A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien

One of the things I like about Anne O’Brien’s books is that they tend to be about women who are not usually the subjects of historical fiction. I have read five of her previous novels, all set in the 14th and 15th centuries, which told the stories of Katherine of Valois, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, Joan of Kent and Elizabeth Mortimer. Now, in her latest novel, A Tapestry of Treason, she brings another medieval woman out of obscurity and gives her a voice. She is Constance, Lady Despenser, daughter of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, the fourth surviving son of King Edward III of England.

The novel opens in 1399. Constance’s cousin, Richard II, has reigned for over twenty years but another cousin, Henry of Lancaster, now has his eye on the throne. The York branch of the family – Constance, her father, her brothers Edward and Dickon, and her husband Thomas Despenser – must decide with whom their loyalties lie, knowing that if they give their support to the wrong man they could lose everything, including their lives. History tells us that Henry would be successful, taking the throne as Henry IV when Richard abdicates, but of course Constance and her family don’t know how things will play out and this leaves them with some difficult choices to make.

Cold, ambitious and determined, Constance is not an easy character to like, but the fact that the story is told from her point of view allows us to have a certain amount of sympathy for her. She makes some terrible mistakes and, despite having grown up in a world of shifting politics and court intrigue, she judges the situation wrongly on several occasions and pays the price for it. It’s frustrating to see her at the heart of one plot or conspiracy after another and she never seems to learn from her mistakes, but as we get to know Constance better we understand that she is only trying to look after her family’s interests and help them to advance in any way they can. In this respect she reminded me of Elizabeth Mortimer, heroine of Queen of the North, who is actually involved in some of the same conspiracies.

Constance’s hard and emotionless exterior can probably be explained by the lack of love she has experienced throughout her life. Her parents have shown her very little affection – and although her husband, Thomas Despenser, is not a cruel man, their marriage took place at a very early age and was definitely a political match rather than one based on love. There is a chance of romance for Constance later in the novel, but she makes mistakes here too and risks having her heart broken.

There are two other relationships in this book which interested me more than the romantic one. The first is Constance’s relationship with her elder brother, Edward of York, a man who is as ambitious and ruthless as Constance herself, but unlike his sister, thinks only of himself. He shows no real loyalty to anyone and is ready to betray his family and friends if it means saving his own skin, yet Constance always gives him the benefit of the doubt and it is never quite clear whether he cares for her even a little bit or not at all. The other is the relationship between Constance and her young stepmother, Joan Holland. At first they make no secret of the fact that they dislike each other but as the story progresses they settle into an uneasy friendship.

A Tapestry of Treason is not my favourite Anne O’Brien book; although this is a fascinating period of history, I felt that for a long time Constance was plotting and scheming in the background, watching events unfold from afar rather than taking an active part in her own story. Not the author’s fault, but an indication of the limitations and constraints placed on women at that time. It’s only from the middle of the novel onwards that Constance begins to play a bigger role and becomes more directly involved in carrying out her treasonous plots.

I did still enjoy the book, though, and it was interesting to read about the origins of the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York which would later intensify and lead to the Wars of the Roses. Now I’m wondering if there are any other fictional portrayals of Constance of York; if you know of any please let me know!

Thanks to the publisher HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Dick Young is at a turning point in his life. He has recently left his job at a London publishing firm and needs to decide what he wants from his future. He’s been offered another job in New York and his American wife Vita wants him to accept it, but Dick’s not so sure. When his friend Professor Magnus Lane invites him to stay at his farmhouse in Cornwall for the summer, he agrees, looking forward to a few days of peace before Vita and his two stepsons join him. But when Dick arrives at Kilmarth, Magnus convinces him to take part in a secret experiment: he has developed a new drug which allows the user to travel back in time – and he wants Dick to test it for him…

Choosing to begin 2011 with a book by one of my favourite authors was the right decision. The House on the Strand is a strange and unusual book which blends historical fiction, science fiction, time travel and psychology. I loved it! In fact, it might even make my best of 2011 list at the end of the year. Although Rebecca is still my favourite Daphne du Maurier book, this one ties with The Scapegoat as my second favourite. It actually has a very similar mood and feel to The Scapegoat even though the plots of the two books are entirely different. Both books have a male narrator and both have themes of identity and escaping from reality.

I enjoy reading about time travel and this book took a slightly different approach to the question of time travel than any other book I’ve read. Rather than physically going back in time, it’s only Dick’s mind that travels while his body stays in the present – and as you can imagine, this has some disastrous and embarrassing results. The 14th century world that Dick witnesses when under the influence of the drug seems completely vivid and real to him, yet he’s unable to interact with any of the people he meets. He feels a special connection with Roger Kylmerth, steward to the Champernoune family, and also with the beautiful Isolda Carminowe. As Dick’s fascination with Roger and Isolda grows, he spends more and more time in the past and becomes increasingly dependent on the drug.

Du Maurier wrote this book in the late 1960s when psychedelic drugs such as LSD were at the height of their popularity and the drug which Magnus invents seems to be very similar to what I’ve read about LSD. As Dick becomes psychologically addicted to the drug, he gradually grows more distant and withdrawn and his relationships with his family start to suffer. His life in the present is portrayed as dull and boring in comparison to the vivid events of the 14th century and when seen through Dick’s eyes, Vita and her two sons are unlikeable and obnoxious. To me though, they were normal, reasonable people who were trying to make sense of their husband and stepfather’s bizarre behaviour.

Despite my own interest in history and historical fiction, I didn’t find the 14th century subplot particularly compelling. The story wasn’t very strong and there were too many characters with similar names who all seemed to be married to their cousins, which made it very difficult to keep all the relationships straight. I was constantly turning to the family tree at the front of the book and still couldn’t remember who was who. My advice to anyone reading The House on the Strand would be not to worry too much about following the 14th century story. By far the most interesting part of the book is the part which takes place in the present.

There were only one or two other negative points. First of all, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to know Magnus better, as I thought he was potentially the most interesting character in the book. Secondly, du Maurier made a point of describing the landscape and the locations of the various 14th century farmsteads and manor houses in great detail. I know this was supposed to show us how the appearance of the landscape had changed over the centuries (which is quite important to the plot), but I found it confusing and even by referring to the map at the front of the book, I couldn’t seem to build a picture in my mind of what the area looked like. Apart from these minor complaints though, I loved this book.

I’ve now read around half of du Maurier’s books. The good news is that I still have the other half to look forward to!

Fiendish Fridays #6: Mrs Danvers

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

This week’s Fiend is a controversial one – she is often cited as one of literature’s greatest female villains, but some people don’t consider her to be a villain at all. What do you think?

#6 – Friday 19 March 2010: Mrs Danvers

Name: Mrs Danvers

Appears in: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Who is she? Mrs Danvers is the housekeeper at Manderley, the house where Maxim de Winter lived with his wife Rebecca before her tragic death. When Maxim brings home his second wife whom he has met in Monte Carlo, Mrs Danvers is not happy!

What is she like? The character was famously portrayed by Judith Anderson who received an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film. In the book she is described as ‘someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame’.

What makes her a Friday Fiend? She does her best to make the second Mrs de Winter unwelcome at Manderley by constantly undermining her confidence and making her the target of some cruel tricks, causing her to feel inferior to Rebecca in every way.

Redeeming features: Her devotion and loyalty to Rebecca even after her death can be seen as an admirable quality and is the reason for her behaving the way she does.

Have you read Rebecca? What do you think about this week’s Friday Fiend?

Fiendish Fridays #5: Black Jack Randall

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

There are several Fiends I could have chosen from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. This is one of them…

#5 – Friday 5 March 2010: Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall

Name: Jonathan Wolverton Randall

Appears in: Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Who is he? A captain in the English Army during the 18th century and an ancestor of our heroine Claire Randall’s husband Frank.

What is he like? He looks so much like Frank Randall that even Claire almost mistakes him for her husband, although his hair is longer, and his skin darker from years of exposure to the weather.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? According to Jamie Fraser, Randall’s nickname ‘Black Jack’ refers to the colour of his soul. Randall is cruel and sadistic and abuses his position in the army by flogging, torturing and otherwise badly treating his prisoners. As Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie says, Randall is unable to earn the respect of his men so earns their fear instead.

Redeeming features: Of all the Outlander villains (Stephen Bonnet, Geilie Duncan, Laoghaire MacKenzie and others) Black Jack Randall is probably the least sympathetic character. He does love his brother, but that’s all.

What do you think about this week’s Fiend? Who is your favourite Outlander villain?

Fiendish Fridays #4: Waleran Bigod

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

This week’s Fiend comes from one of my favourite historical fiction novels, The Pillars of the Earth!

#4 – Friday 19 February 2010: Waleran Bigod

Name: Waleran Bigod

Appears in: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

Who is he? A 12th century English bishop.

What is he like? Tall and thin with long arms and legs, ‘lank jet-black hair and a pale face with a sharp nose’. He is compared to both a spider and a bird of prey.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? He is constantly scheming and thinking of ways to thwart Prior Philip and Tom Builder in their mission to build a cathedral in Kingsbridge. Unlike his violent accomplice, William Hamleigh (definitely a future Friday Fiend!), Waleran uses his brains and his influence in the church to get what he wants, which makes him a very dangerous enemy.

Redeeming features: As one of the Kingsbridge monks points out, Waleran seems genuinely devout, but is driven by ambition and a belief that the end justifies the means. This leads him to think it’s acceptable to do whatever he wants in the service of God.

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What are your opinions on today’s Friday Fiend?

Fiendish Fridays #3: Biju Ram

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

This week’s Fiend comes from one of my current reads – The Far Pavilions.

#3 – Friday 5 February 2010: Biju Ram

Name: Biju Ram (also known as Bichchhu-ji – the scorpion)

Appears in: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Who is he? Although he is officially an attendant of Lalji, the young heir to the throne of Gulkote, it is believed that Biju Ram is working for Lalji’s stepmother, the scheming Janoo-Rani.

What is he like? He wears a single diamond earring in one ear and has a distinctive giggling laugh.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? He has been an enemy of our hero, Ashton, for many years. As a child Ash was the target of his practical jokes and cruel comments. Biju Ram is also involved in two assassination plots (I won’t tell you if they were successful or not) and probably responsible for at least one murder.

Redeeming features: None. We see Biju Ram only from Ash’s point of view and Ash sees only the bad side of his character.

Fiendish Fridays #2: Thenardier

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

#2 – Friday 29 January 2010: Thenardier

Name: Thenardier
Appears in: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Who is he? Thenardier is a greedy and corrupt innkeeper.
What is he like? He is introduced to us as a “small, skinny, sallow-faced man, bony, angular and puny”, who is “thoroughly crooked, a sanctimonious knave”.
What makes him a Friday Fiend? When we first meet Thenardier near the beginning of the book he is extorting large amounts of money from the poverty-stricken Fantine on the pretext of needing it to feed and clothe her daughter Cosette. We also see him stealing from corpses after the battle of Waterloo – he subsequently claims to have been a sergeant in Napoleon’s army, hence the name of his inn, The Sergeant of Waterloo. Later in the book he causes further trouble for our hero, Jean Valjean.

Many people consider Inspector Javert to be the villain of Les Miserables but I disagree. Yes, Javert also makes life very difficult for Valjean, but he behaves the way he does because of his belief in upholding the law no matter what. I don’t see Javert as an evil character, unlike Thenardier who cares about nothing but himself and his latest money-making schemes.

Redeeming features: I can’t think of any – can you? His wife Madame Thenardier is equally unpleasant but at least appears to love her daughters, whereas Thenardier doesn’t seem to care about anybody.