Saturday, November 11, 2023

Fanatic Heart — Thomas Keneally’s compelling tale of an Irish rebel

 It didn’t occur to me that what was truth for one person might not be true for another – or that the truth as people wrote about it wasn’t always the truth as they’d experienced it

Fanatic Heart — Thomas Keneally’s compelling tale of an Irish rebel

As he did with Schindler’s Ark, the Booker-winning author again weaves a sweeping tale around historical fact 

Between Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stuart Parnell in the pantheon of 19th-century Irish patriots stands John Mitchel: lawyer, polemicist, newspaper editor and sworn enemy of the British crown. His pro-slavery views have tarnished his reputation but, in his day, he was a highly influential figure. Indeed, on arrival in New York, he was greeted by the Napper Tandy Artillery Regiment of the Militia with a 21-gun salute and hailed as “President of our Irish Republic”.
Thomas Keneally has visited Mitchel’s life before in his 1999 non-fiction work, The Great Shame, which covered his transportation to Australia, along with that of Thomas Francis Meagher, the firebrand journalist, and others in the radical Young Irelanders group of the 1840s (as well as those of Keneally’s own and his wife’s Irish forebears, John Keneally and Hugh Larkin). 
In Fanatic Heart, his approach is fictional, although, as in his Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark, he adheres strictly to the known facts. He chronicles Mitchel’s life in three distinct parts: his youth, marriage and freedom struggle in Ireland; his conviction on the specious charge of “treason felony” and his transportation across the world; his eventual escape and residence in the US.
The first part, like the third, is a lightly fictionalised biography. Keneally sketches Mitchel’s Presbyterian background (itself a comparative rarity in the annals of Irish nationalism) and his education at Trinity College, Dublin, followed by his elopement and subsequent marriage to Jenny Verner. He begins his working life as a lawyer in Newry, where his defence of small Catholic landholders in front of “Orange judges” earns him a reputation as a covert Papist. He then returns to Dublin, writes and edits The Nation newspaper, becomes increasingly outraged by the horrors of the Famine and the injustices of British imperialism, advocates rebellion and is put on trial.
As that precis indicates, Keneally’s interest lies in Mitchel’s political attitudes and activities. Fanatic Heart is meticulously researched and full of compelling historical detail, but “heart” is precisely what is lacking. Mitchell’s private emotions are explored only in relation to public events. Other than his love for Jenny and his guilt at his father’s death, he has little inner life. It is telling, moreover, that rather than Mitchel expressing his guilt directly, Keneally has him write to Jenny that “I’ve given my father more grief than all the sisters and young William combined.”
When Mitchel’s life grows poorer, Keneally’s prose grows richer, with a particularly vivid account of the transportation itself. The British authorities, afraid of his inflammatory influence, forbid him any contact with his fellow inmates. On Christmas Day, aboard a prison ship moored off Bermuda, he hears “the noise of a convict theatrical below decks”, of the sort Keneally wrote about in depth in 1987’s The Playmaker, which brings home to him the extent of his isolation. Shortly afterwards, he is sent first to the Cape of Good Hope and then to Van Diemen’s Island, where he is reunited with several of his former Young Ireland comrades and, finally, with his wife and children, who sail out to join him.
Dickens is referenced more than once, and there are times when this compendious novel, with its gallery of eccentric supporting characters — such as Mitchel’s flamboyant colleague and rival Thomas Meagher, the passionate poet Jane Wilde, who wrote under the pen name Speranza (and who later gave birth to Oscar Wilde), and the convict constable Garrett — stands comparison with the master. But in its gripping account of Mitchel’s audacious escape in the outback, where he evades capture up to the very last minute, its models are the adventure novels of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
The final part of the book is set after Mitchel’s move to America, where he settles in New York. It is somewhat clogged with antebellum politics, and it can be hard to chart a course between the various factions at play in the city: Tammany Hall Democrats, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings and Dead Rabbits (although the last two may be familiar from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). Mitchel himself returns to journalism, founding and editing The Citizen, in which he vents the proslavery views that make him such a problematic figure today. He parrots pseudoscientific theories of the inferiority of the black race and justifies his position by claiming that, if Southern slaves were given their freedom, they would be subject to equally debilitating servitude in the factories of the north.
Keneally quotes liberally from Mitchel’s own writings (as he does from Meagher’s speeches and Speranza’s poetry) and he doesn’t shy away from including two of his subject’s most notorious statements: “I deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves . . . ” and “I for my part wish I had a good plantation, well-stocked with healthy Negroes, in Alabama.” While he suggests to Jenny that this may be ironic, neither she nor the reader is convinced. Keneally is far too fine a writer to seek to exculpate his protagonist, but he has no more success in reconciling the contradictions in Mitchel’s radicalism than did Mitchel’s critics at the time.
Keneally clearly felt that Mitchel merited more attention than was possible in The Great Shame, a comprehensive account of the Irish diaspora. Fanatic Heart tells a gripping and resonant story, but it is not fully fictionalised. One wishes that the author had entered as intently into Mitchel’s heart and soul as he does into his mind.

Fanatic Heart by Thomas Keneally Faber £20, 464 pages

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