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.

A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle

I have previously read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a historical novel inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and her Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, which tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his children in the period leading up to the Battle of Hastings. With this new novel, A King Under Siege, she moves forward in time to 14th century England and the reign of the young Richard II.

The first part of the book deals with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a series of rebellions break out across the country, partly in response to the excessive collection of poll taxes. Richard is still only fourteen at this time (having come to the throne at the age of ten) but he shows a maturity and courage beyond his years in riding out to meet the rebels at Smithfield in an attempt to negotiate and bring an end to the violence. Unfortunately, Richard is unable to keep the promises he makes that day and he is left feeling that he has let his people down.

There is more trouble to come for Richard later in the novel as tensions grow between the king and his noblemen, with his uncles – particularly John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester – gaining in power and influence. Richard’s reliance on a small circle of friends and advisors, such as Michael de la Pole and Robert de Vere, also causes conflict and leads to a group of noblemen known as the Lords Appellant seizing control of the government. These events are covered in the final two sections of the book, finishing at a point which sets things up nicely for the next book in the series.

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters, allowing us to see both sides of the story. The account of the Peasants’ Revolt is very well balanced, with the viewpoint switching between the king and the rebels, showing us the anger and discontent that led to the rebellion as well as Richard’s response to it. Later, we are given some insights into the thoughts and actions of both the Lords Appellant and Richard’s allies. There are interesting parallels between the way Richard is being treated and the fate of his great-grandfather Edward II, and there is a sense of Richard’s frustration as he feels that power is being taken away from him.

I don’t think this is one of my favourites of Mercedes Rochelle’s novels, but that is entirely due to the fact that I don’t find this particular time period quite as interesting as the one covered in The Last Great Saxon Earls and no reflection on the quality of the book itself. She has clearly carried out a large amount of research for this novel and does a good job of making complicated history easy to follow and understand. A map, character list, author’s note and bibliography are included in the book, providing additional information and ideas for further reading. I think this would be a good introduction to the period for readers who are unfamiliar with the details of Richard II’s reign.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?