THE CORONATION by Justin Newland
Matador p/b £9.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
The evolution of human self-perception is a subject of study in itself. Some argue that fundamental cultural change took place around 1200 BC leading us into the Iron Age, and later around 100 BC taking us into the Christian era. Newland takes the view that The Enlightenment of the mid-eighteenth century was another such development, only it failed. He uses this tale to fictionally provide the reason for this failure.
This is an interesting story founded in the horrific circumstances of people living on a Prussian estate in Eastern Europe under the dominion of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years War. As a routine diary of the troubles encountered by Marion, Grafin von Adler of Schloss Ludwigshain during this period, this book stands up on its own. It is a thumping good history. The additional saga of the evolution of human thought married to the early technology of the Industrial Revolution feels like a bonus, even though this is what the story is really all about.
As someone who has also tried to import the development of human thought into fantasy literature, I appreciate this is quite a delicate task. Most readers just don’t get it. Newland seems to be aware of this and describes such events in intense episodes at specific points in the book. Even then it doesn’t quite work, although sympathy for the effort made is justified. The almost unaccountable manner in which The Enlightenment fails in its higher, or should I say, divinely inspired objective possesses a validity of quite extraordinary accuracy. Life can be like that.
There is an integrity to the tale. It starts with a bumper harvest and the thanksgiving for this outcome. Then this marvellous bounty is stolen by the Russian army, leading to an assault on Marion by a senior officer who is only stopped in his violence by a Scottish subordinate named Fermor, who is badly wounded in the ensuing confrontation. Marion ensures he is nursed back to health. A strange relationship develops between the two of them in which Fermor discovers religion and Marion develops an illness associated with the Adler, or Eagle which is commemorated on a religious statue in the estate church. The Eagle is a symbol of divine intent.
Given the nature of the times religious interventions are a regular occurrence in the story, but also secular developments become relevant. There is an amber mine owned by Marion’s brother which uses Newcomen pumps to keep sea-water out of the diggings. Immanuel Kant pops up in Konigsberg to suggest that humanity is moving closer to God and the Swedish biologist, Daniel Rolander, a student of Linnaeus, postulates Homo Sapiens Sapiens, or twice wise man. This is the very stuff of The Enlightenment presented alongside the grubby, trivial struggle of human survival within a wartime economy. Newland is to be congratulated, for this is good work.
Those Newcomen pumps prove as essential to the denouement as does the conclusion to the Seven Years War. It is a good tale in which all ends well, despite the manipulations of the false Doctor Skoda. Fermor speculates at the end wondering how Newcomen resolved his divided loyalties between God and man. As a puritan and Baptist preacher, Newcomen knew that in his work he worshipped God. What more does anyone need?