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Phantom Observations

According to Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott was read to excess among the gentlefolk of the Southern states, who imbibed from him outdated notions of chivalry and honor. It may be so, but Scott is read today—if indeed he is read at all—for very different reasons. In spite of all his local color and sometimes quaint diction, Scott can still give us, as no other writer can, a sense of immersion in the world of the past. This is largely a question of his prose—calm, uniform, reassuring, wholly and inconspicuously confident. No matter what dramas and sensations the past may hold, we are, as it were, in safe hands. For readers still devoted to him, and there may be more than is usually realized, he has become not only the least troubling but the most supremely aesthetic of novelists.

And there is a sense now in which history and aesthetics can find a natural home together. Virginia Woolf, like her father a great admirer of Scott, produced a fantasy on one of his themes in her little novel Orlando; and Orlando has lately been not only popular but influential, a cult and a model for many women writers. Both Orlando and Scott come very much to mind as one turns, with the same peculiar sort of dreamy pleasure the old Wizard of the North can still bestow, the pages of Rose Tremain’s long novel Music and Silence. Here too history and aesthetics have joined, or rather have been brought together with great and artful deliberation.

Her subject is the life and times of King Christian IV of Denmark. A monarch of heroic stature and high military ambitions, he was also impelled by the contemporary Renaissance model of the Complete Man, equally at home on the battlefield, in the arts, and at the courts of princes. Best remembered of the Scandinavian monarchs of the period, he reigned for a long time, covering much of the reign of Elizabeth I of England, that of her successor James VI of Scotland and First of England, who married Christian’s cousin, and of James’s ill-fated sonCharles I, who lost his head in 1649.

Christian’s reign was colorful and adventurous, dazzling at first but ultimately disastrous. He invaded Denmark’s old rival and enemy Sweden, but failed to capture Stockholm and was eventually compelled to retreat, losing all the provinces of South Sweden which he had gained, and to which Denmark made a historic claim. To assist the King of Bohemia, who had married his niece, the beautiful “Winter Queen,” Christian joined the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War, and marched the Danish forces into the heart of Germany. Here he was catastrophically defeated by those cunning and able Catholic generals, Tilley and Wallenstein. So great was the reverse that Denmark was itself then invaded by the enemy, and in 1629 Christian was forced to make a humiliating peace.

That was not the end of the King’s misfortunes. He involved himself in another war with Sweden, this time with Queen Christina, and lost the naval dominion of the Baltic that the Danish fleet had previously held. By now old and ill, he sank under a complication of disorders, a tragic and yet towering historic figure, and one who seemed likely, in Shakespeare’s words, to have “proved most royally” when he ascended the throne. Hamlet, which is incidentally a study in Scandinavian courts and kingship, as well as in the futility of battles generally and Baltic battles in particular, was composed, ironically enough, when Christian was in his prime and in the first flood of his success.

All this, then, is the background of Rose Tremain’s novel, but do we hear anything about it from her? We do not. Her novel contains a single vague reference to the invasion of Jutland, where the conquerors build new roads to accommodate their cannon and cavalry. Otherwise the plot for her is as silent as it becomes at Hamlet‘s own ending. For her, history is not even a matter of aesthetics, as it became so memorably and magnificently for Scott. His great novel Quentin Durward gives us a figure comparable in some ways to Christian, the cruel devious and learned Louis XI of France, who struggled so long and ultimately so successfully against his tempestuous rival, Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Yet Music and Silence gives us not only an aesthetic but what might once have been called a purely feminine view of history. Indeed its author’s intention seems to have been for it not to be like history at all, but a contemporary or rather a timeless and prolonged dream sequence, emphasized by the continuous use of the historic present (“Queen Sophie holds her head in her hands, feeling the bones of her skull”) a device which in the end becomes exasperatingly over-insistent.

All Rose Tremain’s novels have had the same tendencies and probably the same intentions. She has taken on similar subjects before, as she did in her novel Restoration, set in the English past. But her purpose seems to be to use the past as a convenience for her own peculiar brand of literary intimacy: in short, to dehistoricize the historical novel. Scott himself, oddly enough, was doing something not so very different by converting history into a vast field of aesthetic enjoyment; but at least Scott supplied his readers with a great deal of history in the conventional sense, and very brilliantly and perceptively he did it. In Rose Tremain’s copious pages, however, the historical novel receives its deathblow. The modern world, and our own superior sensibilities, cannot be bothered with it anymore. Let history be folded up, and turned into personal feeling.

Those personal feelings, exemplified in the numerous characters of the novel, are what gives life to Music and Silence. The King does little except have severe stomachaches and schemes for getting more gold—perhaps from his mother, the dowager Queen Sophie, who is thought to have a great deal of it tucked away? Gold indeed, and its concealment, are her own form of sensibility. From the point of view of the novel, she needs no other:

As soon as Christian had left, Dowager Queen Sophie took up a lamp and descended to her cellar. A chill of early autumn was in the house and the air of the dark store where her money lay was so cold that she could see her own breath as she prised the lid from a barrel and ran her hands through the gold coins brimming there.

In her gold lay all the passions of her past and all the consolations of her future. The soundless augmentation of its value was the only thing left on earth that could thrill her. She would defend her treasure with her life.

But now, as she stood there with her lamp and saw her own ghostly shadow on the wall, she knew, suddenly, that it was not well enough hidden from the world. Until today, she had thought it perfectly safe, but it was not. For if Christian so chose, he could send men to search the castle. With picks and axes they would break the locks on the cellar door and up into the pitiless light of day would come the barrels and the piles of ingots. She would try to preserve and defend them, but she would be told that they were forfeit, by the King’s command. From that moment her existence would cease to be anything but heartache and terror.

So now, with her ceruse and powder on, she lies on a day-bed and dreams of a pit dug deep into the granite foundations of Kronborg. She herself, under cover of the long Danish night, would bury her gold there, ingot by ingot, sack by sack. With her own hands she would shovel earth over it and then command that it be filled in and covered over like a grave, and in time grass and weeds (and even trees) would grow in the earth and no one but she would know where the pit was nor what it contained.

The other characters are similarly simplified. Peter Claire, expert lute player from Suffolk, England, has arrived not only to play for the King but to be the “angel” who will comfort his many dark moments. But Peter has fallen in love with Emilia, handmaid of Christian’s cross, tiresome, and unfaithful Queen Kirsten, who occupies herself and the reader by writing a diary (not, unfortunately, a very interesting document) relating her hopes and her encounters with her handsome lover, whom we never get to meet. Peter’s love for Emilia is visualized in images of great beauty, some of them involving birds in the royal aviary:

Beyond the vegetable garden at Rosenborg stands the King’s aviary. It is tall and airy, and made of iron. Golden pheasants perambulate round it, as if measuring and remeasuring its dimensions with their trailing tail feathers. High above them fly bullfinches, yellow-hammers, starlings and parrots. On the ornate roof flutters a flock of white doves.

It is here, in the lacy shadow of the aviary, that Emilia has agreed at last to meet Peter Claire. And so he waits, watching the birds, but half turned towards the direction from which Emilia will arrive. The afternoon has been warm, but now, at five o’clock, there is that faint, glittery chill in the air that warns of autumn, that speaks to the human heart of endings and departures.

And Peter Claire is filled with the certainty that no more time must be lost in his secret courtship of Emilia Tilsen. He knows now that he did not come to Denmark to play his lute, not even to take on his role as the King’s angel. He came to Denmark to discover his own worth, to understand what he might be capable of, and Emilia is the mirror in which he has set eyes on his own goodness.

The blue is being bleached from the sky, the circling doves an exemplary white against its aspiring whiteness, and Peter Claire is moved by the feathery beauty of these shapes and colours.

Many minor characters, such as Francesco Ponti, Italian manufacturer of the finest paper in the world, come and go. Often in the King’s thoughts, and moving through the novel’s many bemused or enchanted pages like Hamlet’s ghost, is the king’s lost boyhood friend Bror Brorson; but once again we have no access to this much-loved visionary being, to what he was like or why his hold over the King should have been so great.

These matters seem indeed like entries in the private notebook, justly termed by the King his Phantom Observations, “in which he writes down the thoughts and meditations which occasionally come into his mind uninvited.” So much that seems uninvited but also strange and beautiful and above all intimate—although only thoughts, never bodies—seems to fill the book that the reader is left with the impression that it could go on indefinitely. Why stop there? Thoughts and feelings never do. Virginia Woolf allowed Orlando not only to become both sexes but to fade ethereally and deliciously away among the bustles and bombazines of Victorian England, after he (or she) has been conceived and inspired in the glitter and gallantry of an Elizabethan court. Similarly Rose Tremain’s characters, belonging intensely to place and to an atmosphere of place but not to time, could easily metamorphose themselves through changing centuries of Danish castles and countryside, ending up perhaps among the bourgeois restaurants of Copenhagen, where Kierkegaard sits, dines, and satirizes.

At one moment the King pulls himself together, as it were, and founds a new town. Old Oslo, the ancient Viking settlement at the end of one of the longest fjords in Europe, has recently burned down. Norway, whose Viking kings and aristocrats long ago bled themselves to death in civil wars, is now a poor peasant country ruled by prosperous Denmark. So the King will go out in his great ship the Tre Kroner and found a new town at the top of the fjord, beside the old. It will be laid out on scientific Renaissance principles and will be called Christiania. The silver mines of Norway will be plundered to fill the Danish coffers.

The Tre Kroner is saluted by three guns and she sails into Christiania.

Commissioned by the King and designed by him with the help of Dutch architects, this new town deep in the fjords, at the furthest point of the Skagerrak’s reach, is a source of pride to him. It was intended to be an orderly place and orderly it has remained. The streets are straight and the citizens, herded into the town from Otter Island, appear willing—as far as King Christian can ascertain—to walk upon the freshly laid cobblestones in straight, unintoxicated lines. The harbour is deep and the ships berthed there tidily arranged. Christiania smells of fish and of resin, and of the salt wind.

A great crowd of people gather round the King as he disembarks from his marvellous ship. The Tre Kroner will wait there to sail him home, while the geniuses of the mine supervise the extraction of silver from the hills of the Numedal. Then the ship will return to Christiania and wait a second time. It will wait for the silver to arrive. As the ore is stowed into the hold, soldiers will be put on permanent watch down there in the darkness. In Copenhagen the machinery of the Royal Mint will be oiled and repaired. A new likeness of the King (older, heavier about the jaw and with a look of increased anxiety in the eyes) will be struck, awaiting its impress on hundreds of thousands of dalers.

The people of Christiania press forward in the cold morning. They want to touch the King. They hold up their children for him to bless. Some of them remember him coming to Norway as a boy with his father King Frederik, and his mother, Queen Sofie, and visiting the craftsmen’s guilds. They recall that the word “shoddy” became fearful and entered their nightmares. But they are impressed on this cold morning by the vastness of him. In his tall boots and his great brocaded cape, he seems like a giant out of the old legends. “Sir!” they call. “Sir! Sir!”

A giant out of the old legends” would not have been an adequate description for Scott, who would have reveled in an ironic comparison between the Norwegian hero of long ago, King Olaf Tryggvason in his huge warcraft the Long Serpent, and the King and the ship which in history have supplanted the old Vikings’ dominion over Oslofjord. Music and Silence ignores all that, just as it neglects the singular historic fact that James I, then the young king of Scotland and son of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, was married to Anne of Denmark in Christian’s fine hall and church, at the first celebration to be held in his glittering new town.

The reader may be hoping to learn something of lutecraft, for Peter Claire is not only a leading figure in the novel but the finest lute player of his age. If so the reader will be disappointed, for music is a spirit and a suggestion throughout, without benefit of technical explanation. Never mind. So hypnotic are Rose Tremain’s seductive paragraphs that we are borne along without effort in a world which is neither fact nor fiction but has the strengths of both, with a uniquely sensitive imagination at work. And though we may not learn much of the lute, we have a lesson in the uses to which music may be put in a king’s nursery, where a trumpeter would be placed outside Christian’s room to play a melody that would “chase away the child’s terrors” when he had nightmares. Few readers of Music and Silence will, I suspect, be disappointed in it, and they only the most resolute of historians. Rose Tremain’s novel has its own kind of enchantment, and makes of the past what is essentially a world of its own.

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