||A Mass of Stones Cast
by Gordon Phinn
John Brigge is a coroner in a small town in the north of England (perhaps modelled on Halifax, perhaps not), circa 1630. His job is "his office, his calling"; whenever there is a "sudden or unnatural death" he must answer duty's call, whether the remains on view might be "no more than a jawbone or a finger, or some parcels of rancid black meat worried up by the dogs." Of course, it might also be "a young man gored by a bull, or a gummy old crone brought by despair to a rope fastened from the timbers of a barn."
Neither the gruesome variety nor the prospect of his beloved wife about to give birth can deter him from his solemn duty. Despite a location remote from the parliamentary thrust and parry of late Stuart London, which would lead within the decade to the tortures of civil war and the ignominious beheading of the monarch Charles I, Brigge is still a prominent citizen of seventeenth-century England, a time when duty, discipline, and the dictates of piety were taken very seriously indeed. Only a man determined to "defraud his own name" would neglect such an office, and John Brigge is not such a man. Thus he answers the summons of Constable Scaife, calls for his clerk Adam, and saddles the horses for the long, rainy ride to town.
Although not easily irked or tempted to act impetuously, Brigge is a man more or less at the end of his tether, sorely tried by the factional politics of his country town. He now craves the uncomplicated trials and comforts of farm and hearth as solace to a sickened soul.
Having swept much of Europe in the preceeding decades, the Reformation had left some communities deeply riven in its wake: various Protestant denominations vied to be seen as the most godly in the moral sweepstakes, and recusant Catholics, rich and poor, hid priests in cellars and celebrated the mass in secret. England, in the years leading up to the Civil Wars, was the scene of turmoil, poverty and suspicions of a superstituous and theological bent. Vagrants with no recourse roamed the countryside looking for shelter and sustenance. Towns, even the truly Christian ones, were overwhelmed by claims on the public purse and resorted to punishment and imprisonment as last ditch attempts at social control. Mothers with bastards, idle youth, Gypsies and Irish fleeing war and famine, all were catered to in the manner the ascendant Protestant zealots prefered-reform the poor, maintain the new orthodoxy and savage the sins of the ungodly. Contempt and cruelty rather than compassion and mercy had become the order of the day.
A contemporary chronicle, considered by some a classic, gives something of the flavour of the times. In History of Myddle, as quoted in John Kenyon's Civil Wars Of England, "Richard Gough lists fourteen men who went to war from his tiny Shropshire hamlet; they included a notorious tearaway whose father had been hanged for felony, one of the Gough family servants, a bastard nephew of the village blacksmith, a younger brother of the village innkeeper, a wandering tailor of no fixed address, and four complete drop outs, a father and three sons who lived in a cave outside the village with no visible means of support."
A Doctor of History, whose dissertation focused on "Enforcing the Law in Revolutionary England 1640-60", Ronan Bennett is well placed to evoke such a time and place, and he accomplishes his task for the most part with great nimbleness and grace. His fourth novel does, on occasion, make a display of its erudition, but these odd whiffs of ostentation are soon shackled to the grim task at hand. Although this is a world where "feelings of disquiet" steal into hearts and poor men wear "old fustian doublets," doffing their caps as they promise to be "your honour's most faithful servant," only a few "wapentakes" and "imparlances" ultimately disrupt the view. As disciplined as the Puritans he evokes, Bennett's sentences generally shape themselves without obvious recourse to craft and refinement.
Here is John Brigge, making his way through the marketplace: "Past the capons, cocks and other fowls. And further, beyond the eels, trout, graying and chubb and the stink of fish. On, further, towards the shambles smell, not sharp like the fish, but deep, secret and laden. On to the shambles itself, through the viscera of the market, the panting contents of the steaming cavities and all the carnal evidences of the solid world."
He is looking for his young clerk Adam, and finds him in a crowd revelling in the public punishment of two fornicators. The male is bored with "a heated iron," whereupon "the crowd roared its delight, grateful for the sating of its most insistent appetite." His consort comes next. "She did not faint away but mastered her terror and stood her ground and set her jaw." After her ear has been bored and the crowd hears her howl and sees her stagger, the constable's man "thr[ows] down his hot iron and [stands] panting beside the mangled pair, worn out from the efforts of his flogging and boring." A few moments later, another transgressor, Margery Farrer, is tied to a cart, her hair rudely shaved and urine poured all over her. That's before she's whipped into unconsciousness.
Incidents of violence, mutilation, disease and starvation are brought to the reader's attention with startling regularity, presumably on the customary pretext of historical veracity. Though rarely gratuitous, cruelty and brutality are so regularly evoked, that the reader who manages not to recoil may at least be discomfited. The glee of the perpetrators is on a par with the anguish of their victims: both are rendered without restraint. One cannot help but wonder whether such versimillitude is not in the service of some extra-literary agenda. Great writing does not require the services of gore. Its repeated presence in such a context is disquieting. Mr. Bennett, it strikes me, might be one of those who, given the chance, would have you see the complete, unedited videos of those infamous beheadings in Iraq, while denying any dark connections between titillation and edification. Having enjoyed the expert crafting of his historical fiction thoroughly, almost too thoroughly, I sought to uncover any extra motives the craft might conceal.
Some small research revealed Bennett as the author of Double Jeopardy, a little remembered but incisive 1993 report on the retrial of the Guildford Four, who, along with the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Family and others, were rather too quickly nabbed by English police desperate for convictions in the various pub and bus bombings in England during the mid-seventies. Bennett also co-wrote Paul Hill's memoir Stolen Years, which became the Daniel Day-Lewis film In the Name of the Father. In the middle of Double Jeopardy, Bennett reveals that for several days he too was incarcerated, along with his brother by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in connection with the murder of a policeman during a robbery. He intimates that the lengthy interrogation faced by the two of them was something far less than humane, and indeed quite similar to the brutalising endurance test Paul Hill makes claims about in his book. Some of this material is cleverly recycled with the usual "what, me?" postmodern irony in Bennett's first novel, The Second Prison.
Now where, you are asking, is this tawdry detective work heading? As I see it, it's headed in the general direction of exposing Protestants and the "ism" they represent as Bennett's perennial bOte noir. In his first novel, the villains are the Protestant police; in his second, Overthrown by Strangers (1992), it's, as Colin Burrow in the London Review of Books would have it, they're the "Protestant-imperialist-hypocritical-murdering-bastard-Americans"; in his third, The Catastrophist (1997), it's the hero's feckless philandering Protestant father; and in Havoc, it's the Puritan town council, whose zealotry perverts them into hypocritical sadists who torture in the name of public security and orthodoxy.
Two of these local worthies go so far as to frame an Irish Catholic indigent, Katherine Bray, for infanticide. In his slow but relentless uncovering of their dastardliness, masked as moral authority, John Brigge's own recusancy is uncovered, and he lands in the same house of sinners as the innocent he is attempting to protect. Only a raging fire of unsubtly apocalyptic proportions saves them from the ritual sacrifice demanded by the new purity's tyranny. Finally moved by Katherine's repeated goads, Brigge does become a kind of St. Germanus, the patron saint of prisoners; he leads their ragged assembly around the counties, pressing their vision of piety on all they encounter. At one point Bennett has them usurp the infamous story of Quaker James Naylor, who outraged the town of Bristol by having the way before him strewn with palm leaves in imitation of Christ. Such partisan recasting of history goes a mite beyond the pale for this reviewer. I don't know what you smell, but I smell a rodent, one of the celtic variety. You know the argument-it goes, "The Irish saved civilisation only to have the bloody English destroy it."
One looks forward to future works where Mr. Bennett will evoke both the conceits and catastrophes of his chosen epoch without recourse to the intemperate passions of praise and blame. As one who can conceive, and then unroll, from inspiration's endless stash, paragraphs such as the following, the prospect does indeed look rosy:
"There is no better way for a man to get an advantage over another than seeing him in his house with his wife. Abroad, even the humblest labourer can counterfeit himself a lord. Indoors, men are observed for what they are: children, with their favourite cups, and their chairs which must be this way or that, and everything just so."