This book is many things; a novel of a flood of soldiers, armies, spreading through France. It is also a collection of incredibly vivid images, recollections, observations of a series of battles, human interactions and painful resolutions of situations. This book is a novel of sorts, based on a script written by Anthony Burgess and his notes, compiled into a glorious cornucopia of “smell and visceral feelings” rather than the folk history of the period generally favoured by historical novelists. This is no gentle novel of nostalgia, historical theory or sweeping landscapes; instead it offers personal insights into the smell, sounds and intense feelings associated with war and fighting. Peopled with individuals, growing, oppressed cheating and cheated, this is a book that can really help the reader experience battle and the small incidents of daily life, as the struggle to survive all the assaults of life in the medieval period. This is life as it must have been truly lived, with no gracious costumes but the dirt, small and taste of the existence of so many people.
The book takes the form of a recall of battles involving the Black Prince, the eldest son of King Edward. It starts when he is merely sixteen, confronted by the extreme bravery of the blind king of Bohemia who is determined to face the great battle of Cressy. The old monarch knows he will not survive the battle, but is nonetheless inspired to mount up in his full armour and be guided to the fight. The loss of his three feathers leads to the Prince’s assumption of his motto, which is passed onto the young prince Richard who is charmingly bewildered by it later. Before then we see mercenaries, siege experts, and casual killers,with plague victims who all record their progress, their lives full of incident and realistic experience. Clergy are human, the journeys challenging, the minds full of religion, human greed and the dirt of battle. Everyone in society is depicted here; a small poultry farmer fearing being cheated, a royal feast claiming so much of his livelihood. Not that women are ignored, as the fascinating marital history of the beautiful Joan of Kent is here, whose marriages are the subject of much dynastic import. A woman’s camera sight is her special sense of what lies at the heart of people around her, including a baby who is curiously empty of life. Illness is not the chills of winter or the decline of old age, here is plague, hungry and consuming so many, yet strangely discerning in just who it kills. There is the supernatural insight of the roving camera, the uncaring speed of the professional soldier, and the sickness which robes people of all true perception.
This is in some senses not an easy book to read, as there is a spasmodic, episodic narrative of the life of a Prince, interposed by so much other material. Headlines, poems, ditties and catches all thread through the book, like half remembered things. There are imagined news articles, as military details and the fortunes of the great and good are reported. Women have extra insight, while men have difficulty predicting anything about their lives. Death and damnation are real, as is so much here. This book is a reading experience, unique and powerful, sometimes overwhelming in its ambition, sometimes moving in its details. It is difficult to describe, and there is so much to admire. This is a subtle yet immense read, which I appreciated the opportunity to sample, and would recommend to anyone seeking a truly powerful and special treatment of the reality of history.
This is a truly incredible book, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste. It is very exciting to be this early in a blog tour, before the book is even published (it comes out on Thursday 4th October, so not long to wait)
Meanwhile, my talk on Vera Brittain is finally finished. Wish me luck!