In a Dark Wood Wandering - Hella S. Haasse, Anita Miller
Writers have a natural reason to find the minds of other writers interesting—hence, the proportion of literary figures represented among the heroes of biographical novels is high compared to the general population. Hella S. Haasse, in this case, was attracted by Charles d’Orléans (1394 –1465), the author of celebrated poems. There was so much more to fill a 600-page novel than just the writer’s inner life, however; few poets have the fortune to be a royal prince of France, or the misfortune to live through a particularly troubled time in the history of the country.

This was a time when for a little while it seemed that France might cease to exist in its own right, with the king of England claiming its throne and the Duke of Burgundy, who controlled large parts of its territories, declaring independence from the crown. More importantly, France had been terribly impoverished by misrule and internal strife among the great feudal lords. But though it did not become apparent immediately, there was a fundamental shift of power taking place, with the feudal lords inevitably losing their importance in national affairs in favor of royal and economic power, just as their chivalric style of military operations was now obsolete. (Haasse has King Louis XI explain all this to Charles d’Orléans in a speech at the end of the book.)

During this pivotal century, Charles was a passive observer, both because he did not have the skill to intervene effectively, and because he spent 25 years a prisoner in England, having been captured at the battle of Agincourt. This allows Haasse to not focus too narrowly on the fortunes of the house of Orléans, important to Charles but ultimately barely relevant to France, and portray larger developments which the hero would have attracted attention away from if he’d been more dynamic.

The political aspect of the novel is interwoven with an introspective account of Charles’s mental and emotional life. These are not two independent matters, being as Charles’s ideas and poetry are profoundly affected by observing the troubles of his country, as well as by his own many sorrows and few joys. However, in the final conversation with King Louis which I already alluded to, when Charles attempts to sum up what he has learned about life, the two men cannot understand each other. Both points of view have nonetheless been carefully explored in the book; it is up to the readers to synthesize them, if they can.

Haasse writes in a plain, un-clichéed style that allows her ideas to come across clearly; she manages to impart the necessary masses of historical information to the readers in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Having a great length of time and many developments to cover, she necessarily writes rather briefly of numerous episodes that would be interesting in themselves, and characters come and go quickly; though distinctive enough, important personalities are portrayed in broad strokes only. One fault that I can find with her pacing is that she develops the beginning of the novel much more fully than the end, with a very long prologue and first chapter which are focused on Charles’s father; although much necessary information is imparted here, the initially slow, then accelerating pace unbalances the novel somewhat. On the whole, it is a thoughtful, informative, and involving work.