Half a Crown by Jo Walton
Reviewed by John Clute
15 December 2008
There is not much point pretending we were fooled. The first two volumes of Jo Walton's alternate-world Hitler Wins Small Change trilogy—Farthing (2006) and Ha'penny (2007)—took advantage of some moderately complex gaming with the codes of genre to give narrative juice to an extremely clear-hued but simplistic portayal of a Britain in 1949, eight years after a fascistic junta (in democratic sheep's clothing) has come to terms, via Rudolf Hess, with Nazi Germany in 1941. So these volumes deal with grim matters—a scapegoating anti-Semitism only marginally less savage than that imposed on the Continent; a restriction of privilege (indeed of full citizenship) to the well-born or -connected; a seemingly hysterical marginalizing of homosexuals and other degenerate classes whose effect (after we begin to realize that none of the gay characters who occupy much of the foreground of these tales have in fact had their lives or careers mutilated) seems primarily to generate a culture-wide sense of low-level intimidation—but they deal with these matters somehow lightly. This may be an intended consequence of the fact that comfortingly familiar genres are homaged throughout the telling of the two; or it may be something deeper, or more obscure, or even more threatening.
So we should not have been fooled. The first two volumes of Small Change skate over the meniscus of the horror of the world in a state of something approaching good cheer. Nothing in these two instalments hints that its readers were expected to treat as challenging or problematic the genuine strangeness underlying Walton's clockwork tapestry: the sudden overwhelming triumph of a political system that excludes from effective power or participation not only the working classes and designated scapegoat communities but also the vast middle of the nation, which is effectively invisible and mute (see below) throughout; but more than that, this triumph has been so fixative that Walton's new dystopian Britain hardens instantly without demur into pharaonic rigor mortis: between 1941 and 1949—bar a gradual worsening of conditions for scapegoats—nothing changes, the engines of transformation that had wracked and given hope to the real Britain between (say) 1930 and 1950 are frozen shut, without a word. Under the meniscus, then, utter nightmare: but no one notices. In neither of the first two instalments is there a countervailing voice, nor is there in fact a narrative location for such a voice: no coign and zeugma (see below) where the argument of dystopia can air. It is as though the sudden world of Small Change had been constructed by a swarm intelligence.
A Little Night Synopsis might be useful before we see what happens in Half a Crown, where readers may be expecting Walton to break the silence. In the 1930s, as readers are assumed to understand, Britain did in fact harbour both overt and secret sympathizers with Adolf Hitler; and such a group might plausibly persuade the nation to seek an honourable accommodation with Germany, thus avoiding the intolerable lesion of another conflict as devastating as the 1914-1918 Great War, which had poisoned Europe. Walton also assumes rightly that SF readers will immediately identify the Rudolf Hess Jonbar Point: if Hess's mission is taken seriously—as in one of the twin halves of Christopher Priest's highly complex The Separation (2002)—then a not wholly contemptible peace might be brokered: Priest allows this only by arguing that the Final Solution was not being realized in 1941, and that in any case the Allies had no real awareness that such an obscenity might be in the works. Walton's conspirators, on the other hand, are perfectly comfortable with whatever Hitler might do to the Jews. Her proto-fascists, who are known as the Farthing Set after the country house where most of the action of the first novel takes place, seem more interested in controlling Parliament than in Hitler's maggots, though they are happy that he has indeed invaded Russia, which is full of Reds (Walton's assumption that Hitler would slowly prevail in Russia because of the peace with Britain is not persuasive, but her interest does not really lie in speculations of this sort). The story begins.
Though its narrative structure is unusual, Farthing is in fact a classic detective tale, with a mysterious murder, a country house (Farthing itself), a cast of suspects, a canny detective and a couple less canny assistants. The leader of the Farthing Set, Sir James Thirkie himself, is on the verge of taking the Prime Ministership from the unstable leftist Anthony Eden, but is murdered in the night. Walton's homaging intent is clear in general, though if I were to pick a particular predecessor that her tale had to measure itself against, it would be Michael Innes's Hamlet, Revenge! (1937), a massively intricate mystery involving the death of a claimant to the Prime Ministership at a large country house where (as at Farthing) theatricals are mounted. The very great richness of language and scope—as well as a genuinely bewildering mystery which is triumphantly solved—do in fact mark this novel off from the cheery thinness of Farthing's mise en scene, where the banality of the actual crime featured (it is a sin against homage for Walton not to have tried harder to construct a genuine puzzle to unknot) adds to a sense that Farthing (unlike Innes's intensely realized Scamnum Court) is a cartoon. (I believe Emma Tennant's The Last of the Country House Murders  has also been suggested as an earlier possible model, the main difficulty here being that Tennant—her dedication of the book to J. G. Ballard gives a clue—does a demolition derby job on the form she eats off.) Farthing does give us some sense of an intimidated Britain, through backstory dumps and narrative snapshots; and it lays down a time-bomb important later on.
The tale is told in alternating chapters, each of almost exactly the same length. A third-person narrative follows Chief Inspector Carmichael as he investigates the murder; a first-person narrative gives us one of the Farthing family daughters, who very slowly realizes that her saintly Jewish husband is going to be scapegoated for the crime. Her voice is chatty, slightly faux-naif, incessant, stage-front. Carmichael solves the case: Thirkie's murderer is fellow Farthing-Set member Mark Normanby (along with an unspecified cohort of collaborators); but Normanby, who is himself homosexual, threatens to expose Carmichael's homosexuality if he does not frame the Jew. (This moral and sexual architecture reminds one of Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles , a more darkly conceived Hitler Wins Britain in which a burnt-out-case homosexual ex-consigliere to Britain's homosexual dictator prepares for death.) Carmichael submits, though he retains the incriminating evidence, and secretly arranges for the scapegoat and his wife to escape to Canada. Normanby rides a wave of sympathy into the Prime Ministership.
An aesthetic shock awaits us as we begin Ha'penny: because it almost looks as though we've started the same book again. Differences do soon emerge, though. Some months have passed. The third-person chapters—which exude even more clearly and deliberately than before the brownish, guy ambience of police procedurals like John Creasey's Gideon of the Yard tales—are not modeled on the detective novel but the political thriller; we meet Carmichael again, dealing this time with a plan to assassinate both Normanby and the visiting Hitler at a performance of Hamlet. The alternating first-person chapters are recounted in this second volume by a different young woman, though like Lucy in Farthing she exemplifies the role (or topos) of the naive young visitor-to-utopia who knows nothing of the world and must be told. Viola Lark is an actress, one of the five notorious Larkin sisters (based on the Mitford clan in our world), star of the projected production of Hamlet, and she is coerced into joining the assassination attempt. Anguishedly, Carmichael foils the plot. It might be the case that Walton took Viola's airhead sense of immunity from some character or characters in one of Nancy Mitford's novels (but this is a surmise).
It is not a surprise, perhaps, to open Half a Crown, the final volume and climax of Small Change, and to find that the governessy stichomythia-effect has been enforced once again. In fact, however, there is an initial small thrill at how daringly Walton exposes herself here: because a formal structure this adamant has to pay off, or its costs—the crazing cookycut alternation of Matter and natter; and a real reluctance to immerse oneself for another half-volume in the mind of yet another airhead "female" rendered in terms that (had Small Change been written by a man) could have been seen as misogynist—could mount beyond paying. She is going to have to justify the imposition of this adamantly static structure on the portrait of a Britain stressed to the uttermost, as the Carmichael chapters of Half a Crown hint immediately is the case; she is going to have to show us that the paint-by-numbers structure of Small Change—and its suave but slavish devotion to storytelling models and tricks that seem increasingly deracinated as they multiply—does not reveal itself to be some sort of game, as though she had bet with herself she could pull off a book about Nazi Britain without breaking step. With this apprehension in mind, it is not perhaps reassuring to remember that the first subtitle Walton suggests for the trilogy is Still Life with Fascists.
Half a Crown, it has to be said, starts badly. The two previous volumes featured girlish narrators who were not really that much fun to spend time with; and any lesson about the subordinated position of women in a class-bound semi-Fascist Britain was conveyed very thoroughly indeed in Farthing and Ha'penny. So it is something of a shock to open Half a Crown and to discover that this time round the female narrator is not only girlish but in fact a teenager caught in the coils of teenage conniption country. Young Elvira worries about her complexion, her clothes (see Chapter 13 and elsewhere), about her girl friend, about her slightly uneasy social position (she's Carmichael's ward, so she is not well-born), and about the coming-out season just beginning, at the climax of which she is expected to meet the Queen (a quiver in the plot seismograph registers here). Elvira soon gets girlishly entangled in a complicated virginal flirtation (see Chapter 17) during the course of which she and her best friend virginally sort of cock-tease a dangerous right-wing aristo who wants to marry one or both of them or something like, but more importantly (as far as the merciless ticking of the plot is concerned) he is part of a scheme to topple Normanby and place the Duke of Windsor back on the throne. All of this brings all sorts of plot trouble down on Elvira's head. She is threatened with physical violence. She is arrested (for a moment) then arrested again. She is threatened with torture, and beshits herself, in a moral sense (it is the one passage in her journal I was hoping might delve somewhere, but the stichomythia key on Walton's keyboard switches us back to Carmichael, right on the button).
There is another shock. It soon becomes clear that Half a Crown is set in 1960, but a 1960 uncannily similar to the traumatized though vaguely bucolic Britain of eleven years earlier. Carmichael is now Commander of the Gestapo-like Watch, though with an unchanged cast of subordinates and rivals, and he counters his guilt at doing the government's bidding by secretly arranging for thousands of Jews to escape the country; Normanby remains Prime Minister, and with the intact Farthing Set still controls Britain. Hitler is still in power and still waging war in Asia. The Jews of Britain are in the same trouble they were before, though Carmichael does what he can. Nothing has happened, and nobody has noticed.
It might be, one surmises after a few dozen pages, that Walton is attempting to create for us a vision of what (above) I described as pharaonic rigor mortis: that the appalling Elvira, and the morosely caught-in-amber Carmichael, were victims (and conveyors) of that fixity. It might be that Walton is assaying some narrative analogue to the frozen world so superbly evoked in Katherine Burdekin's (writing as Murray Constantine) Swastika Night (1937), the lesson taught (as Burdekin taught it) being that a Nazi dystopia is not only evil but Ground Zero, that it is, in fact, a Still Life. But still, but still: there is not a single hint in all of Small Change (see below on the failure of dialectic throughout) that Walton actually thinks anything of the sort; and in any case, Elvira is intolerable. Her voice is the voice of a protagonist in a bad YA novel, and a bad YA novel is what that voice turns Half a Crown into; and the second half of the book duly takes its cue from the tossings of plot-stuff necessary to keep things at her level.
Taken to a fascist demonstration where Jews are being beaten bloodily (she hardly notices), Elvira becomes a pawn in the hands of Carmichael's enemies in the police. His rescue of her sets the fuse to some time-bomb plotting; when Normanby has Elvira judicially kidnapped in order to increase his hold over Carmichael (not remembering Carmichael can still prove he murdered Thirkie as per volume one!), all hell breaks loose (as plots go). Elvira escapes durance vile, and comes to terms with the family she had abandoned, and works out a clever scheme to save everybody's bacon. She decides to sneak into the ball where she had been intended to meet the Queen, and when she does meet the Queen to make the secret hand signal that tells the Queen she wishes private audience, at which point she plans to tell the Queen all about what's been going in her (the Queen's) country, and that the Duke of Windsor himself is plotting against her.
All this happens.
The Queen blinked, as well she might. "Tell me about this slowly," she said, and she led me through it all in detail. I don't know how long I was talking to her, but far longer than any of the others had been. . . .
The Queen looked off past me, thinking her own thoughts. "I've been suspecting something like this for a long time, and waiting for more evidence, and to know what my people wanted. I needed to be sure before I made any move."
Just prior to this conversation, Normanby has driven Carmichael too far, and Carmichael has written a letter to the Queen which contains the incriminating evidence. As her conversation with Elvira comes to a halt, an equerry hands her Carmichael's message.
Meanwhile the middle classes of Britain—completely silent since 1941—begin to riot in the streets. They listen reverently to the Queen when she speaks to them all by radio. And it's yah-boo for Nazi Britain. The cards tumble down. The novel ends. There were a few minutes of elatedness—the meeting of Elvira and the Queen almost lifts, for an instant, into Joan Aiken country; and the final sentences of the book almost explicitly echo the last phrases of at least two Dickens novels—but a souffle elatedness: because the truth of the matter is that the ending of Half a Crown must be an insult to any reader who thought Small Change was going to have something adult to submit about the matters it purports to address.
Joan Aiken may have been able to treat the political structure of her Willoughby Chase world as a raree show to transform, but in Joan Aiken the dark remains, the dark remains the medium the light shines through. Walton has no darkness to shadow the garish plot twists that close down Small Change. Elvira's effortless conversion from unthinking anti-Semitism, and the conversion of Britain itself back to normal democracy after nearly twenty years of dystopian oppression and thought-control (the latter never exactingly instanced), may obey the story rules of some of the genres she mimes with such great care; but the lesson conveyed is in fact pretty distressing. What seems to be said here is not only that Small Change is a game (as I've already suggested), but that anti-Semitism and tyranny are similarly a house of cards: that they represent nothing inherent in human nature or the retentivenesses of tyranny that a good plot-twist can't cure. Refusing the dues that (say) Cervantes thought necessarily payable for any tale that jokes with reality, Half a Crown is a freebie comedy.
That it can seem so upon the page is due not only (perhaps) to an inclination on Walton's part to treat Story as though its instruments—its kindly trickeries—were ultimately designed to soothe, but to an absence of any structural/narrative chamber (in the text or in the mind's eye) where a voice of reason or passion might be heard uttering a thought sterner than the Story that gives it voice. As there is no middle class or middle-class institution in the novel—no clerisy, no press, no television, no Oxford or Cambridge, no book worth reading that someone hid long ago on a secret shelf—it may seem unimportant that Small Change offers no coign or enclave where, out of the wind of the plot, the arguments that substrate any utopia or dystopia—or any alternate history written to some point—could be aired. There is a central moment in many novels of ideas when the born-rebel or visitor-to-utopia is taken into the confidence and into the secret chamber—a zeugma that is catnip for writers of this kind of novel—of some secret master, where he, or his Inquisitor, or the Speaker for the Opposition, can engage with that protagonist, and us, and expound the world from within the within. Small Change has no secret chamber where words can be spoken, it is closed to discourse, it cannot be defended or condemned: because the inside of the book is vacant. No defense of Nazi Britain is proffered (Normanby lacks only a wax moustache to tell us that he is nothing but a Bad Baronet), and no assault; more seriously in terms of the telling of Story about the excruciations of history, there is no change of mind, there is no epiphany, there is no treason. Given our historical condition, the absence of the last is probably the most damning. As Walton's version of the Hitler Wins novel has no room for thoughts, she cannot allow the sour—the ubiquitous—taste of the trahison des clercs into Small Change. She cannot allow the cost of dystopia into a tale in which dystopia dissolves, like the Wicked Witch of the West, as soon as Queen Elizabeth II opens her mouth.
What can be learned from a story without treason?