The American author Henry James was no great fan of the historical novel, noting in a letter written in 1901 that “you may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought”. His issue lay with the difficulties of representing the soul or consciousness of a person from another era, “the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent”.
Writers of historical fiction would no doubt argue that this is part of the challenge, part of the draw. And James’s “almost” leaves room for those who do it well, in a contemporary context, writers such as Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry, Joseph O’Connor, who excel at the “little facts” of world building while never losing sight of the novel’s true function to relate to readers what it feels like to be alive at a certain point in time. Historical novels that don’t do this, that focus only on a chronology of events, risk reading like historical reports or school texts rather than literature.
Such unfortunately is the verdict on the whole of Thomas Keneally’s latest novel, a mammoth, near 500-page account of the life of the Irish political activist John Mitchel. It comes as something as a surprise, considering Keneally’s long and distinguished career as a writer of historical novels and non-fiction, a back catalogue that includes The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler’s Ark and The People’s Train. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize four times, winning for Schindler’s Ark in 1982, and has twice won the Myles Franklin Award, among many other literary prizes.
For a protagonist as layered and confounding as the real-life Mitchel, there is a curious lack of interiority, of psychological depth
Fanatic Heart, with its title and epigraph from Yeats’s poem Remorse for Intemperate Speech, is a wide-ranging, ambitious story that takes in several historical backdrops: the suffering of Famine Ireland, 19th-century Van Diemen’s Land with its constabulary of convicts, and a bustling, industrial-era America grappling with the problem of slavery. Keneally skilfully depicts these settings, giving a sense of the hardship and the hate, the bitter politics of ownership and oppression.
This seamless conjuring of place is the novel’s chief success, followed closely by Keneally’s shrewd grasp of the historical and political contexts, which in the Irish section cover the Penal Laws, the Liberator Daniel O’Connell, the Famine, the many failures of the UK government and the valiant journalism of Mitchel and his Young Irelander peers in The Nation and subsequently the United Irishman, which ultimately led to Mitchel being sentenced to 14 years of penal transportation.
There is a large cast of historical figures – Thomas Francis Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, Patrick “Nicaragua” Smith, Lady Jane Wilde, to name a few – but these characters read mostly like ciphers that exist to explain the political upheavals and injustices of the day, often through protracted conversations, pages and pages of dialogue with no discernible dramatic arc.
The problem intensifies with Mitchel himself, and to a lesser extent with his beloved wife Jenny, whose wry asides and insights do occasionally cut through the omniscient third-person tedium. But for a protagonist as layered and confounding as the real-life Mitchel, there is a curious lack of interiority, of psychological depth.
As such, the awful paradox at the heart of this book – that Mitchell, the famed Irish freedom fighter, could give his support to slavery when he settled in America later in life – never gets properly interrogated. We get a portrait of a man caught up in major historical events, in major historical arguments, without ever learning how he really felt about them.
For a book with an in-built narrative drive – of freedom fighting, captivity and eventual escape – Fanatic Heart can seem oddly shapeless. The chronology of events is impeccable but less thought is given to dramatic action. The best parts of the novel occur in-scene: the prologue showing the brutal Famine landscape, “the hollowed country girl with her face in a skeletal rictus of pleading, seemingly unable to ask anymore, for anything”; Mitchel’s bid for escape in Van Diemen’s Land, where he is hidden by locals and disguised as a priest; the closing scene where he and his son have corn and stew at a farmer’s house in bucolic Tennessee.
In an elegant afterword, Keneally includes a note to Mitchel: “I must say your classic work Jail Journal, and your Irish and American journalism, are frankly presented here in terms intended to echo but not abuse their original intent.” Sadly Keneally’s success in frankly presenting and echoing these original materials comes at the expense of satisfying fiction.