For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria MacKenzie

I had thought I was ready for the life of an anchoress. I had wanted to prolong each moment of my life, to get closer to experiencing time as God experiences it: not the instantly dissolving moment, but something larger and more encompassing. A stillness that doesn’t pass as soon as you think yourself into it.

Victoria MacKenzie’s new novella, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, is set in Norfolk in 1413 and imagines a meeting between two real-life women: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. If these names are familiar to you, you’ll know that they were both English mystics of the medieval period and were also both authors. Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is thought to be the first English work we can be sure was written by a woman, while Margery’s The Book of Margery Kempe is considered to be the first autobiography in the English language.

The stories of the two women only converge towards the end of the book in a meeting which did take place according to Margery herself in The Book of Margery Kempe, but maybe not exactly as it is described here. Victoria MacKenzie recreates the events leading up to their encounter and the sort of conversation they may have had, but before reaching that point she explores the backgrounds of both women, with the perspective alternating between Margery and Julian as they follow very different paths through life.

Little is known of the real Julian’s early life, but MacKenzie suggests here that she may have lost her family to an outbreak of plague and that this, along with an illness during which she experienced visions or ‘shewings’ of Christ, influenced her decision to become an anchoress, secluded in a cell for twenty-three years. Margery, in contrast, doesn’t lock herself away, but remains in the secular world, a wife and mother of fourteen. Like Julian, she begins to have religious visions, but while Julian’s faith is personal and private, Margery prays, weeps and preaches in public, drawing attention to herself and leading to accusations of heresy.

This is Victoria MacKenzie’s debut novel and I admire her for writing something so unusual and original, but although I did like it, I couldn’t quite manage to love it. I found the structure and pacing very unbalanced, with the first section, telling the two separate tales in parallel, being by far the longest and the actual meeting at Julian’s cell being dealt with in just a few pages near the end. Maybe if I was a more religious person myself I would have appreciated this book more, but I could still find a lot to interest me in this story of two medieval women whose different personalities and different journeys through life shape the nature of their relationships with God and each other.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath

The Stone Rose is the final book in Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves Trilogy, but don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two – each one stands alone and tells the story (in fictional form) of a different medieval queen of England. In The Silken Rose we met Eleanor of Provence and in The Damask Rose Eleanor of Castile; now, in this latest novel, it’s the turn of Isabella of France. Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France and the wife of Edward II of England, but also a powerful and influential woman in her own right. The Stone Rose explores Isabella’s story both from her own perspective and through the eyes of Agnes, a female stonemason who designs Isabella’s tomb.

Isabella is only fifteen years old when the novel opens in 1311, and much as she tries to love her husband – at least at first – she is already becoming aware that Edward is perhaps not the best person to be ruling the country. He is too easily led by his favourites, particularly the handsome young Piers Gaveston, ignoring the advice of older, more experienced noblemen, and spends his time thatching roofs and digging ditches like a peasant rather than taking part in more courtly pursuits. Worse, he seems determined to send England into a series of battles with the Scots that nobody really has the heart for.

As the years go by, the pleasant and relatively harmless Piers is replaced by a new favourite, the scheming, ambitious Hugh Despenser the Younger, and Isabella begins to fear for her own position, especially when she starts to suspect that Edward loves Despenser more than he loves her. As tensions grow at court and across England, Isabella returns to France to visit her family – and here she meets Roger Mortimer, an English baron who has recently escaped from imprisonment in the Tower of London and shares her hatred of Hugh Despenser.

I won’t say much more about the plot, as if you’re familiar with the history you’ll already know what Isabella does next – and if you’re not, you’ll probably prefer to find out for yourself when you read the book. As far as I could tell, Carol McGrath sticks quite closely to the known facts, except where it’s necessary to use her imagination to help bring the characters to life and fill in gaps in the story or where there is some historical controversy, for example regarding the eventual fate of Edward II.

Despite Isabella’s “she-wolf” nickname (one which has also been applied to several other unpopular queens) I found her a sympathetic character here. It was sad to see her marriage gradually disintegrate as Edward spends more and more time with his favourites, falling completely under their power and refusing to listen to other points of view. I also found it interesting to read about Isabella’s interactions with the other women at court, particularly the three de Clare sisters, one of whom – Eleanor – is the wife of Hugh Despenser. Because of Isabella’s conflict with Eleanor’s husband, the two women can never be friends, but they are forced to spend long periods of time together over the years and their relationship, as you can imagine, is a very uncomfortable one.

The previous two books in this trilogy have each included a second protagonist, whose story unfolds alongside the queen’s and is given almost equal attention. In this third novel, that role falls to Agnes, the stonemason – a real historical figure who really did work on Isabella’s tomb. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t see very much of Agnes; there are only a few sections written from her point of view, with the focus very much on Isabella’s story. I understand, though, that Agnes only entered Isabella’s life in the 1350s and played no part in what came before, so maybe it would have been difficult to weave the two narratives together more closely. Still, The Stone Rose is a fascinating read and I enjoyed adding to my knowledge of Isabella, Edward II and Roger Mortimer. Now that the trilogy has come to an end I will have to try Carol McGrath’s earlier novels, while I’m waiting to see what she writes next!

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This post is part of the blog tour for The Stone Rose – you can see details of the other stops on the tour in the image below.

This is book 16/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley

I can’t believe it’s been nearly eight years since I read The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley. Having enjoyed that one, I had fully intended to explore her other books but never did; of course, it didn’t help that most of them seemed to be out of print at the time. Thanks to Canelo, all three books in her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy are now available, of which A Vision of Light (originally published in 1988) is the first.

The novel opens in the year 1355 with our heroine, Margaret, hearing the voice of God telling her that she must write a book:

“I am only a woman,” I said to the voice in my mind. “I have no letters, and do not know Latin. How shall I write a book, and what shall I put in it, as I have never done any great deeds?”

The Voice answered:

“Put in it what you have seen. There is nothing wrong with being a woman, and doing ordinary things. Sometimes small deeds can show big ideas. As for writing, do as others do: get someone to write it for you.”

The person she gets to write it for her is Brother Gregory, a young friar who is trying to make a living as a scribe writing letters for London’s largely illiterate population. Brother Gregory has a low opinion of women but he needs the money so he accepts the commission and reluctantly begins the task of chronicling Margaret’s life. He is sure a woman can’t possibly have a story worth telling, but once he begins to meet Margaret and listens to what she has to say he becomes drawn into her tale despite himself.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding Margaret’s story. There’s not really a central plot that I can describe; beginning with her early life in the little English village of Ashbury, it takes the form of a picaresque novel as she moves from place to place, having a series of adventures along the way. There are outbreaks of plague and accusations of witchcraft. There are encounters with humble peasants, wicked noblemen, travelling entertainers and mysterious alchemists. And then there is the Vision of Light which Margaret receives one day, leaving her blessed – or cursed – with the miraculous powers of healing.

I found A Vision of Light great fun to read, even though, like The Oracle Glass, it contains a few of the things that often irritate me in historical fiction: the occasional use of anachronistic language, for example, and a heroine whose views are sometimes more appropriate to the century in which the book was written rather than the one in which it is set. The writing is imbued with so much humour, life and energy that those things didn’t bother me the way they usually would; it’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time touching on some serious – and sometimes dark – topics, and getting the balance just about right.

Although the tale Margaret relates is the most compelling part of the novel, the framing narrative is also interesting, mainly for the interactions between Margaret and Gregory and the way their relationship develops as they spend more time together. Gregory is an intriguing character in his own right and although his attitude towards Margaret makes him difficult to like at first, I thought he did improve as the book went on! I’m sure I will read the second novel, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, at some point so I can find out how the story continues.

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin

When I saw that there was a new novel by Laura Carlin, I wasn’t sure whether to read it. Her first book, The Wicked Cometh, set in Victorian London, had left me with mixed feelings; I liked her writing and I liked the atmosphere she created, but I felt that the plot was too melodramatic and too predictable – too similar to other books I’d read. This one sounded quite different, though, so I decided to give it a try.

Requiem for a Knave is set in the 14th century, a much earlier time period than The Wicked Cometh, and this immediately gives it a different feel. It’s also written in past tense, rather than the present tense of the previous book, which is always a big bonus in my opinion! Our narrator is Alwin of Whittaker who, following the death of his mother, sets off on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in search of clues to the identity of his father. Village priest and family friend Father Oswald gives Alwin a letter of introduction to the prioress of Winfeld Priory to enable him to obtain accommodation for the first night of his journey, but along the way he falls in with a band of soldiers who insist on accompanying him. The scenes that follow at the priory leave Alwin traumatised and ashamed and will continue to haunt him for the rest of the novel.

After leaving Winfeld to continue on his journey, Alwin is joined by Father Oswald and several other pilgrims, but as further misfortune befalls the little group, he starts to wonder whether his new companions are as innocent as they appear to be. Deciding to place his trust in fellow pilgrim Rosamund, Alwin shares with her a terrible secret he has carried with him since his childhood and with Rosamund’s help he begins to uncover the truth about his family, his past and who he really is.

First of all, I can say that I thought this book was better than The Wicked Cometh. I have read so many historical novels with a gothic Victorian London setting that they’re all starting to feel very alike, so this book, set in medieval rural England was a refreshing change. The plot also seemed more original, although some of the revelations towards the end of the book – the motives of the villains, for example, and the reasons for some of the bad things that happen to the pilgrims throughout the story – felt too far-fetched and unlikely. As for Alwin’s secret, there were clues from the beginning that made it easy for me to guess, but perhaps the author had intended us to have our suspicions all along; the interest is in waiting to see when other characters will discover the truth and how Alwin will cope with the revelation.

However, I did have a problem with the way the novel handles one of its major themes, which is gender. It can’t be denied that women were not treated equally in medieval society and historical fiction can certainly play a part in highlighting those injustices, but I don’t think it’s realistic to do so by portraying almost every male character as an evil monster who can’t look at a woman without trying to rape her. I can’t really give examples without spoiling the story, but at times I felt I was reading a long lecture on the wickedness of men and I couldn’t really believe that 14th century women would have had discussions about gender issues in quite the same way that we do today. It’s a shame because otherwise the medieval atmosphere is very well done and the writing feels appropriate to the period, avoiding any annoyingly modern language.

On the whole, I did enjoy reading this book but if its central messages had been put across in a more subtle way I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

It’s 1348, two years after England’s victory over France at the battle of Crécy, which led to the capture of the French port of Calais. And it is to Calais that we are headed in James Meek’s latest novel, in the company of a large and diverse group of characters.

First, there’s Lady Bernadine, a young noblewoman betrothed to a man her father’s age. Dreaming of the sort of love described in her favourite poem, Le Roman de la Rose, Bernadine has run away from her home and her arranged marriage in pursuit of the man she hopes to marry instead, the knight Laurence Haket. Haket has raised a band of archers to send to the English garrison at Calais and they are all on their way to Melcombe in Dorset where their ship awaits.

The newest recruit to the company of archers is Will Quate, a young bondsman from Bernadine’s village, Outen Green. Will hopes that Bernadine’s father, Sir Guy, will grant him his freedom in return for serving with the bowmen. The other archers are rough, battle-hardened men who were together at Crécy and are not the most pleasant of people, as Will quickly discovers – but it seems that they will not go unpunished for the crimes they have committed.

Finally, we meet Thomas Pitkerro, a Scottish proctor who has been working at the papal court in Avignon and is returning there after carrying out a commission at Malmesbury Abbey in England. The Abbot has asked him to travel with the archers and to listen to their confessions as the nearest thing to a priest they will have. And they certainly have a lot to confess!

To Calais, in Ordinary Time doesn’t have a huge amount of plot – the whole story consists of the journey through the south of England towards Melcombe, but there’s still a lot going on. We get to know more about the archers and the girl known as Cess who has come back with them from France; the characters find themselves asked to perform in a morality play; and there’s an exploration of identity and gender through the story of Hab the swineherd and his ‘sister’ Madlen. Meanwhile, unknown to the characters, every step they take towards Calais is taking them closer to the Black Death, the great pestilence coming in the opposite direction. The choice of Melcombe as the point where they will embark for France is significant because Melcombe will become known as the ‘Plague Port’ – one of the first locations where the Black Death would enter England. You can find parallels with modern catastrophes (James Meek has said that he was thinking of climate change) but any comparisons are lightly drawn and they are more something to keep in mind rather than an important part of the story.

But the most notable aspect of this book – and one you’ll probably either love or hate – is the language. Meek uses three very distinct styles to convey the different backgrounds and social classes of each of the three main characters or groups of characters. Thomas Pitkerro’s narrative, mainly in the form of letters to his friends in Avignon, is written in very formal prose with long sentences and big words, evoking the Latin used by the clergy at that time. As an English noblewoman in the 14th century, Bernadine would have spoken a form of Norman French, so this is indicated by peppering her speech with words like the French negative ‘ne’ (‘you ne understand’, ‘ne speak his name’). The others – Will, Hab and the archers – speak in their local Cotswold dialect (‘they say steven in place of voice, and shrift and housel for confession and absolution, and bead for prayer’). They also say neb for face, which I found quite jarring as where I live it means nose!

While I appreciated the imaginativeness and cleverness behind all of this, I have to admit that I just found it a distraction. Ironically, instead of helping to immerse me in the setting and the story, it kept pulling me back into the present day and reminding me that I was reading a modern work of fiction. As I’ve said, though, I’m sure other readers will love the use of language and so will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. It’s the sort of book I would expect to see being nominated for awards; it just wasn’t right for me personally.

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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.