Monday, 19 December 2011

H.F.M. Prescott: The Man on a Donkey

In my last posting, I mentioned my teenage addiction to Penguin Modern Classics. They're one of a handful of imprints over the years that have seemed to me to guarantee excitement, even before I know anything else about the book. After it came those wonderful revolving stands of Picador books round about 1980, and more recently the Gollancz SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks books. I don't know how I found myself reading The Man on a Donkey when I was about fourteen, whether it was a present or I bought it myself. I certainly knew nothing about it beforehand except that it was a Modern Classic - and it must have been about the most obscure book ever published in that series, because I have hardly heard anything about it since. At the time I thought it was one of the best books I'd ever read; I still have that battered edition (the one illustrated here), and have occasionally toyed with the idea of rereading it. Finally I got round to it a few months ago, some forty years after I first read it, largely because I had recently finished writing a historical novel and was about to start another one, and I wanted to look at other examples of the genre. Would it be as good as I remembered, or would it be basically a cheap romance with historical trappings?

The Man on a Donkey was first published in 1952. The author, Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott, was a historian, author of a biography of Mary Tudor, as well as several other novels, none of which I have read. There can be little doubt, though, that this is her masterpiece. Nearly 800 pages long, it tells the story of The Pilgrimage of Grace, one of Britain's more obscure revolutions, a popular uprising in the North of England against Henry VIII's religious reforms, in particular the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Pilgrimage, as its name suggests, was not a very warlike uprising: there were no battles, and the Pilgrims all packed up and went home on receiving assurances of mercy from the King - assurances which he went back on as soon as the danger had passed. In one sense, then, a non-event; but a non-event which was a reaction to one of the greatest and most far-reaching changes in history.

Prescott starts her narrative long before the Pilgrimage itself. Her approach is to write a chronicle of daily life, with entries for particular dates and, often, long gaps in between, especially near the beginning. Only gradually do we become aware of a story developing; even the five main characters are introduced one at a time. We begin with Christabel Cowper, a merchant's daughter who is going to rise to become Prioress of Marrick in the Yorkshire Dales. We see her as a child, travelling to the Priory for the first time, then, through the entries of the chronicle, we see the various stages in her development as she grows in maturity and power. We get from 1509 to 1520 before a scene in which someone mentions another character who is to become important, Thomas, Lord Darcy, and at this point Prescott breaks the chronicle pattern to give us an introduction to him. When the Chronicle resumes, there are two main threads to follow, until a new major character is first glimpsed, then introduced (they will fade out in the same way, in the order in which they entered).

After Christabel and Darcy, an elderly courtier of conservative temperament, we meet Robert Aske, the leader of the Pilgimage, Julian Savage, a young girl who is in love with him, and Gilbert Dawe, a poor priest who becomes a a Protestant while this is still regarded as a dangerous heresy. Aske and Darcy are historical figures, Christabel Cowper was the name of the real Prioress of Marrick but nothing much is known of her, while Julian and Gilbert are fictitious. Another important character is Malle, the simple-minded serving woman at Marrick, whose vision of Christ in the scene that gives the novel its title is a critical event in the other characters' lives.

It is hard to imagine a slower-moving novel, or, as far as I'm concerned, a more mesmerizing one. Many of the incidents that receive coverage in the chronicle are tiny, and there are hundreds of them. Any modern editor, surely, would cut about four hundred pages - and leave the novel far less rich and complex as a result. We read historical fiction not just to get a story, but to know what life must have been like for people in a remote time. I can't think of another novel (or history book either, come to that) that offers anything like the depth and vividness of historical detail we find here. Much of this, of course, is due to the scholarship of a trained historian but a great deal must be put down to the power of her imagination:
Those two of Queen Katherine's ladies whose duty it was today to fetch food for the Queen's breakfast met again near the door of the Pastry. Both had pink noses and blue fingers, for the air was sharp, and the perpetual winter chill of the waterlogged country all round made it colder still in the late dawn. One of the two had been waiting for the milking; watching from the door of the dark shippen, where the lanterns cast huge shadows, and caught here the cross beams of the roof, there the wide shining eye of a cow, and there the thin steam of its breath, puffing, spreading and fainting from sight. Now she brought again the pitcher full of the warm, frothed milk, and found the other waiting, stamping her feet, with a white loaf and some eggs in a basket, and on top of the eggs a fish.
This passage gives a good idea of her prose; she's not afraid of adjectives, though the ones she uses here are all sensuous ones that add to the vividness of the scene: sharp, shining, thin etc. She expects you to be able to deal with words like shippen, and Pastry used to mean a building rather than a foodstuff; she rejects the standard historical novelist's approach of using a neutral language to avoid frightening the reader with archaic words - her preference throughout is for historically accurate diction if she can possibly justify it. There is also a music in some of her sentence construction that seems to echo, not just the King James Bible, but still older sources, such as the mystic Julian of Norwich, who is referred to in the book and after whom her character Julian is named. The two ladies in this scene are getting the Queen's breakfast: their job is a tense one because it would suit the King's purposes to have his ex-wife out of the way for good, so they have to be absolutely sure his agents have no way of poisoning her food. Neither the ladies nor the Queen are really important in the story, and soon the Queen will be dead in any case. (The novel hints that she really was poisoned.) In the same way, we get glimpses of Cardinal Wolsey's decline, Anne Boleyn's transition from triumphant seductress to terrified prisoner, Thomas Cromwell's rise to power and numerous other big themes, all interwoven by the chronicle structure with the daily life of the five main characters.

One of Prescott's greatest achievements, and the one that dominates the first two-thirds of the book, is to give us what must surely be the most complete picture in fiction of life in an early modern religious order. The Priory is a landed estate, a working farm and a largish business; the Ladies (as the nuns are always called) who run it have the only equivalent to a modern career open to most women of the time. They are important people in the area, treated as equals by the local aristocracy, and as superiors by everyone else. It is a terrible moment in Julian Savage's life when she is forbidden to join them. At the same time, of course, their lives are strictly circumscribed. Young Christabel's adolescent flirtation with a boy of her own age comes to an abrupt end, and she is happy to to immerse all her energies thereafter in the pursuit and exercise of power. She is probably the most memorable character in the book, a ruthless, intelligent woman who has the courage to take on Cromwell face to face, and almost wins.

When the story of the Pilgrimage finally gets going, the narrative, surprisingly, seems to lose some of its grip. I recognize this syndrome from my own attempts to write about history. Up to now, Prescott has focused on everyday life and imagined incidents: now she is tied to the historical record, and what actually happened doesn't always make good fiction. We get a lot about the comings and goings of Aske at the beginning of the Pilgrimage, moving between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. It's not at all clear how far he was in charge of events and how far he was coerced into his involvement by the threats of the insurgents. The Pilgrimage itself doesn't really provide the climax of the book: what does reach a climax is the treachery and viciousness of Henry VIII, who, as portrayed here, was a tyrant to rank with the worst of our own age. Aske, the nearest Prescott comes to the dashing hero-figure of more popular historical fiction, is hideously executed, as each of the narrative threads in turn reaches its conclusion. Above all, the monasteries are finished, and a way of life which was never portrayed romantically but which we have come through Prescott's sympathetic portrayal almost to love, has gone for ever.

The Man on a Donkey, in my opinion, is one of the greatest British novels of the twentieth century. Quite why it has been so underrated is a mystery. It's a big, dense, intellectually demanding book, but those qualities didn't, in the long run, do Ulysses any harm. Why haven't the feminist critics and publishers who have done so much to revive the reputations of forgotten women authors taken Prescott to their hearts? I suspect it has something to do with her religious convictions. Prescott was a contemporary of Anglican intellectuals like T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis, and Roman Catholic ones like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark; an Anglican herself, she was undoubtedly attracted by the poetic and mystical elements in Catholicism. The Catholics are, to put it crudely, the good guys in her account, and there is arguably a conservatism in her view of history that could be extrapolated into a suspicion of new intellectual developments in general. Whether or not this is true, there is no getting away from the fact that this is an explicitly religious work. Malle's vision of Christ is, more or less literally, central to it. In a series of scenes around the middle of the book each of the main characters in turn interrogates Malle about what she has seen and to each she replies in the same words: "There was a great wind of light blowing, and sore pain."

Whatever this reply means (and each character responds to it in a different, but equally puzzled and unsatisfied, way), it is not a piece of pious moralizing. Christ may be here among us, it seems to say, but we have no way of knowing what to do about it, and any answer we can come up with is likely to make his suffering - and our own - even worse. Prescott's vision may be Christian, but it is also uncompromisingly Modernist in its fragmentation and difficulty. Besides, she is too much of an artist to be satisfied with a simple schematic representation of right and wrong. Christabel, the representative of the old religious way of life, is an intensely materialistic woman (yet somehow never loses our sympathy), while Gib Dawe, the new-style Protestant, has a deep yearning for religious truth (but is doomed by his own nature never to find it). She writes equally sensitively, equally dispassionately, of both.

I am pleased to say that The Man on a Donkey is still in print, in a two-volume edition from Loyola Press. Judging by what I have been able to find on the Internet, it retains its popularity among two groups in particular, Christian readers and connoisseurs of the historical novel. Speaking as someone who does not fit into either category, I believe it deserves a much wider readership. I have selected it as my first title for White Threshold because I see it as a classic case of the kind of fiction this blog is about, a novel whose limited reputation comes nowhere near matching its literary significance. For that reason, I have written a longer entry than I expect to write for most of the later books in this series.

In general I won't be announcing the subjects of the blog in advance, but my next entry will be a tribute to the late Russell Hoban, and his masterpiece Riddley Walker.


  1. Really like this observation: "We read historical fiction not just to get a story, but to know what life must have been like for people in a remote time."

  2. Thanks, Sheenagh. It's something that interests me more and more recently. I'm only too conscious that I'm not a historian, and shouldn't really be messing about with history, but I keep being drawn back to Early English Books Online...

  3. Great description - I just finished the book. About 2/3 through, after the birth of my first daughter 2 1/2 years ago, I had to stop reading because I sensed the fate of Aske and I didn't want to read about it. Two years later, I finished the last 1/3 and was better able to handle it. I loved this book and I do also love many early English literature, writers, and topics - C.S. Lewis, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Sheldon VanAuken (American anglophile), Jane Austin, and others.

  4. Thanks, Heidi. The death of Aske is certainly a harrowing read, as are some other parts of the book, but the experience of immersing oneself in the historical period and Prescott's extraordinary prose makes it worth it. Sheldon Vanauken was a name i hadn't heard before - thanks for the tip.

  5. I fit both descriptions, and have just finished the novel, loaned to me by my priest.
    An excellent read, and I agree with your review. I'd love to find a copy.

    1. If you haven't found it already, do have a look for it on ... I can't believe you'll have a problem getting a decent second-hand copy in hardback. It's still in print in paperback, btw.

  6. I dearly love this book (and I come into both categories of reader). When I first read it many years ago I was intrigued by the idea that a girl of that time could be happy to enter a convent despite not being at all devout. The small details of 16th-century life make fascinating reading.

  7. Sorry to have found your lovely article so late in the day, Mr.Francis. I also love the novel dearly, and you do it complete justice. It's wonderful that it is still in print, but I hope that an enterprising publisher like the modern Everyman will bring out a new edition of it in hardback. Maybe one day!

  8. Thanks, all. I haven't been back to this blog for some time, as you will have gathered - I found it too time-consuming. But I'm grateful to find other admirers of the book. It really is a masterpiece, I think. And I must get round to reading her other novels.