onsdag 2 juli 2014

English high society and French spies

Sally Beauman once again proved a hard act to follow, but at least two novels have kept me well entertained since I regretfully finished Dark Angel. First out was The New Countess, the third and final part of Fay Weldon's "Love and Inheritance" trilogy. My expectations from when I started the the first book, Habits of the House, have been pretty much fulfilled: the three books are a light-hearted, witty, gossipy read set in Edwardian high society, with occasional trips downstairs to the servants' hall. But it lacks the heart-warming quality of the best Upstairs Downstairs episodes: the tone is reminiscent of the more satirical episodes of that series. James's friend Bunny's appalling country-house circle of friends come to mind. True, the Earl of Dilberne and his family shape up a bit after getting off to a bad start in Habits of The House, where they begin the book by snubbing their long-suffering (and powerful) financial advisor. But they don't engage your sympathy the way, say, Richard Bellamy, Hazel or Georgina do in Upstairs Downstairs.

A comparison with Downton Abbey doesn't present itself in the same way because its brief is somewhat different: the good-natured Fellowes wants to give each and every one of his regular characters a fair shake, and has never claimed for one moment to be of a satirical frame of mind. Upstairs Downstairs is closer to the "Love and Inheritance" trilogy in tone, but it digs deeper, and the characters remain more central to the story than any point made about the occasional rumness of master-servant relationships. In fact, Hazel Bellamy's touching speech about there being two families living at Eaton Place actually trumps Downton when it comes to all-in-this-together optimism. Picture any Crawley, even the Earl of Grantham at his most blue-eyed, likening their servants to a family! It would be a very dysfunctional family indeed.

Getting back to "Love and Inheritance", the closest we get to a likeable upstairs character is the heiress Minnie O'Brien (!) who ends up marrying the Earl's son Arthur. She is, for the most part, sweet-natured. As for the Dilbernes (or Hedleighs, to use their family name) themselves, they're not mean, exactly, just very selfish. They, and Minnie for that matter, seem to change their minds about each other a lot just to facilitate some witty phrase. One moment Countess Isobel likes her daughter-in-law and sees why she's upset with Arthur; a little later she doesn't understand why Minnie is making a fuss and is wondering of Arthur wouldn't be better off without her. These alterations of mood happen quite often, and some characters - Anthony Robin "Redbreast" springs to mind - change their leopard's spots completely. As for the downstairs characters, they remain little more than amusing sketches. So, not quite Upstairs Downstairs in book form, then, but the three novels (the middle one, Long Live the King, is the weakest in my view as it introduces the Earl's rather dull niece Adela) are still satisfyingly fun and frothy.

Robert Harris's historical spy thriller about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and A Spy, is a different book altogether - but there again, I didn't feel passionately for the protagonist. In fact, I quite disliked Georges Picquart at first, and I'm not even sure I like him now after I've finished the book. It doesn't matter, though, as there is no disputing the rightness of his cause. I'm ashamed to say I had no idea the Dreyfus affair was this bad: suspicious as I am of miner-hugging French writers, the assumption had crossed my mind that it was all little more than a blunder, and that Zola used it as a stick to beat the establishment with. Not so. Dreyfus was victim first of a scandalous framing, then of an equally scandalous cover-up of the framing. Zola wasn't merely being a revolutionary show-off when he defended him: he was right, and he took a personal risk doing so. However, it is Picquart, who discovers the evidence of Dreyfus's innocence quite by chance while going after the real spy, and then refuses to let things rest in order to save the French military's face - and is made to suffer for it - who is the real hero of the tale.

But likeable? I dunno. Any character who starts out by describing David's painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps as an "atrocious piece of Imperial kitsch" has uphill work when it comes to gaining my sympathy. Moreover, Picquart stems from Alsace (as I suppose I must call it), but his family elected to remain French in 1870 and so were turfed out. He is hostile to Germans as a consequence, and he's not wild about Jews either, whose patriotism he suspects. His prejudices are of his time and not overdone by Harris. Mostly, historical prejudices are either caricatured (in "bad" characters) or non-existent (in "good" characters) in historical fiction, and I like the fact that this author tells it like it is. Nevertheless, Picquart's icy disdainfulness is trying. Frankly, he's a bit of a prig, and his snooping on the German military attaché Schwartzkoppen's (admittedly fascinating) love life did little to endear him to me.

Still, Picquart has his good points, quite apart from his honesty. Above all, Harris endows him with the characteristics necessary for a good narrator: a keen sense of observation and occasional flashes of humour. A straight man in more ways than one, he nevertheless dutifully takes notice of the personal attractions of male characters he meets, for the benefit of us men-fancying readers. A surprising number of his friends and foes are handsome; Schwartzkoppen sounds a real peach, which would explain his, er, universal appeal.

Above all, the story is a cracking read, and a good example of how historical research should be used in a novel: not in clunky look-how-well-read-I-am pieces of exposition, but as a means of enlivening the narrative with colourful detail. Neither Picquart, nor the unfortunate Dreyfus - whose lack of charisma is part of his tragedy - would make the ideal dinner guest. But they are, or rather were, honourable men, and this book is a fine tribute to them.