Havoc, in its Third Year

Havoc, in its Third Year. Ronan Bennett. London : Bloomsbury, 2004.   244 pp.

Yorkshire in the 1630s is a bleak, impoverished place. Puritanism is gathering strength. The harvest has failed for the third year in succession, and desperation is spreading. The response of the local authorities is a law and order crackdown, which remarkably enough has done nothing to reduce thefts or public disturbances.

The current group of local governors came to power amid high hopes, after dislodging the harsh Lord Savile. Three years on, they are falling under the icy hand of Protestant fanatics. The moderates are gradually picked off, set up and arrested, and the bigots are eager to tip the scales further. Opportunists shift their ground; the local leader Nathaniel Challoner, a rather Bill Clinton-esque figure, tacks ever further to the Right to hold his support base.

John Brigge has to find his way through this tricky place. He is a relatively well-off farmer, also the public coroner and a governor of his town, but his status is made precarious by his secret, but widely suspected, Catholicism: by now the Papists are few, scattered and in fear of their lives, blamed for any and all public unrest. Even the town watch feels able to sport with Brigge as he tries to pass the gates.

Brigge’s mindset has been shaped by the old medieval world, a world full of signs and symbols, where there is a place for everyone and everyone is in their place – he has no feel for the new Protestantism with its progress toward cold, self-interested rationality.

Brigge sometimes attempts to use his position as coroner to defend the innocent and hold the brutal to account, at other times he withdraws to his estate well removed from the town. Neither strategy works very well. Faced by Challoner’s slide towards tyranny he is increasingly uneasy for himself and his family, but also sad for Challoner himself, an old friend.

The story line follows Brigge’s investigation into the Irishwoman Katherine Shay, imprisoned for the death of her newborn child. The main witness, a 16-year-old girl, has not returned from a visit to relatives. He suspects involvement from one of his enemies, Richard Doliffe, and pursues the case both for justice and in the hope of bringing down his dangerous opponent.

All this is set against Brigge’s personal life. His wife Elizabeth is due to give birth, after several miscarriages. Theirs is a tender relationship, complicated, however, by his affair with the girl Dorcas who lives with them. All are in  pain: Brigge from guilt and confusion, Dorcas from guilt and her unrequited love for him, Elizabeth from her knowledge of the affair. Yet all manage to maintain their dignity.

The hook which threatens to draw this delicate situation into the public domain is Brigge’s apprentice, Adam. He wants to marry Dorcas (who would rather remain second to Elizabeth in Brigge’s heart than be Adam’s wife). Making matters far worse, Adam is also caught up in the cold excitement of the puritan crackdown, which would be ample in itself for testing his loyalty to his master… and he knows of the family’s secret Papist practices.

For most of the story Brigge heads ever-deeper into bewilderment and disarray. Neither personal decency nor public office can accomplish much when they do not align with one or another of the current forces in society.

While Protestants happen to be the persecutors here, the author’s real targets are bigotry and tyranny. Brigge’s local priest is on the run, but we get a glimpse of the man’s taste for torture should he ever hold the whip hand.

The book is rich in contemporary references. Some of them are particular to the author’s birthplace of Northern Ireland. As a Catholic schoolboy he was “routinely rounded up with hundreds of others by British troops and spent several years in an internment camp”, according to a review by Carolyn See (Washington Post).  However, sectarian hatreds do not rule out ugly alliances at elite level, and he brings that out too.

There are messages about law-and-order policies that stare you in face, but he also notes a tendency toward economic blackmail by the rich, who threaten to remove themselves from the parish if their taxes rise. When a teenage girl is flogged to death for fornication it is, again, hard to escape comparisons to events the current world, although the media tends to frame them in terms of Islam rather than poverty.

Several reviewers have discussed the difficulty faced by historical novelists in bringing out the language of the time. Kathryn Hughes (Guardian) has a particularly interesting commentary on this point, noting that Bennett uses “a language heavily inflected by the English of the King James Bible, commissioned a couple of decades before his story starts”.

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