by Jo Walton
Tor Books, 2006
Farthing is an old British coin that is valued at a quarter of a penny (and, hence, virtually worthless) as well as a district in the English county of Gloucestershire. In Jo Walton's Nebula-nominated novel, Farthing, it also refers to a group of loosely connected English aristocrats who broker peace with Hitler and end British involvement in World War II, leading Winston Churchill to proclaim, "The Farthing Peace isn't worth a farthing" (p. 22).
We're in alternate-history land; Walton's "what-if" premise is based on the bizarre case of Nazi Rudolf Hess who, acting unilaterally without authority from Hitler, in 1941 parachuted into Scotland to negotiate peace terms with noblemen he believed opposed Churchill. In Walton's telling, the Hess initiative succeeds. Farthing takes place eight years later, depicting an England isolated from totalitarianism and genocide on the Continent, its own baser inclinations rooted in a rigid class structure presenting ripe opportunities for homegrown fascism.
Walton's previous novel, Tooth and Claw, was a Victorian novel of manners modeled on Anthony Trollope, with the difference that the characters are dragons. At first glance, it may seem as if Walton is hopping to another genre with Farthing; however, both novels are very much concerned with issues of social status and behavior. The difference is that the earlier novel is comedy, but Farthing is bittersweet tragedy. Dragons do, however, figuratively and briefly appear in the author's prefatory note:
This novel is for everyone who has ever studied any monstrosity of history, with the serene satisfaction of being horrified while knowing exactly what was going to happen, rather like studying a dragon anatomized upon a table, and then turning around to find the dragon's present-day relations standing close by, alive and ready to bite.
Farthing's premise brings to mind Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (indeed, the hardback book cover blurb makes the connection even if you don't), but while Roth's alternate history focuses on anti-Semitism in an isolationist America, Walton's scenario subtly details how otherwise "decent" people get caught up in political machinations empowered by social prejudices and ignorance. "It can't happen here" can happen all too quickly before anyone realizes it.
While some critics tended to wonder why a reputable author such as Roth would resort to genre, Farthing remains mired in the genre ghetto (I don't believe it has gotten much general recognition outside of Nebula territory), despite a subject that, like Roth's, is anything but historical speculation. Farthing gets hit with a double whammy because it also a typical drawing-room mystery; it shares some of the faults of this genre in that there are leaps of logic in the set up of the murder as well as an associated killing. In addition, the ultimate "solving of the case" scene is also a bit contrived, with gaps in motivation and means left without clear explanation. However, this is all sideshow.
Farthing is no more a "fantasy" than 1984 is a "science fiction" novel. Of course, both books are those in one sense, but they are hardly "escapist" as the literary mainstream employs these terms. Whenever a character in Farthing invokes the threat of terrorism as justifying drastic actions that actually have nothing to do with the real terrorism that is occurring, the reference is, alas, all-too real.
The time is 1949, and the Farthing set has gathered hastily at the Eversley country estate on the eve of an important vote in Parliament that will elect new leadership. One of those who could expect a powerful post is Sir James Thirkie, the chief negotiator with Hess who is widely hailed as bringing peace to Britain. Thirkie, however, is murdered under strange circumstances— his body is found with his breast painted red with cheap lipstick in imitation of the Farthing symbol, a red robin. Equally strange, a dagger in the chest impales a square piece of cloth with a yellow star, which Jews under Nazi occupation are forced to wear. Thirkie, however, did not die of a knife wound.
Suspicion immediately centers on David Kahn, who is married to the Eversley's daughter, Lucy. David, as it happens, was a pilot of some distinction in the shortened war, comes from a moneyed class, behaves in strict accordance to English notions of proprietary class behavior, and, above all, is not so stupid as to draw attention to himself even if he had a motive. Not that this matters.
Enter Peter Anthony Carmichael, rising young inspector for Scotland Yard, who, whatever prejudices he might have against Jews, doubts that Kahn is guilty. From the perspective of his "betters," however, Kahn is the perfect scapegoat. And, as it turns out, a scapegoat to set in motion a political agenda.
The novel unfolds from two alternating perspectives— a third person narration of Carmichael's activities in the case and the first person recollections of Lucy Kahn. The reason for the contrasting viewpoints becomes evident in the denouement; suffice it to say there's more here than a desire to be metafictional. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Both perspectives ponder class distinctions from the viewpoints of the higher class and the aspiring class— how servants are supposed to behave in relation to their employers, how social status relates to political power, what is the appropriate dress for time of day and location, how you defer to social superiors. In Tooth and Claw, Walton made fun of these conventions. In Farthing, she demonstrates how such "silly" things underpin greater issues.
Everyone should get a little nervous shudder every time a character in this book refers to "terrorists." You could just as easily substitute "Jew" or "anarchist" or "homosexual" or "communist," even though they in fact are different things, as Carmichael frequently points out to people who can only understand that what they all share is that they are not "us."
Carmichael is not without his own social prejudices, but they don't cloud his judgment. Moreover, Carmichael has reasons to sympathize with the socially dispossessed. While Lucy Kahn at first comes off as a bit of an airhead, though not an intellectual, she is clever. She also has the gumption to buck social standards to marry David for love, and willingly accept the social consequences. These are two good people.
The other characters are noteworthy perhaps less for their personal peccadilloes and hypocrisies that lie beneath the upper crust veneer than for their basic willingness to go along. They're not good people or bad people, just people who go along because that's what you do in society— go along. Which is what the fascists count on.
If that's a bit depressing, Walton also shows how good people make compromises to fight another day, to make some kind of small difference. Such is the fate of Lucy and Carmichael, both in Walton's alternate history and in ours.