To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?

8 thoughts on “To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

  1. calmgrove says:

    This sounds very intriguing. It reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s Orsinian Tales, a series of short stories set in a fictional middle European country over several centuries, linked by their geography and by a certain brooding sombreness.

    By the way, the post title (‘To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake’) reminds me of my partner’s publisher inadvertantly (?) publicising her self-help book as Help! I’m Being Bullied by Dr Emily Lovegrove — a singularly unfortunate introduction to a serious issue. Deryn Lake sounds like a place to be avoided by insomniacs!

  2. Sue Baker says:

    I love the John Rawlings series. There is a real sense of time and place. I can walk his parts of London in my mind. Needs to be read in order and can be a bit repetitive in later books filling some of the gaps for those who haven’t read them. Based loosely on a real person who invented carbonated water. Good easy reads. Not as keen on the vicar ones.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    This novel sounds really good! I like reincarnation/past lives stories. And that some were based on historical people makes it even better. As far as science in 1721, actually quite a lot was going on mainly due to Isaac Newton and his pals. I found this on the web: “In the 1700s, philosophers of the Enlightenment began to advocate science as a motor of progress. Contemporaries celebrated the scientific genius of people such as physicist Isaac Newton. Hermann Boerhaave and other physicians attempted to develop a form of ‘Newtonian medicine’ based on experiment and measurement.” -from I think I learned the most about Isaac Newton, etc, from Neal Stephenson’s System of the World trilogy. How did you hear of Deryn Lake?

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read quite a few older books reissued by Endeavour Press and came across Deryn Lake when I was browsing their website, although it has taken me a while to actually get round to reading this one! And yes, there was a lot of progress in science in the 1700s. I was thinking more specifically about developments in hypnotism, though – I’m not sure that people really had any knowledge of it before Franz Mesmer carried out his research into animal magnetism later in the 18th century. I could be wrong, of course!

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