The first intimations of winter made me reach for a fat novel and take to the sofa. My first choice was the late Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992), a magnificent novel following the adventures of two very different cousins, both engaged in contrasting ways in the 18th century slave trade. It is also a gripping analysis of morality, the human condition and man’s propensity for good or evil (NB that feeble excuse for greed ‘wealth creation’ was first termed by the merchants who profited from slavery).
When I finished Sacred Hunger I felt that I wanted to stay in the zone so I turned to Philippa Gregory’s A Very Respectable Trade (1992) in which an impoverished gentlewoman marries a social-climbing Bristol slave merchant and becomes as much his chattel as the enslaved African with whom she falls in love. It lacked Unsworth’s cliché-free style and philosophical depth, and the romance element resulted in a rather implausible ending, but it was a good read with an engaging story and some nicely observed ironies. Next, I turned up the central heating and sped enjoyably through Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) despite its sensational, some say inaccurate, portrayal of the Boleyn sisters.
By now, I was hooked and the weather forecast predicted more rain so I dug out the fattest Philippa Gregory the local Oxfam shop could offer, The Wise Woman (1992). This proved to be a complete waste of two long days. Philippa wrote this 626 page saga of comely witches, noble old nuns and sexual predators disguised as dashing heroes, without the aid of a bone fide historical story (you can’t really go wrong with Henry VIII’s domestic arrangements, a gift plot-wise.) Left to her own imaginative devices, she dishes up a sloppy mess of unconvincing characters who meander through a mish-mash of schlocky sexual encounters and over-stated castle intrigues, all performed, it would seem, without the benefit of an editor. We even have a girl-on-girl scene (or should that be a lady-on-lady-in-waiting scene?) with ‘slippery canals’. The characters have no discernible arc, tortuously making a decision in one chapter only to reverse it totally in the next for no apparent reason other than to extend the improbable plot by another 50 pages.
We only spend nine months in the castle, the time it takes our heroine to gestate the dastardly Lord Hugo’s bastard, but it seems like a lifetime as the seasons change, necessitating huge chunks of clichéd description, and the characters endlessly repeat the same wordy conversations. I bet that, with an adequate supply of red pens, I could reduce this opus by half, simply by removing repetitive descriptive phrases. If we were told once that the heroine’s hovel home was besmirched or that her red dress had once belonged to the pox-ridden whore Meg, we were told a hundred times. It was as if the book had been written for readers with short-term memory loss who needed a nudge in every chapter; being told over and over again that some old nun is loveable doesn’t make her so.
When Sacred Hunger won the 1992 Booker, The Sunday Times described it as “That very rare thing, a top-notch historical novel” and, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall two decades later, critics generally regard it as a work of literature which transcends the genre. Wading through The Wise Woman made me appreciate why the historical novel is so oft derided. Methinks I shall n’er readeth another such tome or at least not one penned by my Mistress Gregory.