Review: Havoc in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett

Kathryn Hughes on Ronan Bennett's evocative tale of power and Puritanism, the Booker-longlisted Havoc in its Third Year

Havoc in its Third Year
by Ronan Bennett
256pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99

England in the 1630s, limbering up for the civil war. Charles I is ruling without parliament and pushing the established church dangerously close to ritualism, even popery. In cold, hard pockets of the north, political resistance takes the form of Puritanism, a joyless insistence on doing things by the book.

In one particular nameless town, the habitual stance of the Pharisees who run the place is hunched over the Bible, one index finger searching out a justifying passage, the other jabbing at the sinners who parade before them. These include serving girls who have tumbled with their employers, masterless men who barge into the parish and demand dole, hungry boys who steal chickens. In the twitchy atmosphere of a country town struggling with thin harvests and leaky borders with Scotland and Ireland, these social challenges are re-cast as spiritual crimes. The punishments, naturally, are biblical in their brutality (there is not much here about the mercy of Christ). After every court session the streets are streaked with blood from the sin-heavy bodies of the lashed, branded, bridled, stocked and hanged.

One of the town's governors, John Brigge, feels uneasy at his role in this perpetual Day of Judgment. A covert follower of the "old religion", he manages to hide his devotion to bells and beads by living well outside the town, on a mountain farm with his wife Elizabeth, several servants and an occasional night-time visit from Father Edward. Relatively safe in this stony Eden, Brigge's world is saturated with signs and wonders that hotwire God's will to the mundane plane. When, as the local coroner, Brigge finds himself examining a woman who seems to have murdered her baby, he immediately sees a dreadful symmetry with the fact that Elizabeth is at this very moment in labour. His dreams too are laden with symbols and his frequent dips into unconsciousness (this is an age of sudden fevers, blows to the head, tainted food, not to mention deep, exhausted sleep) take him into parallel narratives so vivid that it is sometimes as hard for the reader as it is for Brigge to get a purchase on this swimming landscape.

Still, Ronan Bennett's evo-cation of a corner of England on the edge of apocalypse is wonderfully done. In taverns, in church and in the streets, men watch other men for signs that they are following the wrong party line. A certain glance, a particular ribbon, a prayer mumbled at the wrong time can all give you away as a "Jesuit", someone who lives outside the godly city, along with all those Irish whores, vagrant labourers, tipplers and fraudsters who threaten civic stability.

Brigge's instinctive mercy towards the wretches who come before him as coroner, together with his determination to live at a distance from the town, mean he is soon under suspicion. Betrayed by his former clerk, a hard young man called Adam who has witnessed the laxity of the Brigge household (not just the candles and the forbidden forms but his master's single slip into carnality with the maidservant, Dorcas), Brigge finds himself arrested and put in jail. Only the odd circumstance of a town fire and his good standing with former colleagues allow Brigge to throw off his chains and rescue his fellow prisoners, so enacting the legend of St Germanus, a parable of release and homecoming that has been hovering over his story from the beginning.

If there is a central focus in Havoc, it is not so much on Brigge as on all those bodies it is his job to prod and palp and read and judge. Under his clear gaze battered corpses are made to point to their murderers, while women's sexual places give up their secret stories. Yet despite all the opportunities for revelling in pus and shit, Bennett is careful to discipline his account so that the stinking gums, torn flesh and vomit dribbles are tempered by gentler sights and sounds. Some of the most tender writing in the book is reserved for Elizabeth Brigge's body, which, though once betrayed by her husband, remains intently loved by him. Equally effective is Brigge's anxious scrutiny of newborn Samuel, who flutters between listless near-death and bubble-blowing bonniness. It is for this reason that the paps of the child's successive wet nurses become the object of worried speculation and defensive pride, their fullness a matter not of erotic pleasure but literal life or death. And, in the end, it is these coarse working bodies that flourish while Elizabeth's breaks down, sending her to a sudden early end.

One of the problems for the writer of a historical novel is language. Modern English sounds silly; yet using the carefully archived voice of the past leads to bafflement, since not even the keenest reader is going to work through the text with a concordance to hand. In Havoc , Bennett meets the problem cleverly by opting for a language heavily inflected by the English of the King James Bible, commissioned a couple of decades before his story starts to produce clarity and agreement out of a muddle of local tongues. As a result, the novel's language is flowing yet exact, marked with a wonderful strangeness that reminds us there is nothing transparent about the world it describes, and that we will have to work hard to make out all its meanings.

There is, of course, a final irony in the fact that this inclusive language of King James was originally hammered out to keep the Puritans in conversation with the rest of the Protestant kingdom. But by the time of Havoc it is becoming clear that this fragile covenant will no longer hold, and that the cawing language of the Puritans will soon be the only one that counts. For this reason it is hard to feel anything but happy when, at the end of the novel, John Brigge dies and is welcomed into heaven by Elizabeth. For such is the persuasive power of Bennett's writing that even the most doctrinally indifferent reader will have got the message that Brigge is entering a place of infinite mercy, far better than the righteous kingdom that is being so bloodily constructed on Earth.

· Kathryn Hughes is writing a biography of Mrs Beeton.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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