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Orchestrated tusheries: The Young Lion by Blanche d’Alpuget

The Young Lion by Blanche d'Alpuget cover
The Young Lion
by Blanche d’Alpuget
Harper Collins
465pp
$29.99 AU
Published September, 2013
ISBN 9780732296698

It seems, on the face of it, a bit bizarre that Blanche d’Alpuget should have written what is clearly the first of a series of novels about Henry II, and a bit odd too that she should have called it The Young Lion. And why should eyebrows be raised at the title, apart from anything else? Well, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948) – a title different by the merest sibilant – was one of the big and hugely esteemed novels of the immediate post-war period. It depicted a group of young people from their pre-war days, and back in the long ago 1950s, when people born before World War II still read a few books a week, even if they had discovered television, it had a hold on the public imagination comparable to A Town Like Alice (1950) or From Here to Eternity (1951).

I remember my mother telling me the plot of The Young Lions and filling in the characters when we shopped in Myers some Saturday morning, or wandered for my benefit in the lanes between the Regent cinema and the back of St Paul’s Cathedral. Here, for my beguilement, was Tim the Toyman’s and the Pied Piper Bookshop, with its hardback colour-plated books about King Arthur and Robin Hood for high-rent children. My mother told me about the German, about the nightclub guy – wasn’t he Jewish? She filled in some enchanting image from the recent past, the past of her war-torn (if Australian and sheltered) girlhood, which was as romantic to me – well, not quite, but almost – as Camelot or Tintagel, or from medieval histories, lavishly illustrated in mock-medieval fashion in books like This Age of Kings: stories about the signing of the Magna Carta, Richard the Lionheart felled by an arrow, and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by the knights who had heard the king cry, ‘Will no one rid me of this pestilent priest?’

This beauteous colour version of history existed in yesteryear’s newsreel world of black and white, howevermuch the great fighting aces of the Battle of Britain were to us like knights at a tournament, and Churchill’s words about fighting on the beaches, on the fields and on the landing grounds – which Richard Burton recited in a documentary of the time called The Valiant Years (1960) – were our Agincourt speech.

Blanche d’Alpuget’s childhood was even longer ago than mine, so I find it difficult to imagine that she would not remember the virtual pre-empting of her title by a book famous enough to become a Hollywood film with Marlon Brando. I can even remember the provenance of the epigraph – and this is a primary school child’s memory. It was a quotation from the Old Testament, I think from Ezekiel, and it was something about young lions roaming and raging – something that underlined, with a ferocity and a poetry that justified quotation, the coupling of youth to which God giveth joy and the beast who seeks whom it may devour. (In fact, it turns out to be Nahum 2 and has a different kind of elegiac poignancy to my childhood memory: ‘Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in the smoke, and the sword shall devour thy young lions.’)

Of course, lions are grist to the mills of romance – and then there is the crest of the Plantagenets. Flash forward a few years to the early 1960s and the voice of Peter O’Toole, full of poetry, at the edge of tears: ‘You give me back the great lions of England, like a little boy, refusing to play anymore.’ He is talking to Richard Burton, who is playing his bosom friend who has turned from him. Burton is Becket, the martyred saint to be, and O’Toole, muttering of lions like a boy who has been spurned, is Jonathan to his David, the loving friend who has broken his heart, the man who cries bloody murder, Henry II.

In the decade after The Young Lions, O’Toole was to play Henry II twice: first in the film of Jean Anouilh’s Becket (1964), with Burton in the title role, and then a few years later in The Lion in Winter (1968), with Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. They are both expensive costume dramas based on successful plays, though Becket – which had been produced on Broadway, with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn (with Olivier changing from the king to the bishop), and for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Eric Porter as Becket and Christopher Plummer as Henry – was the better play. The Lion in Winter is a kind of pulled back Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in medieval dress, though O’Toole has an electrifying panache in both. His Henry II – which is, in its way, consistent over both films, represents the extroverted, high-comic and red-blooded contrast to his performance as Lawrence of Arabia for which he will always be most famous.

O’Toole’s Henry II films are tremendous landmarks in the history of popular culture, just as The Young Lions was. And Blanche d’Alpuget’s The Young Lion – this 460 page novel about the lead up to Henry becoming king of England, this ante-chamber to the rants and heroics of the kingly career proper – is nothing if not an attempt at glamorous recapitulation in the historical mode. It is a mode that was all about the children of the post-war boom, and it is interesting to see its late fruits in a kind of literary fiction which is, in fact, a sort of cross-over fiction, and which has its efflorescence – and many would say its vindication – in the massive and richly orchestrated tusheries of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall volumes.

In an odd sort of way, Mantel’s historical fictions take the lower middlebrow form of the costume drama novel – the intrigues and the axe blades dripping with blood – and give it back to the generation that, when young, thrilled to the high dramatics of Becket, The Lion in Winter, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1954) and, on television, to the powerful embodiments of history as drama in I, Claudius (1976), The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), with Keith Michel as the king, and Elizabeth R (1971), with Glenda Jackson, so tender and ferocious and majestic.

Mantel’s endeavour recuperates for fiction the seriousness of the 1960s and ’70s historical dramas on the big and small screen. Novels in doublets and hose, in chainmail and with sword play, have tended to be the province of the likes of Bernard Cornwell: they are entertaining for those who like swash and buckle, as Henry Treece’s novels were in their day, but they occupy a niche in the popular, which is to say, the trash market. How many serious literary novels about the Tudors have there been between Ford Maddox Ford’s The Fifth Queen (1908) and Wolf Hall (2009)? And doesn’t that make us wonder a bit about Mantel’s endeavour, not to mention Blanche d’Alpuget’s, which follows so blatantly in its wake?

D’Alpuget’s The Young Lion is a novel about the king of England who is most famous for having his Archbishop of Canterbury killed in his cathedral, and who did public penance for this rash act. Henry II was the first of the Plantagenet kings, the father of Richard the Lionheart and the cowardly King John, and the founding father of the line of English kings that ruled from the 1100s until the deposing of Richard II in 1399, on the cusp of the fifteenth century. So he is the great patriarch of the kings of the high Middle Ages, and his famed tussle with Thomas Becket underlines what was in fact the case: that he immeasurably strengthened the power of the monarchy in England and, paradoxically for the proxy murderer (or at any rate the provocateur to murder) of a saint, strengthened the rule of law.

D’Alpuget is best known as the novelist who wrote Turtle Beach (1981) and then a biography of Bob Hawke, published just before he became prime minister. She then became the wife of that great Labor leader – the Silver Bodgie, as Patrick White called him, and an Old Lion if ever there was one. She also wrote a history of the trade union movement and a biography of the onetime head of the arbitration commission, Sir Richard Kirby, in order to prepare for her thousand faceted biography of ‘Hawkie’, which was such a runaway bestseller that the profits from the sales of the book allowed its publisher, the property developer Morry Schwartz, to buy a block of Collins Street. If this is a qualification for recapitulating the dramas of long ago history, then d’Alpuget certainly has runs on the board.

So d’Alpuget comes to the story of this Lion of England with more than her fair share of power and glory. How does she acquit herself? Well, The Young Lion is not a book that is going to rivet every lover of literature, but it is a serious attempt to chronicle the first phase of a tumultuous life, and one that will engross a certain kind of reader who wants to feed on the outline of history’s storm and fever and famine. Outline is in some respects the operative word, because d’Alpuget is better at chronicling real and imaginary dramas in motion than she is at providing some equivalent to the texture or the rhetoric of the past.

The Young Lion is a depiction of Henry as the young – in fact teenage – son of Geoffrey of Anjou and of his apprenticeship, in gaining his knightly spurs, to David, King of Scotland. It shows the love between his father Geoffrey and Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitane, who was also, until her divorce, the wife of King Louis of France and hence the Queen. We see the redhaired warrior Henry fall in love with Xena, the Middle Eastern waiting woman of Eleanor, and witness the depth of his feeling for this woman he cannot marry.

All of this is executed with a skeletal efficiency of articulation that has an effect of transparency. There is a clarity and a degree of swiftness, though it is an odd technique for rendering the colour and tumult of medieval history, with its rampant lions, its lurking dragons, and its capacity, through the shield of autocracy, for outbursts of rage and grief and loss in language that is touched, for better or worse, with the absolutist’s sense of the divinity that doth hedge a king.

Here is a bit of detached description as Xena (Rebecca to give her Jewish name) looks at the landscape before her:

Xena stared where she knew Rouen was, but it was without a light. It was another few minutes before she glimpsed what the bow commander had seen and by then a hint of pink light showed in the east. Without haste, step by step, the sun rose above soft reefs of pink and gold cloud. At last she could see what the shooters watched: an enormous machine slowly moving towards them and on either side hundreds upon hundreds of infantry men and archers, tramping, tramping, tramping forward. On either side of them rode knights with standard bearers waving coloured flags. The morning light struck the knights’ iron heads in brilliant shafts of gold.

This has the advantage of being pellucid, and it is true that d’Alpuget is better at quiet and anticipation than she is at clamour and tumult. You might object to the sun rising ‘step by step’, and you might think that ‘tramping, tramping, tramping’ was a bit clichéd and hand-me-down, but the atmospherics and the sense of hush, then of portent, followed by the might of the movement coming into focus, works well enough.

But a moment later we get this by way of martial invocation and the effect is oddly swallowed:

Below them the duke of Normandy seated on his warhorse addressed his army. ‘Men of Normandy! Men of Anjou! Men of Maine! The French attack us without provocation. As our overlords they have broken our sacred trust in them. We owe them nothing but iron and fire. Prince Eustace of England fights with France. He is a man infamous for cruelty. He’ll slaughter our women and children. Fight for each other! Fight for your women and children. Fight the tyrannous king of France!’

Yes, these are the kinds of things that medieval men of war might well have said before battle, but the flattering effect of shorthand is notable. The memory came back to me, reading The Young Lion, of an old novelist, some leathery dame of the Sydney literary world, saying many years ago of Blanche d’Alpuget: ‘I read her and I think to myself, “Girl, is English your native language?”’

What we get over and over in The Young Lion, to the point where it comes to seem a characteristic rather than a momentary lapse, is this effect of greyness, of rhetoric being gestured towards and sketched at rather than embodied. It is as if the novelist has no strong impulse to hear the voice of the past – which is coterminous with the voice she is seeking to embody in the fiction – as either full-throated or in any way strange. Obviously, we know that addresses to troops have to be belted out. And an actor could belt out something like this. But the language is not phrased with any sense of rhythm that allows this to be done in a precise or cadenced way. It is – and there is an obvious irony in this – language which is much too flat for effective speech writing. It is not vividly and oratorically mesmerising like the language Don Watson helped put into the mouth of Paul Keating, or (not to put fine a point on it) that Graham Freudenberg wrote for Bob Hawke. Nor – and this is really the point – does it have the natural vigour that men of power need to have to command their troops and sway their supporters, even in our tame democratic world. And this is quite apart from the heraldic sense of blood and thunder that seems appropriate to the period.

It is an indicative lack in The Young Lion and it is not so simple as the fact that d’Alpuget is writing a modern novel about Henry II and is therefore under no obligation to write like Shakesepare or Sir Walter Scott. Churchill’s and Hitler’s speeches, both of them histrionic and, God knows, elevated in diction and aspiration, are not beyond the reach of modern memory. It is nonsense to say that contemporary language cannot be elevated. Here, for example, is Christopher Logue, in the mid-1960s, paraphrasing book nineteen of the Iliad:

The arid bliss self-righteousness provokes

Addled my heart.

Such elevated language is a mainstay of the upper-level costume drama, the sweeping historical drama that dominated the world of d’Alpuget’s youth, and it casts the longest shadow with the story of Henry II, the man she is going to live with and dream into being in this sequence of novels in the coming years.

So back to 1963, to Becket, the film version of the play by Jean Anouilh, one of the great figures of the mid-century theatre, the screenplay of which was written by Edward Anhalt, the man who also wrote the screenplay of the World War II drama The Young Lions – the one with Brando. The scene is the windswept beach of Normandy. John Gielgud as Louis of France is watching somewhere off camera. Richard Burton as Becket and Peter O’Toole as Henry II are on horseback. The bishop is clad in simple monk’s dress, a brown cowl. The king is in a dark cloak, wearing his crown.

HENRY: You never loved me, did you?

BECKET: Yes, as far as I was capable of love, I loved you.

HENRY: Did you start to love God more?

BECKET: I started to love the honour of God. My prince …

HENRY (moving his horse away): No pity, it’s dirty.

Sadly Becket rides off. As he does so the camera goes into close up and O’Toole calls with a terrible cry: ‘Thomas!’

The dialogue is not especially heightened, though Ou l’honneur de Dieu – ‘the honour of God’ – is the alternate title of Anouilh’s play. But the style of the acting, with Burton and O’Toole, is very much so. It is neo-Shakespearean, though not for a child of the period the worse for that. What it is, however, is intrinsically dramatic. Compare it with this passage, almost at random, from The Young Lion:

‘So that night, when we fled the French nearly captured me … you would have fought them for me?’ Henry’s fears vanished and he laughed.

‘Fought them? I’d have cut them to ribbons!’

‘There were ten of them!’

‘But they’d be fighting me!’ Henry said. ‘I summon an army to my fist. If I’m outnumbered I charge as if I had a thousand knights behind me. And you know? The enemy turns into chickens: cluck, cluck, cluck.’ She laughed with him but after a few moments became serious.

‘If you love me so much you’d risk your life for me, why don’t you marry me?’

Henry turned his face away, then looked back at her. ‘You’re not serious are you?’

‘I’m completely serious.’

Robert Manne, the political commentator, is not a literary critic, but I remember him writing of some sexual rendezvous in Helen Demidenko’s historical novel The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994) that it sounded like it was all taking place in contemporary Queensland. These questions are theoretically complex – and, yes, a deep enough penetration of contemporary Australia may be our best guide to Nazi Germany or the Angervin lords – but the real point is that if it is deep enough it will sound, to our imaginations, like the thing it seeks to mime.

The weird thing about d’Alpuget’s The Young Lion is that, although it constantly reflects the author’s researches, it sounds like a rather grey translation into a flattened discourse. And this is reflected in much of the circumstantial patter that is meant to indicate the touches of accuracy in the book. There are, for instance, frequent (so frequent as to be distracting) indications of which of several languages the characters are speaking at any given time. Often we are told that Henry and his family are speaking ‘Catalan’. What d’Alpuget means by this is Occitan, the Languedoc, the language of Provence, which has a family resemblance to the language of Catalonia or Majorca. But it is a bit silly to simply refer to it as though it were the Spanish form associated with Barcelona, just as it gets distracting when people are referred to as speaking in English, by which she means the Anglo-Saxon of the pre-Norman invasion – which, by the way, it seems unlikely that any of these characters would have spoken. There is also the odd bit of Latin that seems to have come out the wrong way, and a general tendency to be at once pedantic and sloppy. Why ‘Anjevin’ when ‘Angevin’ is the normal English spelling of the word?

Despite all these caveats, there is something of vitality going on in The Young Lion, something ambitious and not merely trashy, and which points to a kind of viability in d’Alpuget’s venture, despite its flaws. We live, after all, in the age of long-form television and some fraction of the world is enthralled with the imaginary medievalism of Game of Thrones. D’Alpuget’s Henry suddenly came into focus for me – and this banished thoughts of how his dialogue would have sat on Peter O’Toole’s silver tongue – when it occurred to me that he could be played by Chris Hemsworth, the boy from Philip Island who has taken the world by storm as Thor. He speaks (courtesy of Kenneth Branagh, one suspects) impressive standard English and gives an impressive performance in the formula one film Rush (2013), in which he plays Niki Lauda’s rival James Hunt. He is a fine magnetic actor and he would be exactly right as d’Alpuget’s young warrior king in the making, half-mute, half-barbarian, trying to stumble his way toward a moral heroism that matches his physical prowess.

The crunch will ultimately come when d’Alpuget has to pit her Henry against the bosom-friend turned enemy, Thomas Becket, the archbishop who becomes the mortal foe of the king and is killed in one of his petulant rages.

As to the other man she had observed that day … the tall, handsome man that all the other men in the room bar Henry obviously despised, she felt as if she were being pulled back and forth by an invisible hand. Her limbs weakened. She became aware that a being from another world was present: that it had surrounded the churchman and spread its power over Henry. Not all such beings were benevolent she knew.

‘You must be careful of him,’ she said when Henry rejoined her that night.

‘Does he wish me harm?’

‘Possibly.’

It is interesting that d’Alpuget’s Becket is to be gay. This was inconceivable for Anouilh, even though the bond between the two main figures, the King and the Prelate, is clearly one ‘passing the love of women’. Interesting, too, that he should be sinister. Think back to the high heroics of 1960s costume dramas and the new ‘literary’ market for a revisionist revisiting of them. The two Thomas’s – the two great English martyr saints – both defied kings, each called Henry. Henry VIII, who brings Thomas More to his death in A Man for All Seasons, was so terrified of the pilgrim’s cult of Becket (‘the holy blisful martir for to seke’) that he did everything in his power to have it suppressed. In Wolf Hall, Thomas More is by way of being a villain for that lapsed Catholic Hilary Mantel, who takes as her hero Thomas Cromwell – the man who stole the abbeys to placate the barons, who might have objected to the King’s re-marriage and break with Rome, and who was responsible for the mass execution of the Carthusians, which the great Protestant historian of the English Civil War S.R. Gardner described as one of the greatest crimes in English history. The age of militant atheism has its whirligigs and its revenges.

It is perhaps not altogether surprising that Blanche d’Alpuget, in following in the wake of Hilary Mantel’s massively successful Tudor costume dramas, which she cannot match at a level of rhetoric, should nevertheless have been savvy enough to take on the huge story about the king and the saint, the tantrum thrower and the pestilent priest. But nothing is more worldly about her Henry II franchise than the decision to make the churchman sinister – worldly, in taking another leaf from Mantel: down with the Church, down with the saints, to hell with all these St Thomases.