre stands the hero, a neutral ground is sought and found upon which the extreme, opposing social forces can be brought into a human relation with one another.’ Where Shakespeare’s histories (say) focused on figures of world-historical importance like kings and caesars, Scott’s protagonists were ordinary people, removed from the centres of historical power.
But in Scott's novels, the big names of history ‘can never be central figures of the action. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction. Scott, by first showing the complex and involved character of popular life itself, creates this being which the leading figure then has to generalize and concentrate in an historical deed.’ Accordingly ‘the struggles and antagonisms of history are best represented by “mediocre” heroes who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.’ In this context, ‘it matters little whether individual details, individual facts are historically correct or not ... Detail is only a means of achieving historical faithfulness, for making concretely clear the historical necessity of a concrete situation.’ At the same, time, Lukács insists that historical fiction written entirely ‘from below’, dealing only with proletarian experience without any middle class or aristocratic characters, cannot capture the totality of historical experience as such. And here we are.
I'm not suggesting Lukács would have had liked The Black Prince, had he lived to see it published. On the contrary: it's likely he would have hated it, actually. He championed classical realism and despised Modernism, where this novel is written according to the formal logic of that arch-Modernist, Dos Passos; and he looked down on historical novels that emphasised torture and violence, as ‘archaeologized’ artefacts, in which ‘brutality and pathology’ merely anesthetized history as such. Nonetheless I have here, deliberately, written a Lukácsian historical novel.
There are various ways in which this is, I think, true of The Black Prince, and I'm not going to detail all of them. But I'll pick an indicative one. So: the events of the novel run from The Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346) through to Edward's death in 1376. The acme of feudal medievalism; but intimations of change are present. Burgess's screenplay sees Tyndale's incipient Protestantism as the sign of things to come, and my novel picks up on that a little. But more important, I figured, was money.
Early in the novel I wrote a section about a character called Brian, a serf owned by his master, the Lord of Bower. Brian tends two acres of his lord's land, and raises chickens. Although technically everything of Brian's actually belongs to his master, the Lord is canny enough to allow him to sell his chickens and keep a portion of what he earns. The chapter concerns Brian selling two dozen chickens to the adjacent manor house, which is preparing a banquet to entertain the king. Brian isn't allowed inside, of course, but he gets a shilling for his birds.
It was four great manor houses crashed together into one enormous structure, surely bigger than any cathedral or palace, big as the whole city of London together, or so Brian imagined. He loitered for an hour or more because he was unsure how to approach such magnificence, or where to go, and fearful that he would be beaten for presumption if he came close. But then a man he knew, called Edgar the Nine-fingered, came by, herding two big geese with a stick. Edgar showed Brian which flank of the huge brick-built edifice to approach, and which door to wait at. ‘Some say, knock,’ Edgar noted, ‘but I tried that in Trumpington, and a man came out and beat me with a cane. So I just wait.’ They waited for an hour, until a maid emerged with a slop bucket, and she called the cook out, and he agreed to buy the geese and the chickens, the former live, the latter dead. ‘I’ve kept them hooded and living,’ Brian explained, ‘to keep them fresh.’ ‘And I’ve kept my wits hooded and living,’ the cook returned, holding his fist close to Brian’s face, ‘so as to not need the fucking obvious explained to me. Wring their necks and I’ll buy them at three a penny.’ Brian might have gone along with that, if not for the fist. He kept his calm face on, but part of him wanted to smite the cook with the pole he was carrying, squawking birds and all. ‘Two a penny,’ he said. ‘A shilling the lot.’ The cook scoffed and rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Edgar and his two geese. Nine-fingered Edgar said: ‘I can get sixpence a head for these in London.’ ‘You’ve never been to London, shit-tongue,’ retorted the cook. ‘You’re a nobody. Me, I have seen the King himself as close to me as you are now. Threepence each.’ For a while the two haggled back and forth. ‘I might give you fourpence for that one,’ said the cook, eyeing the larger of the geese. ‘But then I’d only give you tuppence for that other, on account of it being so fucking scrawny.’ ‘Sixpence a head in London.’ They settled on ninepence the pair, and the cook went inside and came out again in person with nine brown pennies. A maidservant shooed the geese round the side of the building, the birds hissing like rainfall as they went. Edgar slipped quickly away with his money. The cook saw Brian, still standing there with the pole over his shoulder and said: ‘you you you still here? Go, go, fuck off, before I wake up the house mastiff and he comes out and bites off both your balls.’ The cook went back in the house.Although money stands as a medium of exchange in a system of hierarchically fixed values it can never be entirely rigid, it is mostly so. Later in the novel Black George returns to England rich with looted French treasure.
Brian sat down on the grass bank outside the door, and rested one end of the pole on the floor. The chickens were not happy. They kept opening their wings and clucking and shuffling. Brian did not move. It was some time after noon, and big clouds the colour of whitepink blossom were barging into one another overhead. The sunlight came round the edges of the clouds in long, straight lines, spears of brilliance reaching down from God to his green world. Away to the west some of the clouds had darker bellies, but they showed no sign of coming in this direction. Larks tumbled over one another in the afternoon sky, spilling their long and complicated songs. The wind was rising a little, and the trees all around shushed the birds. For a while Brian only sat. The clouds parted, and bright sunlight pressed a great flat-edged shadow onto the grass beside the palace.
A serving boy, who could surely be no older that six or seven put his head round the door, saw Brian, and shrank back inside. The clouds came together again and the air grew chillier. Brian sat. The stonework of the wall facing him was a marvel of intricate placing. The builders had not only arranged the flints with an almost supernatural neatness, they had somehow embedded different coloured stones in the matrix to create diagonals, fine shapes, true beauty. For a while Brian tried to imagine the process involved, but the mere thought of it puzzled his brain. So he stared at the roof for a while, and pondered how he might arrange such solidity for his own cottage roof. It was clearly beyond him.
A maid, kitchen-maid by the look of her, came out of the door. ‘He says, take tenpence, do?’
‘Shilling,’ says Brian.
The maid slipped back inside.
A little while she re-emerged. ‘He says, wouldn’t pay a shilling even for a whole hog, nohow.’
Brian thought to himself that a pig could cost twice or three times as much, depending on the size of the animal, so clearly the cook was not telling the truth here. Brian did not reply to the kitchen maid, and she retreated back inside.
He waited a long time, and the sun started to go down. He would be making the last part of his walk home in dark at this rate. The wind got up, and some rain drops flew about, in an exploratory way; but no proper shower came. Finally the kitchen maid came out for a third and last time. She approached Brian in a rather timid fashion, and then held out her hand. A silver coin. Brian took it and looked at it. One side was marked with the cross, and dotted around the rim. In the centre of the other was the king, sharp-bearded and crowned with a huge crown, looking straight out.
‘It’s a shilling,’ the girl said.
‘I know what it is,’ Brian said, although he had never before held such a thing in his hand. ‘Here,’ he added. ‘You want me to bring these inside?’
‘Says if you set foot over the threshold he’ll kick your can’t say where he’ll kick you, maiden as I am.’ She blushed, but smilingly. He smiled at her, too. Her eyes did not look in the same place at the same time, but otherwise she had a pleasant face. ‘I’ll take them in,’ she said.
‘Shall I wring them necks?’
She nodded, and he quickly killed each of the birds in turn. Then she heaved at the pole, smiled at him, and dragged it inside.
He waited, and several servants put their heads out to look at him, and drew them in again. It did occur to him just to go, but he wanted his pole. Eventually the young boy from before brought him his pole back. He thanked the lad, and set straight off.
So it was peace, and Black George rode the unsteady sea back to England, and you’ll let me off at fucking Dover captain my captain I’ll walk to London if I have to, I thank you, no need to sail me all round the Kent coast and in at the Estuary in this shipwreck waiting to happen thank you very much. Glad to have feet on ground again, and a mule loaded with French wealth. Treaty of Brétigny signed and sealed and King Edward and French John brothers again, and the Frenchers have already paid hundreds of thousands of golden pounds of ransom, and now the news is they’ve fallen behind paying the new instalment of hundreds of thousands, the bâtards. And King Edward has thrown the whole mass of coins at these gigantic building projects. A new Castle at Windsor. A Fortress in the Thames Estuary. A Silver Ladder to the Moon for all Black George knew. He cared not at all. He had his haul, and some of it he deposited with a man called Gareth, notionally a trader in fine cloth but actually a kind of unofficial banker for the more ordinary sort of man. Some of it George kept to himself, to have ready, and he spent a chunk of that buying a house near Cripplegate, and putting a wife inside it—his actual wife, his own actual wife, of good family and good looks—and making sure she had the finest dresses plundered French money could buy. Six happy months. Well, two happy months, then four unhappy ones when he became certain his wife was cheating on him with the lithe young apprentice boy who would walk past their house every day on his way to the glovers’ shop and leer in at their windows. She denied it of course, and the one time George discovered the lad inside the house she swore she was only giving him a drink of water on a hot day. But it chewed his guts, it really did. He knew he wasn’t the handsomest dog in the kennel: old, his skin scraggy, scarred from years in the wars, his manners rough. But he was paying for everything, wasn’t he? His wife, Kate, lived in a fine house and her two older sisters lived with her for company, both widows from the plague, both too old for childbearing and neither wealthy—but happy to live on his charity whilst criticising him for pissing in the corner, or spitting on the table. His money. They all spent it like it was nothing.His wife dies of the plague, and George grieves. Then he hears about John Hawkwood's mercenary company and resolves to join it. His dead wife's older sisters are living in his house, and are distraught at his plans of selling up and going back to France, not least because it will leave them homeless. At first he hardens his heart against them, but then he changes his mind:
The following day he approached his sisters-in-law in more emollient mood, and promised them thirty pounds between them, half the sum he expected from the sale of the house. They thanked him, but soon began weeping again. Why must he sell the house? Why couldn’t he stay, and they keep house for him. He rebuked them, told them to be grateful for the large sum he had promised them—a fortune, really—but then he caught the image of his wife’s face in the one of the sisters’ imploring eyes, and couldn’t be angry any more.George has various adventures on his way to Italy, and Hawkwood's company; and more adventures fighting in it. Eventually he tires of the life, buys his way out and resolves to take his new treasure back to England.
I’m going to fight in France, he told them.
There is no more war in France, one of the sisters—Anna—said. In his last sermon Father Balliol said the war is over and we must give thanks to the King and to God that the scourge of war has been lifted from our fellow Christians.
War is never over, said Black George.
You will not be the man to call our priest a liar, said Anna, her temper rising. Joan, the other sister, tried to hush her, for she could see her fifteen pounds evaporating like a puddle in the sun of George’s anger. But Anna wouldn’t be shushed. Father Balliol said it in church. There is no more war.
There’s no war in England, George said, and you two crones should be grateful of that fact, for you would last no time in France, no time at all. But there is still war in France, and there a great company of soldiers is fighting under Sir John Hawkwood, and I am a soldier and will go.
Stay in England where it is peaceful, urged Joan. Why risk your life?
Stay and do what? I am a soldier. When Anna rolled her eyes at this, he roared at them both: what would you have me do? God made me a soldier! I must go where there is work for soldiers!
God made you a man, was Anna’s retort. The devil made you a soldier.
At this George walked away, for he could feel a killing rage come up at her words, and he didn’t want his wife’s sisters’ blood on his conscience. Instead he spent the day in a tavern and drank down a vast sum.
In the event he did not sell the house, for the cleric fellow came back with an offer from a silversmith of only forty four pounds, forty in coin and the rest in comestibles, plus two chairs for which George had no use. Forty pound, he complained? I bought it not one year ago for sixty! Back then London was full of soldiers newly returned from France, and every one had a sack of booty, said the cleric. Naturally prices went up. But now, with the plague back, and people leaving the city, few are looking to buy a house, and prices have come down. You should be happy to get so generous an offer. Happy to get any kind of offer at all.
Prices went up? George repeated in incredulity. Prices came down? What are you talking about? Prices are prices. Things are things. Has half my house fallen down that I should get less money for it?
This, said the cleric, with a curious and sly expression on his face, is not how the world is.
He can take his forty pounds and four pounds of comestibles and most especially his two fucking chairs and stow them snugly up his arsehole, George said. Still, he paid Hawkwood's cleric the three pounds of gold and took the fellow’s letter down to Southampton. He even bade farewell to his wife’s sour old sisters before he left, telling them to keep the house clean for now, and he would sell it when he came back. They wept and Joan embraced him, but it was Anna’s grateful look that brought the twist of grief into his gut, for he thought again of his beautiful wife, his beautiful dead wife, who had died in such pain in his own arms, and he had to hurry away so that they did not see him weep.
He got to Genoa without much difficulty, and there spent a month converting his two hefty boxes of treasure into more portable form. It was a great city for bankers, was Genoa, and traders of all kinds, and soon enough he had two thousand florins’ worth of coin inscribed on legal letters and binding documentations. A remarkable metamorphosis this, worthy of Ovid: heavy gold into light paper. The men he dealt with had counterparts in London, for whom these fine-scribbled and wax-sealed documentations were as binding as a prince’s word of honour, or as gold itself, or so he was told. He believed it too. Or at least he talked himself into believing it. Then again, he kept a couple of hundred gold coins in specie as well, and carried them with him. He was old-fashioned that way.The point, it seems to me, is not about money itself, so much as it is about a shift from one understanding of value—the feudal—to another: the modern logic of banking. Under the logic of the first value was, in effect, one quantity: the figure of the monarch, refracted through a privileged class of aristocrats. Under such a logic, in essence, ‘money’, like ‘time’, is for slaves, both in the sense that they were the ones who actually handle it and quantify it, but also in the sense that they embody it: they are units of worth to be shuffled around in pursuit of aims not their own. I say they; I mean we. Under this system, everyone but a tiny minority were de facto slaves: not only the people actually owned as property, the serfs, peasants and women, but the so-called freemen and clergy too. Under this system you would have been a slave, as would I, regardless of whether we owned literally nothing or owned a little and enjoyed a fair standard of living. One of the interesting features of a Marxist view of history, like Lukács's, is the way the dialectic, to use that ungainly word again, ‘sublates’, not only moves beyond but also preserves these earlier elements. In a spectral, or embodied, or if you like subconscious way, we still think of value this way, and money is the reification of our own slavery (think of the phrase: wage-slave).
Of course, in another way, we have moved entirely beyond that, of course: now we have no monarch except in a nostalgic, theme-park sense. Now money is king, and so value is defined in terms of debt—I'm ventriloquising David Graeber when I say so, as you'd already noticed: Graeber’s argument that debt can only be considered as part of the history of money, since money is that which distinguishes a debt from an obligation or promise. ‘Obligations are immemorial and incalculable, but until the advent of money such relations of mutual obligation evade mathematical specification,’ as Benjamin Kunkel puts it, summarising Graber. ‘Only through money do nebulous obligations condense into numerically precise debts, which can and—according to—our accustomed morality—must one day be paid off’. Obligation, duty, an honour culture of oaths and loyalty, the whole warrior-code thing, is part of what The Black Prince is about, and although I consider it in large part a brutal thing, it also have the glamour of actual chivalry and heroism, the bright-lit excitement of actual knights in armour galloping across a bright green field under a bright blue sky. If I had followed Burgess to the letter, in focusing solely on what he calls ‘general disgust’, would have derailed me from all that, and it seemed to me important to the novel to include it.
To work as a historical novel, this story needed to dramatise both that world and that world that was coming: the capitalist bourgeois Protestant world in which we (in the West) now live. But so early as the 1360s, that latter world was only incipient, not actually emerging, as might be the case in a novel set in the sixteenth-century, so I had to find ways of dramatising it, in terms of character and incident, that weren't too intrusive. Some of the novel includes magic, the supernatural and the trappings of what today we call genre Fantasy (but which in the Middle Ages were just part of the regular weltanschauung); some of the novel is a matter of the distributed tabulation of specific elements, and their relative fungibility. It sounds drily unappetising, I appreciate, but that was one of the ways I tried to balance the novel. The trick is in finding characters, and their individual stories, that aggregate into a larger narrative humanly-engaging enough to embody this, rather than just drily to preach it. I hope I've managed that. You could pick up a paperback of my novel and see for yourself, if you wanted to. It will cost you only a small sum of money-money-money.