These recent historical novels are as varied in their approaches to genre as they are in period. From Esi Edugyan, the author of Half-Blood Blues, shortlisted for both the Orange and the Booker prizes, comes a powerful story about slavery. In Washington Black, the titular eleven-year-old field slave (Wash for short) is living on a Barbados plantation in the 1830s when a new master arrives. The tyrant’s first appearance is brilliantly done: sinister, sickly, tall, impatient, legs ‘bending away from each other like calipers’, white skin with ‘an uncooked pallor’. To Wash’s horror, he is appointed personal servant to the master’s brother, a man known as Titch. But Titch turns out to be kind. Scientist, inventor and secret abolitionist, he educates Wash. Tensions rise between the brothers; eventually Wash and Titch escape. They travel to the Arctic on a mission to see Titch’s father, then Wash goes alone to Nova Scotia, England and Morocco on a journey, in part, of self-discovery.
The first section of the book, set on the plantation, is a scintillating tour de force. We enter Wash’s charged inner and outer worlds and live the absolute terror and degradation of the slave’s situation. It’s compressed, dynamic and naturalistic. And the drama, springing from divisions between the brothers, with Wash as the pawn, holds us. But away from the plantation, as the travelling adventures multiply, the tension begins to fade. Relationships feel more talked about than real and the question at the book’s heart – can an ex-slave become truly free? – is never quite dramatised. Stray anachronisms don’t help (a picture is ‘privileged’ by being selected; there are comments like ‘I do not give a shit’). But by and large this is a novel worthy of its subject.
If the trick of a historical novel is to sustain the illusion not just of fiction but also of the past (John Fowles’s solution, for instance, was to make the Victorian dialogue more formal than it in fact was), Stella Tillyard’s The Great Level accomplishes this very finely, every phrase weighed and shaped to reflect a slower, more reverent age. It’s 1649 and Dutch engineering expert Jan Brunt has come to England to measure and drain a part of the watery Fens. He’s warned to keep the plans secret, as similar projects have been sabotaged, and all is well until he falls in love with Eliza – one of those sabotaging Fens people. He teaches her to read and write, and shows her the engineering plans, with predictable consequences. As punishment for her sabotage, Eliza is sent as a captive to the New World, and besotted Brunt follows.
As the love story builds, the theme of man’s relationship with the natural world is developed. In England, Brunt began to understand that to transform a water world into profitable arable farmland is both constructive and a despoliation: a way of life, that of the Fens people’s, must be lost in the process. Brunt’s understanding grows in the vast, unmapped Americas, where he feels the majesty of nature; wilderness comes to have a nearly sacred significance for him. Tillyard’s invented voice has a role to play here: even if its rhythms can feel on occasion too undeviatingly grave, as if the past has an inbuilt seriousness, it is perfect for expressing this awed sense of uncharted nature as mysterious, beautifully locating us in the 17th century.
By contrast, Matthew Plampin’s Mrs Whistler brims with extravagant theatrical dialogue and insouciant French phrases. A carefully composed, fictional slice of the painter Whistler’s life, portraying the years 1876 to 1878, the novel is told from two points of view: those of Whistler and Maud Franklin, his muse and mistress. The perspectives are instructively divergent.
The plot pivots on the friendship between Whistler and Charles Augustus Howell – ‘the wonderful man, the genius, the superb liar’, as Whistler called him. Howell, who introduced everybody to everybody, was a confidence trickster of the most dazzling kind. In the novel he and his girlfriend Rosa Corder are the duplicitous friends of Whistler and Maud, encouraging Whistler to take Ruskin to court for his infamous denunciation of Whistler’s work. Not a good move. But a great move for the novel, where the trial is the climactic set piece – at once terrific theatre and a central moment in the history of art.
Plampin shows Whistler’s propelling sense of his own destiny. But alongside he has placed Maud’s voice, a moving counterpart: when she gives birth, the babies are taken away; though she is an artist, her art remains half-born.
It’s a delightful book. The scenes spring to life as Plampin follows his characters with large-hearted sympathy and an acute ear for dialogue. Whistler is inadvertently brutal to Maud, but Plampin shows him acting within the remit of an artist at the time, the selfishness inflected with a certain oblivious innocence. Whistler just keeps on going: he has the essential delusion of the artist, that all will be well in the best of all possible worlds, however many bailiffs are at the door.
Painter to the King is another novel about an artist: Velázquez. Written by the prize-winning Amy Sackville, it is set in the court of King Philip IV of Spain. Velázquez spent long years in close proximity to the royal family, observing their faces and emotions as much as the direction of the light. Everything is layered, veiled and complex, and everyone is striving for power. The young painter from Seville quickly becomes favoured and is assigned to paint Philip, his challenge being to represent what he sees (melancholy), yet portray the king as the monarch radiating power. Can he do both? Not surprisingly, the answer is yes.
Perhaps to refresh the genre, Sackville inserts herself inside the narrative. We see her in hot, stuffy 21st-century Madrid trying to find her way back into the past, where Velázquez labours within the corridors of power. The insertions are managed with fluid skill.
Sackville is as gifted writing about the shifting emotions of her personae and the physical conditions of Velázquez’s time as she is writing about the art of painting. This last is exquisitely and sensuously alive in her hands. However, to immerse oneself in the novel’s life – that is to say, the imagined experience – one has to absorb her intricate descriptions first. Talented they are, but they draw our attention to her as the writer, somewhat at the expense of the life of the novel.