IN THE 1940s, when H.F.M. Prescott was writing The Man on a Donkey, some of the Tudor manuscript she wanted to examine were unavailable, because of wartime conditions. It was an appropriate circumstance. Her novel presents the dissolution of an earlier English world, and in its closing scene a half-mad, visionary serving-woman takes the pages of a religious text, carefully saved from a suppressed nunnery, folds them into paper boats, and sets them afloat on her river.
The Man on a Donkey is an extraordinarily ambitious act of the creative imagination, a novel of great power and beauty. It passes what is for me the most exacting of tests to make upon a work of art: it creates its own autonomous world, lovely and terrifying, which we enter willingly and from which we depart with our understanding subtly and permanently deepened.
It was an isolated triumph. Prescott had published a few other novels, and, in 1940, a distinguished biography of Mary Tudor, but The Man on a Donkey is her great, solitary victory of the imagination. Perhaps that is why it has been forgotten in this country, and half-forgotten in her own. But I suspect that there is an additional reason. It is a historical novel, a chronicle of the years between the 1520s, when Henry VIII precipitated the English Reformation by casting away his queen to marry Anne Boleyn, and the 1530s, when, his separation from Rome now being complete, he suppressed all of his nation's ancient monasteries, abbeys, and nunneries. The high praise which it received invariably specified its genre--"the almost perfect historical novel." And even the finest historical novels, this one or those by Robert Graves and Mary Renault and Marguerite Yourcenar, are oddly situated. We are uneasy according the very highest stature to novels which do not issue from or directly engage their contemporary world.
Moreover, The Man on a Donkey, which calls itself "a chronicle," seems deliberately to be modeled upon historical novels of the most old-fashioned sort--a book in the tradition of Walter Scott. It is massive and intricate, with plots and sub-plots which at last are bound together, and it unwinds itself at its leisure, pausing to look at length at landscapes and townscapes, at flowers and jewels and barns. It introduces historical personages-- Henry, Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, Robert Aske--and intertwines their actions and choices with those of characters imagined but endowed with strengths of cultural actuality--a worldly prioress, an envious, mean-spirited priest.
It moves toward a predestined action, the bewildered and foredoomed rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. A handful of noblemen, a thousand or so of gentlemen and yeomen, and a great mob of peasants march down from the north to protest against what they see, imperfectly yet accurately, as the destruction of their religion, their ancient liberties, and their traditional culture. They are pitting themselves, disastrously, against the forces by which the modern world is being shaped-- King Henry's brutal and unballasted egotism, the labyrinthine wiles of the Tudor court, the greed of the great territorial magnates, the new and intoxicating ideas which have been turned loose upon Europe by Gutenberg's printing press.
The novel even has that currently most unfashionable of beings, a hero. Her Robert Aske (who corresponds in action and character to our scrappy records of him) is a troubled, complex man--a knight's son who has become a lawyer, an idealist who is also a logic-chopper, a man deeply loyal who is driven by his loyalty into rebellion and treason, an introspective man cursed with fatal gifts of leadership and charm. Betrayed by his king, by history, and by himself, he endures a long and shameful death, swinging in chains from the turret of a Yorkshire castle.
But although Prescott has appropriated the design of the traditional historical novel, she has transformed it. The transformation issues from the audacity of her ambition and from a prose style which is resonant and rich-textured. She can seize from among a thousand details the exact one and can use it to evoke either character or the feel of the air in a given countryside at a given season. The ambition is embedded in her theme: her subject is that line of fissure upon which medieval England cracked apart, to be replaced by a modern one whose forms had immense energy but were as yet indistinct and frightening. Her theme, that is to say, is the sole proper subject of the historical novel--history itself.
"The book," she says in a brief prefatory note, "is cast in the form of a chronicle. This form, which requires space to develop itself, has been used in an attempt to introduce the reader into a world, rather than at first to present him with a narrative. In that world he must for a while move like a stranger, as in real life picking up, from seemingly trifling episodes, understanding of those about him, and learning to know them without knowing that he learns. Only later, when the characters should by this means have become familiar, does the theme of the whole book emerge, as the different stories which it contains run together and are swallowed up in the tragic history of the Pilgrimage of Grace."
She has here described, precisely and with elegance, both the structure of her novel and its justification. In my local library, by the accident of alphabet, it stands beside no fewer than 25 "historical novels" by the irrepressible Jean Plaidy, a writer who would not know what history really is if it came up and bit her. Nor how energy and beauty can be built into language. Nor would her many readers care. But Prescott has built for us a world rich and various not merely as historical reconstruction, but as an intense exploration of the interplay between large historic forces and political, moral, and spiritual choice. For the central personages in her drama, their souls are, quite literally, at stake.
Her novel, for all its amplitude, has a pressure and an urgency bestowed upon it by commitment to a very specific view of human experience and of man's proper end. It began, she once said, as the story of a servant girl who has a vision of Christ as a man on a donkey. Although I know next to nothing about Prescott's life, it is certain upon the evidence of the book that it expresses a Christian's grief at the rents which tore apart the unity of Christendom, and her scorn for those men and women who accomplished this less from religious zeal than from the human passions of pride, greed, envy and fear. As a hard-bitten agnostic and secularist, the conflicts in Renaissance England between Papists and Protestants are of no larger intrinsic urgency to me than the squabbles of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The wonder of Miss Prescott's book, as of all true art, is that she renders them urgent.
"And throughout," she says in her prefatory note, "over against the world of sixteenth-century England, is set that other world, whose light is focussed, as through a burning glass, in the half crazy mind of Malle, the serving-woman, and in the three cycles of her visions is brought to bear successively upon the stories of the chief characters of the chronicle." Which is to say that the quarrels, rages, and aspirations of her actors are being judged, whether they know it or not, under the aspect of eternity, under the eye of God. But Miss Prescott plays fair: we need not accept the visions. The woman to whom they may have been granted is ignorant and childish and half mad.
As I have said, I know very little about Hilda Frances Margaret Prescott, although I have read her books. A sentence in Twentieth-Century Authors says much, I suspect: "She is unmarried and lives alone with a fox terrier in an eighteenth-century cottage in Charlbury, a short distance from Oxford." An interview quoted there describes her: "She has short brown hair and a face as narrow as those seen in medieval stain-glass windows, with a high-arched nose and fine brown-green eyes."
It is just barely possible that our own world may be coming to an end. Probably not, but it is easy to feel that it may be, late some nights. A friend of Jake Barnes, in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, says that he went bankrupt two ways, first gradually and then all of a sudden. Perhaps that is the way it feels, when it really happens.
Prescott offers us the knowledge of how a world ends. And such is the power of art, of beauty in art, that our response is unanticipated. It is not grief, not even as Robert Aske twists in his chains, or mad Malle floats her paper boats. I like to imagine her, in her cottage near Oxford, contemplating her world with grave and tender concern, but never overwhelmed by what she sees.