Crushed Yet Conquering: A Story of Constance and Bohemia

Crushed Yet Conquering: A Story of Constance and Bohemia - Deborah Alcock I've read a novel by Deborah Alcock before, and looking back on my review for that, I discover many similar themes in place: overt evangelical protestant proselytizing, hero-worship as a motivator for the fictional junior hero, and a strong interest in historical detail. Within her own world-view (which is most assuredly not mine), Alcock is an honourable author as regards her history, and a reasonably skilled story-teller. The structure of this novel is perhaps a little too obviously divided in two more or less unrelated parts (see the subtitle).

Alcock has taken for the subject of the first half of her novel (and, one suspects, the more congenial one) the events of the Council of Constance, at which Czech (or Bohemian) proto-Protestant martyr Jan Hus (anglicized John Huss) was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake. From a modern viewpoint, most of heresies appear to have been of the type that threatened the Catholic power structure by condemning the practices which fed that money- and power-hungry organization in the early 15th century. Therefore there's little wonder (from that same cynical modern viewpoint) that he was burned. It may have come as something of a surprise, though, to the Councillors and the Church they were desperately trying to save from disintegration (multiple Pope-claimants, etc.) that Hus' death spawned a long-lasting and at least temporarily successful popular uprising in Bohemia which, as the author admits frankly at one point, became as much about Bohemian nationalism as about the martyrdom of Hus, or the point of ritual around which the Hussites rallied, their right to receive the Cup as well as the bread in the mass. That uprising, or at least the opening phases of it, form the setting of the second part of the novel.

Making all of this more or less palatable to the non-Christian reader is a fairly well-told historical novel with plenty of incident drawn from the actual horrors of the time, and a fictional juvenile hero who undergoes his religious conversion in the first half of the book, and gets his reward in the form of marriage to the daughter of his own role-model and hero in the second. This juvenile hero is made English by birth to signal clearly to Alcock's native audience that he is the protagonist, but there's nothing particularly English about him. He is also given a brother (like him, brought up in France, but in a very different milieu), and Alcock's initial conception of her structure appears to have been to balance off the emotional/spiritual journey of Armand with his rediscovered brother Hubert. However, even the attempt to maintain this comparison falls off at the end of the first half, and Alcock does not include Armand in the second half at all, giving him only one brief and uninterested paragraph in the denouement.

There are plenty of nineteenth-century assumptions going on here, including of course the 'natural' difference in the roles of men and women (though Alcock does chronicle at least one incident from the middle of the main battle at Prague where women took part in front-line fighting). She also has a not totally unsympathetic portrait of a Jewish doctor who is responsible for both a plot point and for representing a rationality about the natural world (eclipses, etc.) which completely escapes both sides of the Christian debate at that time. And she does not, I am happy to say, convert him, simply having him depart when Hubert presses him on the subject, saying that people belong with their own kind. It's not nearly as bad as it could be, although the casual anti-Semitic language of any Victorian novel strikes hard upon the post-Holocaust ear (Alcock refers matter-of-factly to the very large Jewish sector in Prague).

Since Hus was in fact a pretty good Catholic, far from being as far along in doctrinal rebellion as, say, Luther, Alcock is occasionally forced by her own historical honesty into a rather defensive tone (as, for instance, when she points out that he believed in actual transubstantiation). It's to her credit that she doesn't gloss these points over, but she assumes she is writing to a homogeneous audience (and perhaps, indeed, she was, and perhaps indeed amongst her small current audience, she still largely is), and one can only sigh at her confident assertions to the tune of, "Well, of course, we know better now!".

That said, a decent story in a historical place and time I knew nothing about, and I was never tempted to set it aside unfinished.