Classics Reissued: The Fifth Queen

Keeping Up with the TudorsThe Fifth Queenby Ford Madox FordVintage, 2011The pretty re-issue of Ford Madox Ford's great "Fifth Queen" trilogy of slim novels, written between 1906 and 1908, conform to no anniversary except the hope of money: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is a rising tide that might well float a few Tudor galleons, and it shares with Ford that most memorable character, Thomas Cromwell. The Cromwell stalking through both Mantel's book and Ford's trilogy (collected by Vintage - same as by Ecco back in 1986) is much the same man - blunt yet cunning, brutal yet sensitive, and possessing a clearer eye for absolute rule than the corpulent king he serves:

'God is above us all,' he answered. 'But there is no room for two heads of a State, and in a State is room but for one army. I will have my King so strong that ne Pope ne priest no noble ne people shall here have speech or power. So it is now; I have so made it, the King helping me. Before I came this was a distracted State; the King's writ ran not in the east, not in the west, not in the north, and hardly in the south parts. Now no lord nor no bishop nor no Pope raises head against him here. And, God willing, in all the world no prince shall stand but by the grace of this King's Highness. This land shall have the wealth of all the world; this King shall guide this land. There shall be rich husbandmen paying no toll to priests, but to the King alone; there shall be wealthy merchants paying no tax to any prince nor emperor, but only to this King. The King's court shall redress all wrongs; the King's voice shall be omnipotent in the council of the princes.'

That's Cromwell developing his vision of a pacified England for the trilogy's main character, Katharine Howard, and it's from the first volume of Ford's fantastic trilogy (as you might have divined from those latinate 'ne's), but the taut, agnostic tone of it all might just as easily come from Mantel's book a century later, as might the pair's exchange immediately following Cromwell's little speech:

'Ye speak no word of God,' she said pitifully.'God is very far away,' he answered.

Mantel's book was justifiably heaped with critical praise right from the beginning, so the comparison does Ford no disservice - in fact Vintage is surely hoping it will help him, especially since his Tudor books were comparatively neglected in his own day. Graham Greene offered a positive, if breezy, note of praise, and a generation later, William Gass summoned his full payment's worth of enthusiasm:

The Fifth Queen is like Verdi's Otello: made up of miscalculations, mismaneuver, and mistake. Motive is a metaphor with its meaning sheathed like a dagger. It is one of Shakespeare's doubtful mystery plays. Even though it includes clowns who berate one another, they make no successful jokes, and The Fifth Queen remains relentlessly tragic. It must be read with the whole mouth - lips, tongue, teeth - like a long slow bite of wine. For prose, it is the recovery of poetry itself.

This is Gass in full throat, of course, so not to be entirely trusted. Even so, those hyperboles don't just spontaneously generate: Ford's three volumes bristle with period life and the same kind of over-contemplating intelligence he he brought to all his writing (including his for-pay book reviews, which he did in an unending stream, under his own name and assumed names, pretty much every waking moment of his adult life). His Kat Howard is something of a paragon - hardly the modern estimate of the character - but it's his Cromwell who dominates these pages, a hard, self-made man as formidable as anybody Mantel could create:

His hard glance travelled along the wall like a palpable ray, about the height of a man's head. It passed over faces and slipped back to the gilded wainscotting; tiring-women upon whom it fell shivered, and the serving men felt their bowels turn within them. His round face was hard and alert, and his lips moved ceaselessly one upon another.

Ford wrote his books at a time when amateur historians such as himself routinely crafted diversions in the form of Horatian satires, Celtic-sounding songs, and carefully-researched Tudor fiction. There's a wilfulness in the end results that has nothing commercial about it at all (although it very often brought commercial success, as with W. H. Ainsworth's Windsor Castle, a favorite of Ford's), a period veracity that can sometimes leave the poor reader scratching his head:

'Young lad,' the gatewarden said, 'I'm as fain to swear my mother bore me - though God forbid I should swear who my father was, woman being woman - as that Thomas Culpepper have not passed this way. For why: I'd have cast my hat on high or spat on the ground. And such things done mark other things that have passed in the mind of a man. And I have done no such thing.'

Ford also too frequently indulges in a researcher's fondness for etymology, which of course brings his narrative to a grinding halt whenever it happens:

Therefore, he had it that all women were to be humbled and held down - for all women were traitors, praters, liars, worms, and vermin. (He made a great play of words between wermen, meaning worms, and wermin and wummin).

But these peccadilloes vanish in the face of the sheer tornado force of these novels' storytelling. Time and again, Ford will whip his disparate elements into such a fine froth of vision and action that fans of historical fiction will find themselves swept along, as in the brief passage where poor Katharine's arrogant lover Thomas Culpepper's mad flight through London to Hampton Court is evoked:

In the Poultry he knocked over a man in a red coat that had a gold chain about his neck; on the Chepe he jumped his horse across a pigman's booth - it brought down Hogben, horse and pike; three drunken men were fighting in Paternoster Street - Culpepper charged above their bodies; but very shortly he came through Temple Bar and was in the marshes and fields. Well out between the hedgerows he was aware that one galloped behind him. He drew a violent rein where the Cow Brook crossed the deep muddied road and looked back.

This new Vintage re-issue features that house's usual excellent binding and paper quality, as well as a make-weight Introduction by A. S. Byatt that need not detain the curious reader for more than a glance. And oh, the rich rewards that await such readers - this book, one of the best Tudor novels ever written, deserves every attempt by the virtuous to get it some immortality.