As a postgraduate student more than three decades ago I had reason to be grateful to Dr. Harvey for his Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators, and I am grateful to him now for Pax for quite different reasons. Harvey’s profound understanding of the physical processes in the making of art enrich this, his fifth novel.
Peter Paul Rubens comes to London in 1629 on a diplomatic mission from the Spanish Netherlands to Charles I’s court. This is a dual-period narrative in which the boundaries are increasingly blurred, but convincingly so. The artist Stephen Bloodsmith is producing a series of engravings recalling the events of Rubens’ London stay, while worrying how much longer he is going to be able to defend his teaching job from cuts. His favoured model has long been his wife, described physically in more or less Rubenesque language. He suspects her of betraying him at the same time as he is falling in love with a new model, the equivalent of Rubens’s mysterious Indian Maid, while Rubens is tormented by suspicion of his dead wife and his pupil Antony Van Dyck, and by his conviction that his mission is being spied upon on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu.
The themes of love, lust, adultery and 17th-century bawdiness that run through the narrative are clearly signalled in the vulvoid aperture in Rubens’s painting Allegory of Peace and War which is the basis of the cover design. The “modern” strand of the story is not quite contemporary with today. Nobody has mobile phones, for instance, and how much more complicated cheating is without them! Even if I wasn’t convinced by the adjective “good-mooded”, or by the verb “[to] suave”, Pax is beautifully written, in language as vivid as the paintings described – and is a gripping read.