In a Dark Wood Wandering is the story of the Valois family, from the late 14th century through the mid-15th. Charles, Duke of Orleans, is the focal point of the story, however, and the novel follows his life from birth, though childhood, early adulthood, the battle at Agincourt, his imprisonment in England, and finally his retirement and death.
It’s a rather long, complicated novel, complicated further still by the complicated political situation. The author goes into some depth about politics, but still I found this novel deeply engrossing. Charles himself is an unusual character; he’s mostly an observer as opposed to an active participant in what happens. As Charles himself says, “it is my misfortune that I am neither a great man nor an able leader,” but the intrigue of Charles’s character is his courage, especially during the battle of Agincourt. Haasse takes a lot on by writing about Charles’s entire life, but she does so quite capably here. The other characters, however, aren’t so well drawn, and I would have liked to have heard more about his half brother, Dunois. Still, I loved the imagery the author uses. It’s a complex novel of love and betrayal, as the ruling families of Europe find themselves at war.
The story behind the translation of this book is quite amazing. Written in Dutch in 1949, the book was translated into English by a postal employee in Chicago who learned Dutch by studying dictionaries. Later, the translator, whose name was Lewis Kaplan, had health issues, passed away, and the manuscript lay around his house for another twenty years, during which it was nearly destroyed by a fire. Kaplan’s son then sent the book to a publisher. The original title of this book apparently translates into “The Forest of Long Awaiting,” which was a common theme in medieval literature (Orleans’s poem can be found on pages 421-22). Other reviewers have said that this title is better than In a Dark Wood Wandering; I agree.