Saturday, 20 August 2011

Some thoughts on Montagu Slater, Gilbert Mabbott and historical fiction.

Montagu Slater was a major literary figure inside and outside the British Communist Party. He was born into a working class family in 1902. At an early age, he showed enough promise to win a prestigious scholarship to Oxford.

Like many of his generation, he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.

He joined the British CP at the height of the Stalinist witch hunt by Joseph Stalin against Leon Trotsky. Slater apparently sided with the Stalinist theory that you could build Socialism in One Country as opposed to Trotsky position of extending the Russian revolution on an international stage.

Any assessment of his literary work should bear his politics in mind. His adherence to the theory of building socialism in one country paved the way for him in the 1930s to become editor of 'Left Review', which himself helped to create. Left Review became an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and especially became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky

Slater it must be said was a versatile writer who wrote many stage plays, reviews, and articles and edited theatre journals

Perhaps his most famous work was a libretto for Benjamin Britten’s `Peter Grimes’. Anthony Burgess, said in The Listener in 1964, “The excellence of Peter Grimes has a great deal to do with Montagu Slater’s libretto, the only libretto I know that can be read in its own right as a dramatic poem.”

Slater who died at a very early age of 54 it must be said stayed true to his Stalinist ideals. Despite being linked with the `New Reasoner’ wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party’s attack on Trotskyism including its “British Road to Socialism”. When the Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, he called it a counter-revolution. On his deathbed in 1956, he still retained his party membership.

`Englishmen with Swords” is a piece of historical fiction which centres on the years 1647-1649. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but significant real life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot. Having read the book, I would say that it is a reasonably faithful portrayal of the events of those years.

As much as I can tell (no doubt others with a greater knowledge will probably disagree with), the story line remains faithful to actual events. You can argue that Mabbot was not really the person who named Buff Coat a rank and file figure who spoke at the Putney Debates, but this is being pedantic. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be used as a complimentary with formal historical research

Slater should be congratulated for bringing Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost in the revisionist stampede to replace the “history from below” genre with history from above.

Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according to Graham Stevenson “the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period”.

While a secretary in the Army Mabbot he was to become a strong writer of newsletters. Significantly he was according to some sources a close ally of the Levellers political party. He was responsible for the Newsbook The Moderate (Left)

Describing the move, Mabbott said "I have laid down my former title of 'Moderate Intelligencer' and do go by another, viz. 'The Moderate'". The Moderate espoused republican views. It gleefully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.

This link to the Levellers has been questioned by Frances Henderson who said “Mabbott's reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers”.

Henderson’s view has been challenged according to Patrick Ludolph who has a blog called funny enough Gilbert Mabbott which can be found @ “Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.

He was however not overtly gushing over Slater’s book Englishmen with Swords he believes “Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on”.

Slater’s book is the first historical novel I have read in a month of Sundays so at the moment I cannot really form much of an opinion of historical fiction genre. From what I have read the genre has its admirers and it has its detractors amongst historians who have a tendency to look down their noses at it. Some of their criticisms I can sympathise with especially if there are significant historical inaccuracies. But having said that there appears to be too much academic snobbery. As I have said, I cannot detect any major historical flaws of Slater’s book.

There were and are some very great writers of the genre such as Dickens, Tolstoy who wrote War and Peace. Just to name two. A more modern day example is the famous The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe which is now a major film.

It is important to distinguish between a genuinely good historical novel and a significant number of pulp fiction novels which sometimes contain glaring historical inaccuracies.

According to Chris Hopkinson his essay Historicising the Historical Novel: “Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', 'The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre'. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself”


1. Article on Slater’s life can be found @

2. Montagu Slater’s personal papers, now archived in the Lawrence Collection at the University of Nottingham, are full of poems and songs, prose works - many intended for broadcast or filming - film and television scripts, and reviews.

3. 'Gilbert Mabbott' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

4. For a thought-provoking article called From Progress to Catastrophe-Perry Anderson on the Historical Novel. @

Further Reading

1. 'The Trial of King Charles the first' by J.G. Muddiman (Hodge, London, 1928)

2. Montagu Slater Biography - ( 1902 –56 ), great Stay Down Miner, A New Way to Win, Peter Grimes - Published, Wrote, John, Including, Poems, and Plays

3. Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

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