Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rebels and Traitors by Lindsey Davis

Subtitle: An Epic Novel of the English Civil War

Why I Read This Book
          I’m a big fan of historical novels, and this historical novel was covering a period of history I was particularly interested in: The English Civil War, and the Leveller movement.

The Review
          Historical fiction comes in all shapes and sizes.  Some books are more fiction than historical, and some are more historical than fiction.

            Most historical fiction will try and integrate the history into the narrative, but Lindsey Davis does not feel constrained by this restriction.  Large sections of this book will be straight history, where Davis will completely forget about her fictional main characters and go off for several pages explaining the larger historical events that were happening at the time.
            It’s almost as if someone cut up a history book and interspersed it into a novel.

            Purists will argue that this is not how historical fiction should be written—that the author should avoid these large information dumps.
            But there’s no actual law against this, and as I read this book I thought, “Well, why not write a book like this?”  If the reader enjoys following these historical digressions as much as the author does, and if the reader and the author are both consenting adults, then why not?
            And in fact, it would be hard to imagine a novel of the English Civil War going any other way.  The English Civil War went through so many phases, and involved so many diverse characters, that it would be hard to invent any one narrative that could encompass all of this diversity.  The major figures at the beginning of the war were completely different than the major figures at the end.  (For example, Oliver Cromwell emerged as the head of the Puritan side at the end of the war, but, as Lindsey Davis does a good job of illustrating, he was a complete unknown at the beginning of the war.  Any novel that concentrated on Cromwell’s narrative would have had a hard time integrating all the major events in the early days of the Civil War, and a novel that concentrated on the heroes of the early days, like John Pym, would have the same problem in reverse.)

            It goes without saying then that the ideal reader of this book must share the author’s love of history, and anyone who doesn’t want to get bogged down in too much historical detail should stay well away from this book.  But if you like history, you’ll find this an enjoyable read.
           
            I appreciated having the fictional elements in the book because it gives a sense of a single story that helps to tie the various elements together.  But I almost enjoyed the historical sections of this book more than the fictional sections.  When she turns her eye to history, Lindsey Davis can write very well.  No doubt her training as a novelist helps her write very readable history.

            The value of this book is increased when one considers how few readable histories there are on the English Civil War --at least in my experience I’ve had trouble tracking down good books on the period.  (If someone knows of any good books out there, let me know.)
            When I was last in a university library, for example, I found that there were lots of books on the Levellers (W) and the Leveller movement, but almost all of them written in dry academic tones.
            Thomas Rainborough (W), for example, is one of the more fascinating figures of the time, but I had trouble finding a readable biography.  The books that I could find on him were so boring that I couldn’t finish them.
            Lindsey Davis, by contrast, does a very good job of integrating the personal histories of all the major Leveller figures into her book. The rise of Thomas Rainborough as an important figure in the Leveller movement, and the circumstances surrounding his assassination, are all nicely laid out in this book.  Likewise with the other Leveller figures—John Lilburne (W), Richard Overton (W), and Edward Sexby (W)—whose stories are all integrated into this novel.
            Besides the Levellers, Lindsey Davis also includes the other political and religious radical groups of the time, and does a good job of integrating these movements into her narrative.  The Diggers (W), the Ranters (W), and the Fifth Monarchists (W) all come to the forefront at one time or another in the book’s narrative.

            The book isn’t perfect by any means.  During the course of its 742 pages, there are all sorts of plot threads that either don’t go anywhere or don’t pay off as well as they should.  And the central romance which makes up the backbone of the plot I found a bit contrived. 
            Fortunately, for those of us who have a low tolerance for sappy romances, the lovers don’t actually meet until the last 200 pages into the book, so we only have to endure it for a short time.  But I still felt like the main character Gideon fell in love for absolutely no reason, and in a way that was completely uncharacteristic for him.  Everything we knew about the character seemed to indicate he was reserved in speech and cautious in love.   Then, for no reason whatsoever, he suddenly becomes smitten with the heroine of the novel, abandons caution and reserve, and starts sending her long gushing rambling letters.
           
           But despite its flaws, the book is good enough.  If you like history, and you like a little bit of fiction mixed in, it’s well worth the read.

Other Notes

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            One of the many interesting little historical details I learned from this book is the mock epic poem Hudibras (W) by Samuel Butler.  (Samuel Butler himself is one of the many historical characters who makes an appearance in this book.) On page 244 Lindsey Davis quotes the opening lines to Hudibras.

            When civil dudgeon first grew high,
              And men fell out they knew not why?
            When hard words, jealousies and fears,
              Set folks together by the ears
            And made them fight, like mad or drunk,
              For Dame Religion, as for punk,
            Whose honesty they all durst swear for,
            Though not a man of them knew wherefore,
               When Gospel-Trumpeter, surrounded,
               With long-ear’d rout, to battle sounded,
               And pulpit, drum, ecclesiastick,
            Was beat with fist, instead of stick;
            Then did Sir Knight abandon dwelling,
               And out he rode a-colonelling….

            I really like those lines, because I think it captures very well the religious confusion of the age, and also infuses the whole English Civil War with an old epic mystical poetic feeling.  (I haven’t read the rest of Hudibras, and maybe I never will, but I really like those opening lines.)

Connections With Other Books I’ve Been Reading

            I first heard of the Leveller movement from Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World.   (Harman gives a Marxist economic interpretation of the English Civil War, as opposed to the more religious interpretation emphasized in the above poem Hudibras.  I think both interpretations are possible.)

            David Starkey gives a very readable account of the main events of the Civil War in Monarchy
            As always when comparing two different authors on the same historical event, it’s interesting to see their different interpretations.  Lindsey Davis thinks Oliver Cromwell’s main motivation for dismissing Parliament was Parliament’s undemocratic intention to bypass elections and legislate themselves as members in perpetuity.  David Starkey thinks Oliver Cromwell was primarily motivated by Parliament’s plan to revoke his position as general of the New Model Army.

            Free Born John by Pauline Gregg gives one of the few readable accounts I could find of John Lilburne and the Leveller movement.

            And The Butterfly in Amber is another book of historical fiction dealing with England during the Puritan Commonwealth period.

Other Links
            * If you like mixing your history lessons with Irish folk rock (and why not?) then A Curse Upon You Oliver Cromwell by the Pogues is a fun listen [LINK HERE].  (Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland is covered in Lindsey Davis’s book.)

            * I also really enjoyed Mark Steel’s historical lecture series, and his program on Oliver Cromwell is worth watching [LINK HERE].

            * If you can track down a copy, the four part BBC series The Devil’s Whore (W) also does a good job of introducing the main figures in the Leveller and Digger movement. [YOUTUBE COPY HERE]

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            In the interview accompanying the audio book of Monarchy, David Starkey once said, “People often forget that it was the English, not the French or the Americans, who first abolished the institution of monarchy and established a republic” (quoting from memory—not verbatim).
           
            This was completely wrong.  It ignores the Dutch Republics, the various republican Italian city states, and the English republican experiment.  (Admittedly it was a short lived experiment, but the fact remains that England was a republic for a short time in the 17th century.)
            I blame my previous ignorance on the American educational system.

            Speaking of which, another thing that often gets completely left out of the history books is that the English Civil War had an affect on the American colonies when the Royalist/Puritan fighting carried over to the British colonial possessions.  See Wikipedia article on the English Civil War in America here [W]. 
            I’m not sure why this is left out of the American history textbooks.  Perhaps because of the American habit of writing history as if history didn’t begin until 1776.  Or perhaps it is because American history textbooks often act as if we exist in isolation from the rest of the world.
            But in my fantasy radio program about American history, I would be sure to include colonial history as well.

            To me, one of the more interesting facts is that one-sixth of the Puritans in Massachusetts actually returned to England to fight for the Puritan cause in the Civil War.  (In fact Thomas Rainborough’s family had Massachusetts connections, something Lindsey Davis mentions in her book.)

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