In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

20 thoughts on “In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I’m planning on getting around to this one very soon. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it so much, now I’m really looking forward to it.

  2. says:

    Both this author and her books are new to me. Perhaps it’s time, during our enforced shut-in days, I look her up and order IN A DARK WOOD WANDERING, especially this period of history has interested me since my teen years. If nothing else, the cover art draws me. I love a dark background (woods? forest?) with foreground figures illuminated are particularly interesting from an artistic perspective. Years ago, I had a favorite summer dress with a rose print juxtaposed against a black ground. I wore it so much — and washed it so often — that it plum wore out!

    • Helen says:

      If you’re interested in this period I would definitely recommend this book – and yes, it would be a good book to immerse yourself in during a time like this. I like this sort of cover art too. The summer dress sounds lovely!

  3. hopewellslibraryoflife says:

    Very nice review! I read this and loved it. In fact, I read much of it on the plane home from Peace Corps in 1991–I still have it which is rare for me. I usually pass fiction on. I suppose no one I knew then would have wanted to read it! Now that historical fiction is huge more would, I’m sure.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved it too. I agree that historical fiction seems more popular than it was in the 90s, so I’m sure lots of people would enjoy reading this book now.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    This is one of your most wonderfully written reviews, Helen. I share with you that preference for historical novels written in older times. I “finished” my 1949 reading list several years ago but when I learn about a novel I have missed from a finished year, I add it anyway, as I will do with this one.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Judy! I always enjoy writing reviews of books I’ve particularly loved. I’m glad you’re still adding books to the years you’ve “finished”!

  5. Sandra says:

    Katrina’s link has sent me here to read your lovely review of this one, Helen. Having just said on Katrina’s blog that I suspect the length of the book would put me off at the moment, I do love the sound of it. Beautiful language!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s a beautifully written book. I was lucky enough to have read it right at the start of the year when life was still normal! I wouldn’t have the concentration for it now.

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