Book review: Escape to the countryside: Peter Maughan’s Batch Magna Chronicles

Ham-on-Wye is a perfectly plausible English place-name. So is Honey Coombe. And so is Batch Magna.

We’ll come back to that.

A few days ago (it’s been pissing down rain since), on my morning constitutional, I saw, against the backdrop of oak, pecan, and magnolia, not only mockingbirds and cardinals, but egrets as well. We’ll come back to that.

There are Hams in Gloucestershire, outside Cheltenham, in Somerset, outside Wellington, and elsewhere. There is one in Glamorgan. There is no reason there should not be one upon the River Wye.

Lulling and Fairacre and Thrush Green are unimpeachable English place-names. So is Market Blandings; and Crampton Hodnet; and Cranford. So are Lostley, Duke’s Denver, and St Mary Mead. A country which rejoices in the possession of the River Piddle can run to any number of place-names both evocative and comical without impinging upon the suspension of disbelief which it is necessary for a writer of fiction to construct to keep his readers onside. And alert and clever readers on either side of the Pond shall not then be surprised to discover, may discover for themselves, that a seemingly comical fictional place-name is as utterly serious as are any of its seemingly comical counterparts on the map. (I happen, as editor, to know, as readers within the coming weeks shall learn, that Honey Coombe, in Gervase Wemyss’ Village Tales novels, takes its name from having been, for a period of time, in the possession of one Huna, a perfectly historical, if morally dubious, West Saxon magnate and crony of King Edwy’s.)

It is said, and with considerable truth, that a thousand years is a long time to an American – even to a Southerner – and thousand miles is a long distance to a Briton. More pointedly, a thousand years to a Briton is yesterday, and a thousand miles to an American is a weekend road trip. To the Briton, the Year of Our Lord 1020 is by no means lost in the mists of time and may mark a particular known event in his family’s history or legendry, or in the history of his cottage or the chain of title to his estate on the eve of the Conquest. Equally, to him, to travel a thousand miles is not only to leave his own country but to find himself in the lands of his hereditary and quite likely recent enemies; or of course to find himself at sea, in which case there is no reason not to keep going and found a colony somewhere when next he sights land. Most Americans, by contrast, though certainly not all of us, have but the vaguest idea who their grandparents were, let alone their great-grandparents; but they can drive a thousand miles not only without leaving their country, but without leaving their region, and in one case at least shall merely have gone from less than a hundred miles East of the border of Texas to less than a hundred miles West of it, as crossing Texas takes up over eight hundred miles of the trip. When I was young, I regularly travelled some twelve hundred miles at the beginning and end of terms and academic years from my family’s house to my University. And I never left the South in doing so.

We’ll come back to this.

Most modern, recent American writers of fiction agonize, or at least dramatize, on social media over the most remarkable and absurd concerns. One will have a near breakdown over whether or not she is “allowed” to write characters who differ from her in any way: in skin-color, in ethnicity, in politics, in sex, in orientation, in religion (or, nowadays, in having one)…. Wiser heads, in hopes of prevailing, then reassure her; only for others to jump in and assert that she may so write, of course … if she first ticks off a number of boxes in the process and submits herself to voluntary pre-publication censorship in the guise of “sensitivity readers,” so-called, and bears ever in mind that she runs the risk of crowding out and doing down another author who, in writing such characters, should be writing of her own people, and who is therefore oppressed by the very existence of a rival manuscript: as if publishing were a zero-sum game.

This is the sort of arrant horseshit I dismiss as “Fiction Writer Problems.” I probably ought not to do: not because this is not arrant horseshit, but because it has ceased, disastrously, to be reserved to writers of fiction, and has begun increasingly to infect the writing of history and biography and other nonfiction.

A competent historian recognizes that no one who is not demonstrably insane in a clinical sense ever acts from a single motive; that the line between good and evil does not run between races or regions, but right down the broad middle of every human heart; that place (both geographical and social), and family, and upbringing, and the spirit of the times, materially and subconsciously influence the choices, often the tortured choices, people make; that those who came before us may have had different experiences and reasoned from different data, but were no less moral and no less intelligent than we; and that our present generation is not the apex of human civilization and morality, to which all the ages have been but mere preparation. Unfortunately, nowadays such historians are thin on the ground, and have been replaced by strident, partisan, ideological nonentities who are credentialed but not educated. That is why the current iconomachy is going on, and figures of the past are being reduced, with whatever society and State they lived in, to Manichæan two-dimensionality, in a purported history which is no more than a “woke” Sandford and Merton.

This particularly includes writers of fiction, each of whom is the biographer of her characters, and the historian of the world in which these live. And most of them are incompetent to do it and are failing resoundingly at it.

We’ll come back to this.

It has become a commonplace, so much so as to have an entry on TV Tropes, that “Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names.” In many cases, those names which are of the subset “preppy,” the American equivalent to “Sloaney,” are significant in this regard: that Americans have carried their history with them in their names as they have moved and moved and moved again across the continent. With one appalling exception, that of those who, enslaved, were brought to America unwillingly and in chains, everyone in America, including the Native Americans, is here because their ancestors somewhere else chose to come here. And once here, and once free, Americans have been a fiddle-footed lot. Never mind that boatload of lost Yankees who arrived late: my people got here, in part, sailing with Captain Newport to Jamestown. Even the last-arrived of my ancestors, with the exception of a few Scots Jacobites on the lam after the ’15 and the ’45, antedate Britain’s allegedly Glorious Revolution, let alone the founding of the United States: in which they played a part. The use of ancestral surnames as Christian names strikes modern Englishmen as a quaint and faintly ridiculous American custom: they forgetting that, for example, the father of the first Duke of Marlborough was the first Sir Winston Churchill, that Cavalier who gave almost all his substance to the Royalist cause, and who was so named because his mother had been born a Winston. This American tradition is a British inheritance.

To take a few examples from my own family history – which I choose because I can use these examples without treading on the toes of anyone to whom I am not related – my mother’s father’s family had roots in East Anglia and the East Midlands at a very early period, but early moved to the Welsh Marches – Peter Maughan’s setting –, where they settled down as a minor Marcher gentry family, Anglo-Welsh through repeated intermarriages, and often producing clerics. My ancestral Eatons, on my father’s side of the family, were a family of the same sort, from Great Budworth in Cheshire to Llanddewi. My maternal grandfather’s family in America: from Maryland, through Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri, to Dallas, of which they were amongst the founders: continued in this country to name sons, generation after generation, as Al(l)anson, a connection dating back to their Leicestershire days, or as Howell … with the occasional Owen or David or even Cloyd. There is a marked quantity of Welshness and of Anglo-Welshness in repeatedly naming sons, generation upon generation, as Hywel, Owain, Dafydd, and Clwyd, or their Saesneg versions. Along the course of their American journeys, they picked up new connections, and these, too, came to be memorialized in the names handed out at the font: De Vere, Hartwell, Denzil….

My father’s mother’s family was, similarly, Scots in its patriline: Shaws of Rothiemurchus and Tordarrach and their cadets of Clan Farquharson and all the Sìol Fhionnlaigh. Three centuries in America or no, my grandmother’s grandfather was William Malcolm; and her first son, my late father, was Donald.

And so it goes: for the Wards (the bardic Clann an Bháird, of Ballymacward, Abbeyknockmoy, and Inis Mór), for the Carrolls on both sides of my family (we can all pause here and sing a chorus of “Maryland, My Maryland” if you like), for the Eatons, for the Coopers, and all the rest. Christian names commemorating the origin of the family and allied families before coming to the New World; forenames taken from surnames of families with which we have intermarried, though, generally, only the ones with money or influence: my paternal grandfather’s grandfather was not given “Carter” as his Christian name by accident, no matter how many generations or how many miles removed from Virginia the family had come; and his widow, miles and generations from South Carolina, took, as her second husband, a man whose forenames were “Francis Marion.”

With the exception of my late father, almost none of my ancestors in this country, my mother included, were born and died in the same place, or even the same county, or, commonly, the same state: as I am unlikely to die in the county and city in which I was born. This is the American experience: whether driven by gold fever, wandering fever, the land-hunger of second sons, dispossession (advice from family annals: if you must sell the Big House and the land, keep the mineral rights), downward mobility, or the lure of the frontier.

At one time, it was the British experience as well, even leaving aside the empire-builders. The Pyles spread themselves through the West Country, and thence into Hants and Berks, from origins on Dartmoor; and, among the families with whom we were connected in Wiltshire, the Ludlows had come from Shropshire and the Penruddocks from Cumberland and Westmorland, where they represented the old Celtic traditions of Cumbria and its proto-Welsh, Cumbric stratum. And the Industrial Revolution, after, mixed and churned the population mightily.

As you might expect, there are markedly few American novels and American novelists with a profound sense of place, or which are focused on a rooted population over a lengthy period. Madison Cooper, that excellent and unjustly forgotten novelist, did it in Sironia, Texas: most such American novels are set in New England, in Virginia, in the Deep South, or in Texas, which is where the history is in this country: and Brammer did it, and Miz Eudora, and Harper Lee, and Goyen in The House of Breath, and Ellen Glasgow; and of course Faulkner did it. Most of these authors are now authors one is not meant to read, let alone to approve; and it is likely not to be long before one is expressly and effectively forbidden to read or to approve them.

The common or garden writer of fiction in America or in the UK is, nowadays, commonly incapable – has rendered herself incapable – of writing books with a profound sense of place, a rooted population, characters who are apt to their environment. Partly, this seems to be the result of a self-imposed set of inhibitions: the idiot notion that one is not allowed to write about anyone not precisely like oneself. This is a luxury reserved, as I’ve noted, largely to writers of fiction: historians and biographers cannot afford it without failing massively at their tasks. Writers of fiction can afford it … if they don’t care whether or not their books sell, are read, or last for more than three months in the consciousness of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them.

Partly, also, this is a result of self-imposed ignorance: willful ignorance, the cutting of all ties with the past, for purely partisan and political reasons into which the average, the very average, modern writer of fiction has been in effect brainwashed. Crimestop indulged by cowards, really. These are people who have every opportunity to know their own past, the past of their families, which should act as a template for one or another character’s backstory or for a bit of world-building; who have every opportunity to know the past of their own homes, neighborhoods, cities, regions, which, again, should inspire world-building: and who have chosen to reject all of those ties, generally because they are ties to the past, which they have come to believe a terrible and intolerable and intolerant era in which everyone was guilty of doubleplusungood crimethink. And these are not people who have reasoned themselves into this position: they come to it through prolefeed and bellyfeel, and almost invariably are to be found beginning their assertions, not with “I think,” or “I have concluded,” or “reason impels me to note,” but, rather, with “I feel.”

These are voluntary halfwits.

Because they have severed themselves, deliberately, from the past, they are incapable, they have rendered themselves incapable, of creating a plausible world and setting, with plausible place names and plausible characters. Worse still, they have severed themselves, either deliberately or negligently, from the natural world. Perhaps one or two of them takes a morning constitutional: judging from their writings, none of them notices trees, or birds, or small animals, or architecture. Judging from their writings, none of them has ever stepped foot off of pavement, or lived in a built environment that is not soulless, Brutalist, and urban.

They have had drilled into them the maxim, Write what you know, and they do so like so many parrots. Unfortunately, they know practically nothing, and are further constrained to pretend they know less than they do, lest they inadvertently write of the experience of someone not utterly indistinguishable from themselves.

Their sunless world of tenured baristas with second jobs as lecturers in the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies, and tenured professors of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies with second jobs as baristas, is supremely, intolerably, dull and unreadable: as are they.

It is with a profound sense of relief that one turns to a mature mind and an accomplished craft and a talented art: that of Peter Maughan: a sense of relief as profound (I speak from personal experience) as one feels when opening one’s eyes after a triple bypass and realizing that one is indeed still here.

The admirable architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor – who, like Lord Clark of Civilisation, is now deliberately forgotten, subject to damnatio memoriæ, for the inexpiable crime of having been white British, male, educated, intellectually honest, cultivated, and sensible, and for being, nowadays, dead as well – always reserved his highest praise for buildings which used the right materials in the right proportions and the right styles, apt to the place and to the function of the building. That is an excellent description of the work of Peter Maughan.

In the perfect, Hilliard-miniature world of Batch Magna, incident flows with Greek inevitability from character and setting.

Character reacts upon setting, and setting, upon character. In the Batch Magna Chronicles, the setting is perfect. It makes perfect sense for its place. Its topography is consistent and plausible. It fits the area, the region, in which it is placed: the Marches. Its place names convey a sense, not only of plausibility, but of inevitability. Not everything is explained, nor need it be: yet everything is clearly explicable and nothing is out of place. That there are mysteries not yet explained, though they may be guessed at – unlike GMW Wemyss, Peter Maughan is perhaps not so likely to explain them offhandedly, six books on, in a footnote – is supremely fitting. The Batch Magna landscape and setting has as a result a sense of potential, of reserve, power, brooding and not, yet, unleashed. Like the actual Britain, like Yer Actual Marches, like “the fields we know,” Batch Magna has what Thomas Mann called “time-coulisses;” has Tolkien’s “things higher or deeper or darker than its surface.” The wise shall know that such a background and such a setting is, if anything, more necessary to comedy, high comedy, the comedy of manners, than it is to drama or tragedy. Comedy, especially, does not work beneath a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea. Nor, indeed, does story, at all, in any guise and in any genre.

Against this setting, like jewels, are characters perfectly set: proper to the setting, proper indeed in the heraldic sense. Take that Old Salt, that classic seadog, Commander Cunningham: his literary lineage goes back to well before Dickens’ Captain Cuttle: to Smollett’s Commander Trunnion, even perhaps to Chaucer’s Shipman; and forward to Admiral Boom of the Mary Poppins series. And he may be read with pleasure as no more than that, one of the great comic creations, the classic English eccentric. Yet he stands in a very real tradition: that of Beresford, of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky (Lord) Fisher, of Admiral Sir William Pakenham (to his interpreter, when quelling an uprising in Ottoman territory, “Tell these ugly bastards I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits;” to an impertinently inquisitive grande dame at a civic function who’d asked, Was he married, “No, madam: I keep a loose woman in Edinburgh”), of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith and of Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, of innumerable Royal Navy “characters” over the centuries, the Naval counterparts of the immortal and very real officer of dragoons, Lt Col AD Wintle MC and of the equally insuperable and quite as real Lt Col “Mad Jack” Churchill, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar.

A place, properly drawn, is no less real simply because it is fictional. Real places have terrain; they have geography; and, therefore, they have geology, strata upon strata upon hidden strata. The same is true of people, persons, personalities: including those who happen to be fictional. The glory of the Batch Magna Chronicles is that they also contain, and operate on, many levels. Were the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies to exist, and were it, per impossibile, an academic discipline rather than an unacademic indiscipline, and were it followed with any intellectual honesty, the Batch Magna Chronicles should be its classics and its sacred writings. They are “much riches in a little room.” I feel great sympathy for those who have yet to make their acquaintance; and an exasperated pity for those who choose not to do.