The Wilding is a barely furnished house. It has good solid walls, and wide windows, and nicely proportioned rooms. The light comes in strongly, and is kind to what it falls upon. It is airy and pleasant and everything in it is of good construction. It has all the potential in the world. But there is no denying that things are missing from it; as it stands, it is just a shell that echoes. More than anything else historical fiction needs an authenticity of atmosphere to work well. Sometimes the authenticity comes from character, as it does in Wolf Hall; sometimes it comes from setting, as it does in The Little Stranger. Creating it is a species of alchemy, and without it the whole enterprise is hollow. Maria McCann's second novel doesn't have it, and that is a shame.
The plot promises all good things: it is 1672, and Jonathan Dymond is an itinerant cider-maker who spends autumn and winter on the road with his portable press. He is young - my age, 26 - and carefree. His family are well-established, if not wealthy, and he is the unmarried and only son of devoted parents. If there is any discomfort in his life, it is his inability to settle on the right woman to marry. But there is no rush, all the time in the world. That is until his uncle Robin dies suddenly, leaving behind him a garbled letter that signifies a guilty conscience and a dark secret. Pursued by nightmares and determined to lay his uncle's ghost to rest, Jonathan finds himself embroiled in a decades old scandal involving his widowed Aunt Harriet and her estranged sister, Joan. Narrated by Jonathan himself, this story trots along at a steady pace, revelations leaking out at regular intervals in all the usual ways: in letters, and words spoken in passion or in rage. I can't say much more without spoiling it, except that the narrative twists, when they arrive, are of the usual and anticipated kind. You can tell that McCann very carefully marked out of the foundations of her house before she laid the first stone; it feels very orderly and gentile for a novel supposedly about dark secrets and heinous acts.
At first I thought it was the little historical things that were putting me off it. So, for example, the book is set in the seventeenth century but God is hardly mentioned in its first two-thirds. Jonathan is apparently unaware that his whole world and every institution in it is built upon the Church. For a narrative about mortal sin in which illicit sex plays a very large part there is not enough about the moral policing of communities, and certainly not enough personal piety. Jonathan may not be a Puritan - his family was Royalist in the war - but he could hardly have been an atheist either. This was the period during which the ecclesiastical visitations and courts were at the height of their influence, before the Toleration Act, and using every tool at their disposal to control the personal lives of ordinary citizens. When McCann mentions the constable but says nothing about other parish officials; and when she has a minister enter stage left to look threatening but makes no reference to the diocesan authority that he represents, it feels wrong to me. It feels as though the story has no depth; step through the veil of the plot and there is no world beyond it.
Then it occured to me that it was character itself that was the real problem. I had a difficulty with Jonathan from the beginning. I couldn't buy into him. He is a grown man of the world, who spends weeks away from his natal home, and yet remains the object of his mother and father's caresses and kisses as though he was still a little child. He knows almost nothing about women, even less about sex, and barely seems to have felt aroused in his life. This is all necessary if the plot is to work; he has to be something of a simpleton otherwise everything would turn out differently. He has to seem older in years than his character feels in sense, and I think it is too much manipulation for his weak personality to bear. Sometimes McCann has him say clever things that made me smile:
...in weighing a man's opinions, we should weigh along with the words the character of the speaker. A writer is always an unknown quantity, never more so than when the writer is a woman. It is a deceitful sex.
This is a playful thing for a female author to put into the mouth of her seventeenth century hero, and it as at times like this that Jonathan is closest to sounding like he comes from the seventeenth century. The rest of the time, however, he speaks and acts like a young man of more recent years. He and his family are very modern in their thinking, and in their expressions. (They even have an 'office', a rather unlikely room in the house of yeoman who doesn't even own a horse.) More than that though, and forgive me for saying it, but he is bland. The human equivalent of an inquisitive labrador puppy. He keeps doing stupid, even damaging, things that should change and confuse your perceptions of him, but his dutiful nature keeps bouncing you back to where you started from. This shouldn't be, because Jonathan has his hand in some rather nasty and degrading events in the course of the book, yet his goodness is unassailable. The same is true of his father and mother. It does begin to feel like an episode of the BBC's Lark Rise to Candleford. The darkness is never going to last past the end credits and the idyll is always breaking through. (For those who haven't seen this show: imagine the most syrupy, sentimental rural setting you can, in which all the characters live simple, mostly blameless existences, interrupted occasionally by a soft scandal or a practical joke gone wrong.)
After a while though I realised it was something else, something more fundamental that lay behind my uncertainty about the novel. As a conceit The Wilding is too neat by far. It doesn't have any cracks. At first it looks as though there will be a few. There is a young woman, a hard unyielding vagrant called Tamar who is temporarily taken in as a servant by Jonathan's aunt Harriet. She has what it takes to add authenticity to the plot, because her character is impenetrable and other people cannot read her. They cannot tell whether she is hard as a stone, or soft-bellied under her shell, and it is just as difficult for the reader to interpret what she says as it is for Jonathan. This is necessary. She adds that element of alienation that is essential in historical fiction if we're to believe in the time-shift. It isn't long though before all is revealed. In the end there is nothing that we don't know about Tamar, or the circumscribed world in which she has lived. The plot has too many clean lines like this and not enough dusty corners: it begins and then it ends. There is no sense (except the most superficial) in which it carries on and lives beyond its pages, in which it is part of a longer, broader, deeper story of its time. There is nothing left to pick at when it's over. This is despite the fact that it is staged at one of most politically and culturally controversial periods of England's history.
None of which should be taken as a statement of outright dislike. I can't condemn the novel entirely. On the contrary, on some cosy reticent level I actually quite enjoyed it. McCann is a competant writer, and her prose is undemanding. I think the problem only comes when I try to see The Wilding as more than a way to spend a few pleasant and forgettable hours. When I hold it up to the light I feel I can see right through it.