The Fifth Queen, by Ford Madox Ford

I’ve long of course been aware that Ford Madox Ford wrote novels besides The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End quartet, but hanging around bookshops my entire life I’ve often been inclined to doubt it, since I’ve never seen any. But the other month I finally came across an edition of The Fifth Queen trilogy (ok, it’s a Penguin Modern Classic, so it can’t be that esoteric), and here I am reading the first one, itself called The Fifth Queen.

This follows on quite well from my reading of Shakespeare’s history plays, and more notably Ford’s namesake John’s Perkin Warbeck, for it’s set in the time of Henry VIII, and is about the conflict beteen Thomas Cromwell and Katherine Howard.

– This must then, Obooki, be what is known as “middlebrow historical fiction”?

Apparently, I was reading somewhere the other day, we are turning increasingly towards historical fiction – the British that is – because we’ve lost our empire, and it cheers us up to pretend we still had it; although obviously a) that is now, and Ford Madox Ford was writing this when we still had an empire (the 1900s decade), and b) we didn’t have an empire in the time of Henry VIII. So presumably then Ford Madox Ford turned to historical fiction because we had an empire, and it cheered him up to recall a time when we didn’t. Either that, or the subject interested him.

I had never considered until recently that “historical fiction” was a genre – I had always supposed it was as natural for a writer to write about the past as the present, since they have throughout history – but people these days keep saying it, so I suppose it must be true. It also seemingly must be true that you have to append the adjective “middlebrow” to any reference you make to the genre.

This is all, by the bye. What I enjoyed about The Fifth Queen was the world it evoked: in which characters of power (Henry, Cromwell etc) hold other people’s lives at their will, and it is dangerous to anybody’s life to become embroiled in politics. A world which is full of rumour and espionage, which is I suspect not far from what those times were like – there was no rule of law, such as we have now; you lived at the behest of, and under the power of, other people. Although it’s true in Jacobean historical plays kings have similar powers of life and death, and use them; there isn’t about them this palpable sense of fear which everyone lives under which Ford evokes.

If the evocation is perhaps accurate, in the grand tradition of Jacobean tragedy, Ford’s portrait of Katherine Howard seems to bear no resemblance to reality. Katherine is a country lass who blunders innocently into the paranoid city of London. She charms the king with her ingenuousness and her pertness (Ford is always using this word to describe her), and is warned against her ingenuousness and pertness by every single other character in the book, who point out to her that it will lead to certain death. Everyone wishes to use Katherine to their own end, so we have plot and counter-plot. – She is in this way more of a stock figure – the virtuous woman – which we’ve come across more in our c17th plays (Rowe’s Jane Shore; Addison’s Cato – admittedly not a woman, but certainly name-checked by Ford), who by maintaining her virtue amidst the vice all about her, wins her man (or is killed, or both; – obviously this is the first in a trilogy, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to Katherine Howard; Henry VIII only had five wives, right?).

To create his sixteenth century linguistically, Ford Madox Ford adopts a kind of stitled prose style, and in his dialogues occasionally (though not very often) ends verbs in “eth” and uses “an” to mean “if” (common enough in Jacobean plays), but that’s pretty much it, as far as I noticed.

(I think, after reading this trilogy, I should read Wolf Hall, a) because it deals with exactly the same character, Cromwell, though at an earlier time – or later time, if one is considering when it was written; and b) because, amidst the accusations of middlebrowism and historical fictionism and being popular and highly read on the one hand, and winning awards, and yet at the same time being disparaged by certain “serious” literary types, it’s begun to intrigue me).

My next historical fiction though, I think, will be Louis Aragon: you can’t get more middlebrow than Aragon! Or maybe Faulkner’s A Fable.

4 thoughts on “The Fifth Queen, by Ford Madox Ford

  1. A Fable – you’re a brave fellow. I have read one other person write attentively about these Ford Ford books, but I cannot remember who it was. They sound pretty good.

    It has become clear through blog reading that for many readers, historical novels are sub-categories of Mills & Boons romances, and thus certainly genres. I have come across people surprised to find that other kinds of historical fiction – Walter Scott or Wolf Hall – even exist. This, in turn, surprised me.

  2. This Cromwell/Howard trilogy is pretty good – not masterly, but good enough still to be published occasionally, and read by people.

    I have to read A Fable now largely because I’ve got a good opening line for my post on it. I particularly enjoy later Faulkner anyway.

    I see, the genre “historical fiction” is not just fiction based on his history. I hope everyone’s aware of this. I’ve heard though that Walter Scott wrote “romances”. I have pledged myself to try reading one soon.

    I notice, looking into my Aragon book, that he has a disclaimer right at the beginning claiming it is not a “historical novel”. I remain suspicious however: after all, why make the claim?

  3. I have Parade’s End somewhere fairly far up on the list of things to read, but who knows when I’ll ever get to it.

    Which Aragon do you plan to read?

  4. I am going to read Holy Week.

    I tried Paris Peasant relatively recently, and enjoyed it for a while, but then it got bogged down in too much abstract theorizing, and I gave up. I’m not expecting much theorizing in Holy Week.

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