Wednesday, February 28, 2024

An epic tale of the West Country


 by Ben Soton

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett: Macmillan 2023; 752 pp; £25:00 Hbk, £6:00 Pbk

The Armour of Light is the fifth novel set in the fictional West Country city of Kingsbridge.  The previous four include The Pillars of the Earth set in the 12th century; The World Without End, covering the Hundred Years War and the Black Death and the Column of Fire set during the Reformation.  Meanwhile in 2020 Follet wrote the prequel The Evening and the Morning set in the years before the Norman Conquest.     
Follett’s latest novel is set during the Industrial Revolution, covering the period from 1792 to 1824.  Kingsbridge is now a centre of cloth-making; with the inevitable class-struggle between employers and workers.  The novel includes strikes, machine-breaking and in general highlights many of the injustices of the period.
The Armour of Light also highlights religious differences between the Anglican Church, favoured by the Establishment and the Methodists, who were in turn favoured by more progressive employers and some workers.  We  see an element of scandal with members of the gentry having affairs with member of the lower orders and a focus on events abroad; namely the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  To summarise the book could be described as Silas Marmer meets Jane Austin, meets Sharpe.     
The novel is however a product of Follet’s politics; which he describes as centre-left.  Ken Follett, the husband of former Labour MP Barbera Follett, is a committed Blairite and almost certainly a supporter of the present Labour leadership.  The book’s heroes are the better or progressive manufacturers; namely Amos Barrowfield and David Shoveler (known as Spade).  Both men, although committed Methodists, are involved in affairs with female members of the gentry.  The novel’s leading villain is Alderman Hornbeam, a bad employer and harsh magistrate.  Another character portrayed in a positive light is Sal Clitheroe, essentially an early form of trade-union moderate who favours class collaboration.  But her husband Jarge Box, a more militant worker who sympathizes with the French Revolution, is portrayed as a drunken, hot-headed fool. 
Many of the main characters find themselves either on or near the battlefield at Waterloo.  This is an obvious attempt by Follett to promote “national unity” above that of class; a concept rejected by Marxists.  Ironically, at one point in the story Jarge Box argues that the Napoleonic Code may well be a fairer legal system than English Common Law; not so much the drunken fool there.   
Despite its faults The Armour of Light is still an enjoyable read; especially when Follett’s last novel the apocalyptic Never was such a disappointment.  It is well researched and contains interesting and useful historical information.  What is also interesting is whether Follett, who turns seventy-five this year, will write a sixth and final Kingsbridge novel; taking the city into the present day.    

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