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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Puritan Death Ethic: Ronan Bennett’s Havoc, in its third year

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 28 November 2004

Exactly a century ago, economist Max Weber wrote a treatise on what’s become known in English as ‘the Protestant work ethic’. The accumulation of capital, Weber proposed, accrued from the commitment of early Protestants towards thrift, industry, and husbandry, inculcated by their interpretation of the Gospel and their diligence to labour hard in this life so as to earn reward in the next. Accompanying these gains, their sincere efforts to erect a ‘city on the hill’, an example for all to follow as their prosperity on earth anticipated a divine approval, moved some, in England by the early 1630s, to advance the attainment of an earthly realm that would presage the New Jerusalem for which they yearned in the afterlife. This is when Ronan Bennett begins his chronicle, based on the extant records of an ‘inquisitor’ in the West Riding of Yorkshire, John Brigge, working as what we today would label as a coroner. A former Belfast IRA volunteer and prisoner, author of not only three previous novels but (unlisted in the credits) co-author of Paul Hill’s memoir Stolen Years, the writer enlivens this fiction with a lively and sustained inquiry into the nature of guilt and the possibility of rehabilitation. His novel cloaks beneath its action and machinations serious meditations upon fidelity, personal and to a cause. Bennett’s main character, apparently based on his doctoral research while he studied after prison at King’s College, London, strives mightily to put Brigge’s crisis of conscience into terms that we, nearing four centuries later, can understand and appreciate.

In his preface to Havoc, the author recalls a society unhinged by threats from abroad—papist armies—and within—traitors, Irish immigrants, gypsies, those natives dispossessed of their lands, Jesuits, and assorted other Catholics. The English with property who resented the burden to their town’s coffers, the threat imposed by vagabonds on the highways, and the ideological dissension against the Commonwealth rallied under leaders promising—under the sign of the laurel branch—to restore the true Faith and retain those strong enough to lock up, exile, or condemn those who sought to undermine their kingdom. ‘Inspired by Scripture, with a burning vision of a just, godly, disciplined community, they determined to uphold the law, reform the manners and habits of the poor, protect true religion, and maintain orthodoxy in word and deed. They were often sincere, energetic, and compassionate; they were also intolerant and merciless (their principles demanded no less).’ (2) Seeking unanimity and no protest, they dedicated themselves to a better land, one that would please their Creator by enforcing an end to humanity’s baser actions and instincts. Bennett implies that such a tale might not seem out of place today. Imams and preachers might agree.

Fairly, the author, aided by his own considerable familiarity with legal theories and the everyday practices of the early 17th c., strives to be fair to both sides in this clash of ideologies. John Brigge himself comes from the recusants, those few who persisted in Catholicism against an England long surrendered to a united Church and Crown. He represents the faction pleading for mercy. Those against him argue successfully and relentlessly for the triumph of justice. In the north of England, those of the laurel are threatened by those brandishing the blue ribbon, a contingent eager to back the former despot, who seeks to reclaim his control of the city against the evangelical reformers who had campaigned for a cleansing of sin on a more populist platform, but who themselves appear more and more tempted towards the rule of the bridle, the stocks, and the gibbet as anarchy from those without home or work, who in their encampments—along with the hidden minions of the Pope--threaten their northern land, three years running.

Bennett eschews stereotypes, at least in his narrative’s start. He subtly presents the battle of Brigge—informed by a Catholic tolerance of sin—against his Protestant peers, who seek to oust him from a role as a city counselor, suspicious of his recusancy, his reluctance to apply the rod and not spoil the child, and his wish to withdraw from municipal contention to succour his wife, recently delivered of their ailing son. In prose crafted painstakingly to convey the thoughts and speech of educated as well as ignorant folks of the 1630s, Bennett carefully shows, in a novel entirely from Brigge’s indirectly expressed consciousness, how visions, dreams, portents, and prayers mixed with half-understood remedies, medical hearsay, and folkloric incantations to construct the mind of a sophisticated early 17 c. Englishman. His use of colloquial dialogue, monologue, and period details portrays a land not unfamiliar to inhabitants of such climes today, but one before the Enlightenment, before scientific breakthroughs, and one still trusting in revelations as much as reason. The picture seen through Brigge’s eyes, painted by Bennett, remains far more reliant upon fevered reveries as much as ratiocination, and this results in an uneven novel. At times, the focus blurs and shifts, as in an art-house movie, away from a determinedly realistic into an impressionistic depiction of a mentality still pre-modern. While the intent is admirable, the changes do deter contemporary 21st c. readers from fully appreciating Bennett’s attempt to faithfully match Brigge’s mental state. The jarring entry, especially as the novel progresses, of nearly magical realism (to use the Latin American fictional equivalent) draws too much attention to the art utilised by Bennett at the risk of too much concentration on the illusionary state suffered by Brigge, upon whom we as readers remain dependent for the entire story.

This shortcoming aside, Bennett exposes a Brueghelian tableau of hideous faces, strange diets, and half-fanciful caricatures as he brings into his novel a mixture of a murder mystery that Brigge must solve, a family drama as he must wrestle with the aftermath of infidelity while caring for his new son, and his own manipulation by the city officials who seek either his allegiance or his ouster. The plot carries you forward, past the genre formulae of a whodunit, into the tension between two visions of how people are to be governed. Implicitly, Brigge’s Catholic tendency to forgive stands a losing battle against the Puritan emphasis upon punishment against the sinner. Brigge, fearing that he cannot resist the majority, wakes one night: ‘He tried to pray, but he could not make himself unafraid. This is man’s true state, he thought, to know fear. This is what being human means, above all else. We are bundles of fear and need. The rest is a mere distraction, a way to deceive ourselves out of our terrors, which we sometimes hide and which we sometimes forget, but we remain afraid. We are all afraid.’ Insensibly, Bennett’s existential modern view merges with that of his 1630s character, steeped in Catholic verities yet terrified by the void.

Later in the novel, as the Puritan contigent closes in around the dissident Brigge, the omniscient narrator steps aside from his mouthpiece to reflect: ‘There is no better way for a man to get an advantage over another than by seeing him in his house with his wife.’ Such commonplaces, rather sinister often, reflect Bennett’s deft ability to conjure up menace and insight neatly. His previous novel, The Catastrophist, set similar tension within the precarious political and natural terrain of Lumumba’s Congo; here, the author takes us into an even more estranged wilderness from our own, if superficially closer to our own landscape.

In the 1630s or the 1960s, however, the essential conflict endures. Brigge asserts that ‘men must have mercy, for without mercy we are savages.’ (172) His opponent, ruler of the city, counters: ‘Without law we descend to the level of the beasts, The law shall decide when mercy is to be given and when it is to be withheld.’ Still, Brigge holds out for humanism, and weakness: ‘The heart decides. The heart informed not by law but by sympathy and love. I am now more than ever convinced that an eye that is sometimes blind sees more justly than one that is sharp.’ (174) But, Brigge’s humanity cannot withstand the force of law and the conspiracies that join those of the laurel and the blue ribbon against him. The city consolidates its power around a coalition between former tyrant and erstwhile progressive, and both assemble their adherents against the Papist fifth column, in its dozens said to be in its ten thousands to overthrow those committed to the establishment of the City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem, the true covenant of the Lord.

Haunted through the story by the admonishment of an Irishwoman whose innocence Brigge seeks to prove, her reminder that Jesus instructed his apostles to go forth ‘harmless as doves’ cannot be aligned against those who also quote Christ’s terrible wrath against doubters and naysayers. Brigge seeks to cling to his version of the Gospels: ‘chaos beats in man’s heart and is vital to it. It pulses its loins, it swims in his dreams. Easier to tame the wind than man, who is as turbulent, capricious, obdurate and selfish as dread and doct professors of religion maintain him to be, but also, which they do less, loving, merciful and selfless. Who knows better what man is that He who created man?’ (209) Like many who strive to spread the healing nature of religious teaching, Brigge becomes trapped by those who lash back with remorseless logic with other verses vowing woe and damnation to those daring to fall from the path of the righteous.

In the end, a deus ex machina, or at least an Act of God in actuarial jargon, frees Brigge from imminent doom if for a short space. From this point on, for me, the energy of the novel downshifted into a more steady, but less gripping pace. Mental states of confusion predominate, and the attention of the protagonist becomes scattered, as the narrative dissipates and the control of Brigge over his situation slips away into the hands of his tormentors and rescuers. In a premonition of future apocalyptic urban fires, London in 1666, Manhattan in 2001, the city in which Brigge faces death erupts into flame. After the rain from heaven supplants the fury from the skies, the narrator tells us that the long-suffering coroner ‘heard the panting of tyranny. He saw that in the town at last all were now united where for so long they were warring and at each other’s throats: the great merchants and wealthy clothiers and drapers and yeomen with poor laborers and spinners and tallow-makers. Some lived well and some did not and some would eat tonight and some would not, but differences of rank, wealth and degree had melted in the fire. All were now united and all would be revenged.’ (236) The storyline then diffuses into a millenarian wish-fulfillment, as the protagonist’s consciousness becomes fuddled. Perhaps Bennett envisions a sequel to carry on the mission of the Irishwoman, now crazed by her incarceration? She leads into the forest a band of pilgrims determined, as if Franciscan penitents or fundamentalist born-agains, to lead a truly evangelical life, outside of stone walls. By the conclusion of Havoc, with no sign of abating in its third year, the unrest continues, as Brigge predicts, and no amount of arrests, persecution, or prosecution seems to diminish criminals or sinners.

To sum up, Bennett, as he had done in his own evocation of imprisonment, The Second Prison, and The Catastrophist—whose most gripping scene remains for me three years after reading its protagonist’s recovered memory of his own arrest and torture in another North, that of Ireland—continues his careful blend of popular, plot-driven storylines with a more thoughtfully depicted array of characters facing moral choice within complicated relationships, sexual and professional. He knows how to pace his fiction well, to engage sympathy while avoiding stereotype, and to use period detail to illuminate larger concerns. Although flawed, the marvelously titled Havoc, in its third year comes heartily recommended to you. And its opening quote remains all too relevant, thanks to Goethe: ‘Mistrust all in whom the desire to punish is imperative’. However noble the cause, humanity, in this novel, writhes hideously under its whip and noose.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

28 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Anthony McIntyre

The Cost of the Failure of Politicians is Immeasurable
Mick Hall

A Provisional Pushover
Tom Luby

Seeing What You Want to See
Eoin O Broin

Puritan Death Ethic: Ronan Bennett’s Havoc, in its third year
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Mairtin O Cadhain
Liam O Ruairc

Please Help Put A Smile On The Faces Of Palestine’s Poorest Children This Christmas
Margaret Quinn

23 November 2004

Dropping the Last Veil
Tommy Gorman

No Place for Silence
Anthony McIntyre

The Vacuum

The Unpopular Front: James T. Farrell then, Margaret Hassan now
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Reflection on an Election
Patrick Hurley

New Work on Perry Anderson
Liam O Ruairc

I, a Collaborator
Dorothy Naor

The Murder of Margaret Hassan
Ghali Hassan

The Orange Order and the KKK
Richard Wallace



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