New novels focus on old New York, Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth I; Seasons of Fear, by Philip McFarland. New York: Schocken. 250 pp. $15.95
By Bruce Allen Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor. The historical novel has gotten a bad name in recent years - since the general availability of paperback books, now that I think of it. We've grown used to lusty romantic sagas wrapped in garish covers that show off vigorous swordplay and straining bodices. We've forgotten how detailed and em-pathic renderings of the past can immerse us in a vanished civilization (the early Middle Ages, for instance, in Charles Reade's ''The Cloister and the Hearth''), or elicit our interest in power politics and military strategy (''War and Peace, '' of course), or show us how human character remains recognizably imperfect and complicated even in unfamiliar times and circumstances (''The Red Badge of Courage''). Three recent novels illustrate some of the strategies and emphases common in contemporary, serious historical fiction. All are well worth reading, and one seems to me a work of major accomplishment and possibly permanent interest. Philip McFarland's Seasons of Fear is a documentary novel set in Colonial New York. The year is 1741, and the central event is a series of fires discovered to be arson and imputed by the frightened burghers of Manhattan to a gang of ''Negro revolutionaries.'' Before the story's events are concluded, a number of the convicted have been put to death, and the community's fear of both ''Negars'' and ''popery'' - the two forces supposedly in league to destroy them - has been eased, and all is deemed well. The novel's basis is historical fact, and McFarland addresses us directly as a narrating historian, sharing the progress of his researches, and describing how he has woven together court testimony, private correspondence, assorted documents, and a wealth of other materials. We feel the fun of assembling, then unraveling, a mystery - but the distancing tactics also produce a contrary effect: We're overly conscious that the material being placed before us is more data than drama. The tale is too much an exercise in procedure, the characters too explicitly chess pieces in a game. None of this seriously damages the novel's readability. Still, ''Seasons of Fear'' disappoints us because it falls short on verisimilitude. In Mad Hatter Summer, Victorian-era scholar Donald Thomas makes one of that period's most bizarre scandals - Lewis Carroll's habit of photographing or sketching young girls in the nude and the suspicions provoked by these innocent affections - the starting point for a most clever and entertaining mystery. The fictional developments include a blackmail plot that involves both a 14-year-old circus girl and a harlot, a murder in which the Rev. C.L. Dodgson (who wrote under the pen name of Lewis Carroll) is suspected, and some ingenious detective work in which the storybook author (who was also a celebrated logician) is himself crucially involved. What makes this novel so much fun are Thomas's ability to suggest Dodgson's curious, complex personality and the various battles of wits which engage him with his young friends, his tormentors, and the delightfully rendered Alfred Swain, a police investigator and something of a Victorian rationalist himself. I was a bit put off by the book's relentlessly ingratiating quality - it labors to charm us, and the labor shows - but it's probably uncivil to quibble about that. ''Mad Hatter Summer'' is pure late-winter pleasure. George Garrett's The Succession is a welcome complement and successor to his memorable fictional portrayal of the final days of that Elizabethan Renaissance man, Sir Walter Raleigh - ''Death of the Fox'' (1971). This new novel, also set in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, turns on the question of who will succeed the aging Elizabeth I, as monarch. That question is considered by a ''succession'' of narrators - some of them historical personages, some totally fictional creations. Their voices reach us from the year 1603 (Elizabeth's last) , from various past ones, and even the future. The first of them is Elizabeth herself, an old woman bemused by the youth, the mindless vitality, astir in her court, calmly awaiting ''the dark, patient, invisible Prince (death)'' who will soon claim her. Then we move backward to 1566, and the narration of a messenger who travels constantly between England and Scotland. (He'll be a recurring figure throughout the novel.) At this point he is entrusted with news of the birth of James, son of Elizabeth's rival, Mary Queen of Scots, who will become James VI of Scotland and eventually Elizabeth's successor, James I of England. Many other voices are heard: Their stories make up a rich portrait of England and Scotland during Elizabeth's reign. A Roman Catholic priest, in letters he never mails, describes how those of his faith suffer from Elizabeth's persecutions and, in effect, foresees his own torment and death. Sir Robert Carey, looking backward from the year 1626, recalls his days as a courtier, his service as a soldier, and the confusion and cross-purposes that follow Elizabeth's death. A band of Scots ''reivers'' (or border raiders) swap anecdotes about the exploits of Scotland's heroes and anticipate the beneficial consequences, should their King James achieve his ambitions. They also tell several of the novel's finest stories, including the tale of a farm boy seduced by a gypsy ''witch'' and a charming one about King James V and a farmer to whom he becomes beholden. The most intriguing sections of the novel describe Elizabeth's intricately ambiguous, teasing letters to her godson James - as read, first, by James himself, then by her secretary, Sir Robert Cecil, who means to know with whom he must ingratiate himself. Further intrigue dominates the narration of a ''player'' who carried information during the abortive rebellion against Elizabeth, led by her one-time favorite the Earl of Essex. The player may also hold damaging evidence against respected citizens who were once unfaithful to the crown. These complicated maneuverings and allegiances are beautifully served by the novel's complex structure. Fur-thermore, the period detail seems invariably right. I am less sure about the style. Garrett's dialogue has marvelous vigor and flavor, and features dozens of vivid localisms (for example, ''Shake a bridle over a Yorkshireman's grave and he'll rise from the dead and steal your horse''). But the narrative and expository passages seem less colorful, stiffer. The prose contains curious brief contrary pulls, like a hitch in a batter's swing - places where it slips into a linguistic hinterland somewhere between Elizabethan and modern English. It's as if, in the effort of imagining this vanished world, Garrett managed everything but a fully convincing approximation of the way its people sounded. A few words about George Garrett. For some 25 years now this busy and productive author (of several novels and volumes of short stories and poetry) has been a tireless teacher, anthologist, and editor, as well as a proselytizer and drumbeater for the work of beginning and younger writers. He is probably personally responsible for a dozen or more literary careers. It is, therefore, the best news imaginable that Garrett has once again produced a splendid novel that reminds us once more of how much we are in his debt.
Mad Hatter Summer, by Donald Thomas. New York: Viking. 310 pp. $16.95. The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James, by George Garrett. New York: Doubleday. 552 pp. $17.95.
Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?