Hella S. Haasse (trans. Lewis C. Kaplan and Anita Miller, Arrow Books, 1989, ISBN 0 09 9744708)
In a Dark Wood Wandering appears to be a compulsory part of any good second-hand bookshop collection. Though compared at its release to The Name of the Rose and similar works of medieval-based fiction, it seems to have been largely forgotten. Impelled by its glorious cover, despite my mother’s warnings not to judge a book that way, I have attempted several times to start this book. As a medievalist and historical literature fan this novel seemed theoretically ideal. Sadly, the effort required in getting into the novel was not well repaid.
The story of how Hella S. Haasse’s historical epic Het woud der verwachtung was translated into English beggars belief. According to the novel’s introduction, a translation effort commenced quite soon after initial publication. Because of a fire and various other misadventures, the translation remained unfinished until found again by Anita Miller some twenty-odd years later. Miller did not speak or read Dutch, yet took up the work of developing the translation. Eventually she obtained the help of Dutch-speakers and the translation was checked over by Haasse. In 1989, to some popular acclaim, the novel hit the English-speaking market.
Set around the power struggles of the royal French court through the Hundred Years War period, the novel promises a great deal. The blurb to its 1989 edition suggests battle and revenge, a brutal feud, and a journey to ‘the very mind and heart of the Middle Ages’. In the end it proves somewhat disappointing on all fronts. Nonetheless, in the first two hundred or so pages, there is a sensation that the political manoeuvrings, at least, influenced the development of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I do not of course know whether Martin has read this book.
The novel follows the life of Charles d’Orléans, the nephew of the famously mad King Charles VI of France. In this regard, In a Dark Wood Wandering is a strange novel. Of all the figures involved in the Hundred Years War, Charles d’Orléans is hardly the most interesting. As portrayed in the novel, he is a most passive player. The exceptionally long prologue leading up to Charles’ father’s assassination occurs while he is a very young boy and is told through other characters. Charles then goes on to become little more than a wealthy pawn in the power struggles of various French nobles. When England invades, it doesn’t take him long to be captured at the Battle of Agincourt. He spends the next twenty-five years following the Hundred Years War via post. Charles d’Orléans, though an important figure, was hardly a player. He is much overshadowed by the characters around him: his bastard younger brother, the Queen Isabeau (about whom more below), and even his rather limpid mother. Yes, there is intrigue, as promised, but it goes on around Charles and his influence is minimal. It seems peculiar that Haasse chose him to follow through this war.
I would venture to guess that part of the reason for the concentration on Charles is his poetry. While in captivity and afterward, Charles composes numerous verses. Obviously proud of her research, Haasse self-indulgently includes quite a number of these. Fine. It’s her book—but it is disappointing to start a novel expecting battle and politics, only to find the main character has barely any involvement in key events. Perhaps Haasse was aiming for a certain nobility, for a tragedy in Charles’ character and his long imprisonment. Perhaps the translation reflects that poorly. As it stands the early promise of the novel wears away, much like Charles’ young life.
On the whole, the novel is well-written. There are some beautiful moments. Charles’ heartache for his wives when the first dies and the second remains behind while he is imprisoned in England, is very evocative. For the most part, characters and many details of medieval life were well-researched for a piece written in the 1940s. The descriptions of costumes are all right, though I believe Haasse likely based them on nineteenth century plates rather than fifteenth century sources. Some aspects of life are taken for granted—most glaringly, Charles d’Orléans is shown wearing eyeglasses, and there is a throwaway line about Parisians eating potatoes as famine food. The former is understandable, given the sources likely available to the author; the latter is not. A passing reference is made to men tempering their language around women–almost certainly not a medieval practice. The English nobility are shown struggling with French, though French was widely spoken amongst the English nobility, albeit possibly a different dialect. Indeed most of the characters seem to be strangely monolingual. In general the culture and characters are depicted in a very twentieth century attitude. Given the context of the story’s writing, though, these are to some extent excusable.
My biggest qualm was with the characterisation of Queen Isabeau. I knew very little about this figure at the novel’s outset, but have since done a little research. Apparently it was an image of Isabeau (again, likely nineteenth-century), which prompted Haasse’s fascination with the Hundred Years War period. To be fair, Isabeau’s characterisation is in keeping with contemporary descriptions. The problem is that these descriptions are all propaganda, giving vicious accounts of Isabeau’s behaviours and appearance, which have since been largely discredited by historians. It is disappointing that such an interesting woman is depicted so poorly, and for her physical attributes—namely obesity and an injured leg—to be used as yet more evidence of her moral dereliction. It forms yet another example of the demonization of women in positions of power, which has lingered after her death and has here been taken for fact. When other women characters in this book are given more rounded portrayals, and history with regards other characters is interrogated and questioned, Isabeau’s characterisation feels egregious.
In a Dark Wood Wandering is a strangely structured book with a passive central character and a wealth of untapped potential. Its moments of elegant description and gripping emotional realism do not make up for its failings. This may be in part because of a failure in the tone set in translation—I read Dutch far too stiltingly to attempt to investigate myself. It does, however, seems unlikely to be the case.
(with apologies for the title of this review)