I didn’t quite want to limit my “birthday boy” look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s work to the predictable Sherlock Holmes binge, so I decided to take a look at one of his historical novels in addition. Well, I suppose I have to hand it to Sir Arthur for mastering, with panache, genres as diverse as detective fiction, horror, science fiction (dinosaurs and all), and, in the present instance, historical fiction. And I can’t fault him for the research that has obviously gone into this volume (as well as, presumably, the associated earlier novel, The White Company). And if fighting for fighting’s sake, death for the sake of chivalric honor, and faked-up antiquated dialogue with plenty of “nay”s, “wot not”s and “wouldst thou”s are your thing, you’re bound to have a blast with this book. Conceivably, once upon a time, so would I have — but not anymore.
And yet, it started so well …
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
[Note that I’ll be discussing significant plot points of this novel in my review; if that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to stop reading one or at most two paragraphs below the quote from the novel’s opening passages.]
Sir Nigel is set in the immediate aftermath of the mid-14th century plague outbreak and the early years of the Hundred Years’ War; as indicated above, it is the second of two books dealing with the exploits of a group of English soldiers in the context of that war. In terms of sequencing, today we’d call it the other book’s prequel, as it is in fact set earlier: The White Company (published 15 years previously) focuses chiefly on the war exploits of the son-in-law-to-be of this novel’s hero, Sir Nigel Loring, some 10-15 years after the events of this present book. As a character, this book’s Sir Nigel is (very) losely based on one of the first Knights of the Garter, Sir Neil Loring.
Now, this is how Conan Doyle sets the scene and goes about establishing his hero as the scion of family of minor landed gentry whose fortunes have taken a sharp downward turn in recent years:
“In the month of July of the year 1348, between the feasts of St. Benedict and of St. Swithin, a strange thing came upon England, for out of the east there drifted a monstrous cloud, purple and piled, heavy with evil, climbing slowly up the hushed heaven. […]
Men died, and women and children, the baron of the castle, the franklin on the farm, the monk in the abbey and the villein in his wattle-and-daub cottage. All breathed the same polluted reek and all died the same death of corruption. Of those who were stricken none recovered, and the illness was ever the same – gross boils, raving, and the black blotches which gave its name to the disease. All through the winter the dead rotted by the wayside for want of some one to bury them. In many a village no single man was left alive. Then at last the spring came with sunshine and health and lightness and laughter – the greenest, sweetest, tenderest spring that England had ever known – but only half of England could know it. The other half had passed away with the great purple cloud. Yet it was there in that stream of death, in that reek of corruption, that the brighter and freer England was born. There in that dark hour the first streak of the new dawn was seen. For in no way save by a great upheaval and change could the nation break away from that iron feudal system which held her limbs. But now it was a new country which came out from that year of death. The barons were dead in swaths. No high turret nor cunning moat could keep out that black commoner who struck them down.
Oppressive laws slackened for want of those who could enforce them, and once slackened could never be enforced again. The laborer would be a slave no longer. The bondsman snapped his shackles. There was much to do and few left to do it. Therefore the few should be freemen, name their own price, and work where and for whom they would. It was the black death which cleared the way for that great rising thirty years later which left the English peasant the freest of his class in Europe.
But there were few so far-sighted that they could see that here, as ever, good was coming out of evil. At the moment misery and ruin were brought into every family. The dead cattle, the ungarnered crops, the untilled lands – every spring of wealth had dried up at the same moment. Those who were rich became poor; but those who were poor already, and especially those who were poor with the burden of gentility upon their shoulders, found themselves in a perilous state. All through England the smaller gentry were ruined, for they had no trade save war, and they drew their living from the work of others. On many a manor-house there came evil times, and on none more than on the Manor of Tilford, where for many generations the noble family of the Lorings had held their home.”
If only the tone and the analysis built into these paragraphs had prevailed throughout the novel … but alas, that was not to be.
The novel’s early chapters are set in England, where Nigel — still a squire then — acquires, in this order, a fearsome, indomitable horse, King Edward III‘s and Sir John Chandos‘s (another one of the original Garter knights) patronage, a set of armour, and the heart of a noble lady anxiously awaiting his return from the wars, knighted and with honor — in other words, every attribute of a knight except that of the title itself. Along the way he picks a fight with the nearby Cistercian abbey (whose claims on Loring land are the chief agent of his family’s recent fall into ruin), has a (rather ignoble) run-in with a feared woodland robber and his wife, saves his lady love’s sister from a lecher’s clutches, and manages to get under his belt the first of the three knightly jousts (or fights) that are eventually supposed to endow him with enough honor to deserve being knighted. All in all, this reads like a cross breed between a picaresque novel (think Dumas’s Les trois mousquetaires, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or the Spanish originator of the breed, Lazarillo de Tormes), Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the “boy’s own adventure” stories of yesteryear — and I was beginning to be faintly bored. (Except for the scene in which Nigel acquires his horse … but then, I have never been able to resist a well-told horse story in my entire life; and this one is certainly told with plenty of flair.) Dumas, Cervantes and Scott had a recognizable purpose in telling their tales, but I kept wondering what Conan Doyle’s was; particularly in those episodes that didn’t end up contributing anything to Nigel’s knightly outfit.
Well — at last we get to the wartime derring-do, most of which (except, of course, for our hero’s specific, fictional contributions to the war effort) is based on fact. When Nigel isn’t fighting alongside the King himself, his son, the Black Prince (of Wales) and / or Sir John Chandos, he is to be found in the company of yet another one of the original Garter knights, Sir Robert Knolles (or Knollys); the notable battles and engagements that Conan Doyle selected as his hero’s opportunity to distinguish himself in battle are the (maritime) Battle of Winchelsea in the Dover Straits (1350), the so-called Combat of the Thirty (Combat des Trente) in Brittany (1351), and the 1356 Battle of Poitiers. And although up to this point Conan Doyle has already pretty much clobbered us over the head with the fact that a medieval nobleman’s life and actions were controlled first, last and always by the code of chivalry (which they were, of course), and I had already become faintly annoyed by the author’s seemingly uncritical endorsement of this attitude, I am sad to say that the rest of the novel considerably jacked up that annoyance factor even more. It is really, really hard to separate authorial voice and presumed medieval attitude here; the text almost reads as if it came straight out of Chrétien de Troyes or Jean Froissart, or any of the other medieval texts that Conan Doyle does in fact reference as his sources in the novel’s introduction (including but not limited to the Book of St. Albans and the chronicle of Jocelyn de Brakelond). As a result, there is much rejoicing over the opportunity to distinguish oneself in armed combat, and, although the wounds sustained by various combatants are described in their in part gruesome detail, no attention whatsoever is given to the pains and hardships of war: reading this book, you’d think it was all a grand adventure and short of being knighted there couldn’t be any greater fun than killing others — or being killed oneself in the process. The pinnacle, for me, came with Conan Doyle’s rendition of the Combat of the Thirty, which (at least in his version) was not a necessary wartime engagement at all, but merely an exercise of chivalric sport, initiated because those involved regretted having been deprived of a genuine battlefield encounter as a result of a recently-concluded truce … and chose to instead duke out — to the death! — a spurious dispute made up for this express purpose by way of compensation. Excuse me?? Short of the circenses in the Roman Colosseum, I can’t think of many other examples of a waste of human lives this egregiously profligate. (And stupid to boot, because on both sides there was the substantial risk of needlessly losing experienced senior commanders, and on one side in particular this is in fact precisely what occurred.)
Virtually the only episode during Nigel’s entire adventures in France that held my attention throughout was Conan Doyle’s one (apparently)* genuinely fictional contribution: the English company’s encounter with a cruel Breton robber baron named La Brohinière, who manages to capture the English longbowmen, marches them off into his heavily-fortified castle, and in short order proceeds to hang three of them from his castle walls to give emphasis to his ransom demands. Here, with Conan Doyle’s imagination freed for once from the self-imposed shackles of the fact-based medieval narrative, his enormous writerly potential comes to the fore at last; and while this episode is unquestionably among the novel’s most brutal ones, it is also far and away among the most suspenseful ones (if not the most suspenseful one, period). Here, for once, Conan Doyle recaptured and kept my attention. Here, for once, there was an episode that didn’t shrink from showing the pain inflicted by violence, both physically (the captured longbowmen are viciously tortured in the attempt to press them into the robber baron’s service) and mentally, in their English companions, who try the best they can do from outside the castle walls to keep their three companions with nooses around their necks from being hanged, only to fail miserably and to their great fury and grief after all. (In fact, in light of the robber baron’s extreme cruelty, I couldn’t even blame his victims — hardened soldiers, all — for taking revenge on him when they finally could.) Here, for once, I felt reminded not only of the classic adventure stories that I used to swallow while growing up (secret passages and all), but also of the type of historical novel that I still enjoy reading. — Alas, once the English have freed their captured companions (and Nigel has genuinely distinguished himself in the process), we next see them moving on to Ploërmel where, in short order, they will be participating in the Combat of the Thirty …
Conan Doyle tries to justify the uncritical attitude towards medieval thought, and incidentally also his choice of rendering the dialogue in a markedly antiquated (although by no means medieval) language in the book’s introduction:
“The matter of diction is always a question of taste and discretion in a historical reproduction. In the year 1350 the upper classes still spoke Norman-French, though they were just beginning to condescend to English. The lower classes spoke the English of the original Piers Plowman text, which would be considerably more obscure than their superiors’ French if the two were now reproduced or imitated. The most which the chronicles can do is to catch the cadence and style of their talk, and to infuse here and there such a dash of the archaic as may indicate their fashion of speech.
I am aware that there are incidents which may strike the modern reader as brutal and repellent. It is useless, however, to draw the Twentieth Century and label it the Fourteenth. It was a sterner age, and men’s code of morality, especially in matters of cruelty, was very different. There is no incident in the text for which very good warrant may not be given. The fantastic graces of Chivalry lay upon the surface of life, but beneath it was a half-savage population, fierce and animal, with little ruth or mercy. It was a raw, rude England, full of elemental passions, and redeemed only by elemental virtues. Such I have tried to draw it.
For good or bad, many books have gone to the building of this one. I look round my study table and I survey those which lie with me at the moment, before I happily disperse them forever. […] With these and many others I have lived for months. If I have been unable to combine and transfer their effect, the fault is mine.”
Rather to the contrary, Sir Arthur, I think you may have done too well in “transferring” the effect of your sources: or rather, too literally and, as a result, something got lost in the translation. Precisely because the fourteenth century was a rawer, ruder, more brutal and sterner age, wouldn’t that have been even more occasion to display that rawness and brutality for what it was and make it come alive for the reader — instead of glossing over (especially) the psychological effects of all that bloodshed for the sake of an almost exclusive emphasis on chivalry? Chivalry was of course very much a feature of medieval life (or at least, medieval aristocratic and knightly life), but it was so precisely because medieval society was aware of its darker antecedents and sought to counterbalance those with a highly refined set of rules, both on the battlefield and in civil life. In other words, chivalry didn’t exist despite those antecedents but because of them: War was still very much considered a means of resolving conflict and, yes, a human life was worth considerably less then that it is today, but the fact that you had distinguished yourself in battle didn’t mean that you hadn’t suffered pain, grief, fury, fear, and any of the other myriad emotions that any human being will experience when their own life is at stake (particularly given the fearsome nature of the medieval weaponry) — it just meant that you had overcome them, and you had refrained from the even greater savagery that “non-chivalric” fighting and killing would have involved. The likes of Jean Froissart didn’t need to go into the detail of what warfare in the Middle Ages meant — the vast majority of their readers knew as much from personal experience, or if they were lucky, at the very least from the narrations of their elders and nearest and dearest. Besides, Froissart was writing history, not fiction: if he detailed the wounds sustained by the combatants in a particular battle, that was more than enough for the purpose of his chronicle; his contemporaries could supply the context from their own knowledge. But it’s not enough in a historical novel — an enumeration of battle injuries (regardless how severe), combined with the over-emphasis that all of this is done in the name of chivalry, just deprives the account of life and renders it precisely as difficult to relate to as you seem to have feared, Sir Arthur, judging not only by the contents of your preface but also by the fact that you did give us plenty of emotional context for the La Brohinière episode … so much so, in fact, that it is easy for the reader to even empathize with a decidedly unchivalric killing (that of the robber baron by his former victims, which Nigel in fact tries to prevent — in the name of chivalry).
As for the language in which dialogue is rendered … well, let’s just say I am happy that most modern historical fiction writers have come to the conclusion that any attempt to approximate historic language by the use of archaic forms of speech (even if not actually period-adequate) is decidedly worse than just going with the flow of modern language and taking it as a given that their readers know their characters would have said the equivalent things in Old, Middle or Early Modern English, Norman French, Provençal, Middle High German, Vulgar Latin, Venetian, or whichever other language they would actually have spoken.
So: three stars for the painstaking amount of research and for the episodes that actually did hold my attention — as well as for the bits and pieces of analysis along the lines of the novel’s opening paragraphs strewn throughout the book, and the passages where Conan Doyle does give freer rein to his own authorial instincts and gifts. I think I’ll mostly stick with hiss crime and horror fiction in the future, however — unless someone convinces me that The White Company, Micah Clarke, or either of the two Brigadier Gérard books are substantially different from this outing after all.
* As far as I could find out, while a village named La Brohinière does exist in Brittany, it is today chiefly notable for its station, and neither the (French) Wikipedia page nor the official website of the community to which it belongs (Montauban de Bretagne), nor the website of that community’s tourist office makes any reference to a robber baron of the same name as a notable historical peson from the area. Nor does the village of La Brohinière itself seem to have a castle; the closest one seems to be that in the community seat of Montauban de Bretagne — and this castle was held, in 1351, by a Breton knight (Geoffroy de Mellon) who actually did die in the Combat of the Thirty, which in turn would expressly seem to rule him out as the robber baron from the novel, as Conan Doyle makes no mention of La Brohinière in the context of that particular fight (nor would his participation seem likely based on the larger context of this armed encounter and its major participants).