| Aphra Behn
The Empress of the Last Days By Jane Stevenson, Jonathan Cape, £ 10.25
Jane Stevenson blends fiction and scholarship in The Empress of the Last Days to weave an intricate historical romance set in the cloistered corridors of academia. Sifting through disintegrating foolscap, she breathes life into the recesses of 17th century Dutch local history, in a bid to rescue forgotten lives from oblivion.
It centres around three enthusiastic and idealistic young scholars, Michael, Corinne and Theodoor, who believe “the past is never dead but only sleeping, no cause, however lost, can die gently, and no dream is ever wholly gone by morning”. The discovery of a new play by Aphra Behn, perhaps the first female writer published in English, sets them off on an investigation into her eclectic life as playwright, spy, poet and novelist. Behn had had a string of husbands and lovers, and was fascinated by the Othelloesque figure of an African king in Europe, now a slave — a theme Behn would revisit throughout her career, most famously in the novel, Oroonoko.
Tracing a genealogical network of obscure personalities across continents, the three dig out the details of the life of the African king, Pelagius, who landed in Holland in the 17th century, married a first cousin of James I and fathered a love-child. As they explore intertwining strands of human history and dynastic complexities, they find that it is a young Afro-Caribbean woman living in Barbados, who now has a serious claim to be considered the rightful queen of England.
For Stevenson, academic research is either a hotch-potch of informed surmise or sheer fluke, involving long hours in the library poring over manuscripts. The three central characters are all rather diligent and sincere, qualities that often lapse into the earnest and staid. The passages of pedestrian dialogue sometimes become slightly turgid and worthier-than-thou, while the author’s clipped, polite, little-Englander tone often sounds a tad too correct and matronly. The slightly laboured account of Michael’s friendship with a second generation Jamaican-Londoner offers a convenient, if slightly trite, contemporary echo to his research.
Colonialism and its repercussions are examined at length, through the somewhat incongruous agency of a black philosopher and his son, a priest in 17th century Holland, who shed light on the early history of black communities in Europe. The illicit “black amour” involving a member of the European royalty finds its counterpart in Caribbean history, with affluent freed slaves beginning affairs with the downtrodden white community, so as to secure better rights.
Depictions of Oxford’s antique colleges, the galleries of the Upper Reading Room full of snooty undergraduates, even the curious ritual of eating at high table sporting Batman costumes, reveal an archaic ivory-tower world. The petty politics of Oxford emerges in the running academic battle between the conservative guardians of the literary canon — including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Pope, Dryden, Defoe among others — and the reformists, who want to modernize the syllabus. Then there is the cut-throat politics to secure limited funding, which prompts Corinne to withhold and even conceal new findings from her co-workers. This reluctance to share information — and thus cede power — gives the lie to the apparently idealistic enthusiasm of the scholars engaged in a collective endeavour. But Corinne and Theodoor too are unaware of Michael’s discoveries and his plans for a momentous encounter with the young Bajan professor, who is distantly related to Pelagius.
Arriving in the lush tropical idyll of Barbados, where locals sit around in rum shops surveying a glittering sealine, Michael finds himself increasingly drawn to the woman he has traced from a library in Middelburg. The deepening sympathy between the two blossoms into romance as they tour the island. Yet the somewhat intellectually-minded seduction scene is largely unconvincing, with the dour and straight-laced Michael’s tedious conversation short on humour and high on self-righteousness. By his own repeated admission, Michael is “not a casual person”.
The predictably “explosive” impact of the story in the British press sets off a fierce Republican-Royalist debate and raises questions about the controversial nature of hereditary monarchy. In an ironic twist, Stevenson’s louche, languid Bajan novelist, Natty, whom Michael patronizes, emerges as the novel’s principal creative exponent. She promises to write a fictional account of the events, which have the traditional happy ending of a prospective marriage.