Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller

Mary Sidney may not be as well known as her brother Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet who wrote Astrophel and Stella, but she was a successful and accomplished author in her own right – and one of the first Englishwomen to publish under her own name. In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller brings Mary’s story to life in fictional form, beginning in 1575 when Mary is summoned to court to attend the Queen. Marriage follows a few years later to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and although it is an arranged marriage rather than one based on love, Henry at least seems to accept his new wife’s intelligence and learning and allows her the freedom to pursue her literary interests, leading to her eventually establishing a literary circle at their home, Wilton House.

Mary’s story, which is written in the third person, alternates with a first person narrative from the perspective of another young woman, Rose Commin. Rose, a fictional character, comes from a very different background, having grown up in the countryside, the daughter of a cloth merchant and a herbalist. After her mother is put on trial for witchcraft, Rose is sent away to the safety of Wilton House, where she becomes maid to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who encourages her to develop her talent for drawing, as well as teaching her to read and write. Sadly, Lady Catherine dies shortly after Rose’s arrival, but when Henry Herbert marries again and brings his young wife, Mary Sidney, to Wilton House, a friendship begins to form between Rose and her new mistress.

Before reading Imperfect Alchemist, I knew almost nothing about Mary Sidney. Her brother Philip has appeared in one or two books I’ve read (such as Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge and Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle) but I can’t remember ever reading anything about Mary. As well as shedding some light on her personal life, the novel explores her involvement with alchemy and medicine, her relationships with other historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer, and her major literary achievements. Not only does Mary prepare and publish an edition of her brother’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, she produces new translations of the Psalms and her version of the Antony and Cleopatra story is thought to inspire Shakespeare’s famous play.

Although Mary is, on the surface, the more interesting character, I think I preferred Rose’s sections of the book – possibly because Rose narrates her chapters herself, making her easier to identify with and to warm to. However, I’ve read a few other historical novels recently that have alternated a real woman’s story with an invented one (usually a lady’s maid), and along with the ‘healer being accused of witchcraft’ theme, which also seems to be an increasingly common trend in historical fiction, I didn’t feel that this book had anything very new or different to offer. As an introduction to the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert, though, it’s excellent and I was certainly able to learn a lot from it. This is Naomi Miller’s first novel and apparently the first in a projected series of novels about early women authors, so I’ll be interested to see who she writes about next.

Book 17/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

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

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.

Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

“All Spain seems to seek me, señor,” answered the stranger merrily. “But who shall slay Nick Beauvallet? Will you try?”

Having read and loved many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian romances, I’ve been interested in trying one of her historical novels set in earlier periods – and at the same time, I’ve been a bit wary because they don’t seem as popular or well-liked as the Regencies. I needn’t have worried, though, because I made a good choice with her 1929 novel Beauvallet, set in sixteenth century Spain and England; I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to all Heyer readers, but it was definitely my sort of book!

Sir Nicholas Beauvallet is a notorious English pirate whose name is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake’s and at the beginning of the novel his ship, the Venture, is engaged in conflict with the Spanish galleon Santa Maria. The Spanish vessel is captured and the people aboard taken captive, among them the beautiful Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva and her father, Don Manuel. After a futile attempt to fight off Beauvallet with his own dagger, Dominica knows the situation is hopeless – and so she is very surprised when Beauvallet offers to take them safely home to Spain, swearing to return at a later date to make her his wife. This seems like a ridiculous plan – no Englishman in his right mind would attempt to enter Spain while the two countries are at war – but our hero is not known as ‘Mad Nicholas’ for nothing…

The plot is over the top and not to be taken too seriously, but the book is great fun to read – the perfect way to escape from the pressures of modern day life for a while and retreat into a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with swordfights, sea battles, abductions, imprisonments and daring escapes! Heyer’s attention to period detail is as evident in this novel as in her others, and being set in an earlier century means she has adjusted the language and the dialogue accordingly. While I thought Dominica was quite thinly drawn and not as memorable as many of Heyer’s other heroines, Nick Beauvallet is a wonderful character. He reminded me very much of some of Rafael Sabatini’s irrepressible swashbuckling heroes, particularly Peter Blood – and of course, Captain Blood, another pirate novel, was published just a few years before Beauvallet. As a Sabatini fan, it was probably inevitable that I would enjoy this book!

As a romance, the book is quite predictable; right from their first encounter, where Dominica shouts “I hate you! I despise you, and I hate you!”, it’s easy to guess that her hatred will not last long, especially as Nick is not the sort of man to accept defeat, in love or in anything else. But sometimes predictability is not a bad thing, and there were plenty of other twists and turns along the way to make this an exciting and entertaining read. I would like to read the earlier Simon the Coldheart, about one of Beauvallet’s ancestors, but first I will be heading back to the Regency period as the next Heyer novel I have lined up to read is Sprig Muslin.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Years before I started this blog – sometime in the 1990s, anyway – I read The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the English market town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. I found it much more exciting than it had initially sounded and I was soon gripped by the evil machinations of William Hamleigh, Prior Philip’s battle against the ruthless Bishop Waleran, and the seemingly doomed romance between Jack and Aliena. I’m sure I would be much more critical of it if I re-read it today and more likely to be bothered by the historical inaccuracies, but I loved it at the time. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but one was published in 2007 – World Without End, set in the same fictional town (or city, as it has now become) more than a century later. I enjoyed that one too, although in some ways it felt to me like the same story being told again.

A Column of Fire, published in 2017, takes us back to Kingsbridge again for a third story, set this time in the 16th century. As the novel opens in 1558, Ned Willard is returning home to Kingsbridge from Calais, where he has spent a year working in the family business. Ned can’t wait to be reunited with his mother, Alice, who runs the Kingsbridge branch of the business, but there’s also someone else he is looking forward to seeing again – Margery Fitzgerald, the young woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for Ned, things have changed during his absence and Margery is now betrothed to Bart, the heir of the Earl of Shiring (and those of you who have read the other Kingsbridge novels will remember exactly what those Earls of Shiring are like). Margery would prefer to marry Ned, but her parents won’t allow it – the Fitzgeralds, like the Earl and his family, are Catholic, but the Willards are suspected of having Protestant sympathies.

While Mary Tudor still sits on the throne of England, families like the Fitzgeralds and the Shirings may have the upper hand, but Ned knows that one day things will change. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, promising greater religious tolerance, is waiting for her turn to wear the crown and, when she does, she will need men like Ned to be her trusted servants and spies.

Across the sea, meanwhile, France is also experiencing a period of religious conflict and turmoil as the ambitious and staunchly Catholic Guise brothers, whose young niece Mary, Queen of Scots has married the heir to the throne, engage in a power struggle with Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France. In Paris, we meet one of the villains of the novel, Pierre Aumande, a man who believes he has Guise blood and will do anything to inveigle his way into that family – including hunting down French Protestants and sending them to their deaths.

So far, I have only touched on a few of the characters and storylines this novel contains. There are many, many more. We follow the adventures of Ned’s brother Barney in Spain and then the New World. We meet Sylvie Palot, a French Huguenot who works in a Parisian bookshop, buying and selling forbidden literature. We see the story of Mary, Queen of Scots play out as she returns to Scotland and eventually becomes a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I. And we witness the Siege of Calais, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. The novel has a huge scope, and that, I think, was a problem. There’s too much happening – far too much for one book – and that made it difficult for me to become truly absorbed in the lives and struggles of any of the characters. There’s no depth, no passion, no emotion; I didn’t really care about Ned and Margery’s romance, and I didn’t hate Pierre and the other villains as much as we were probably supposed to either.

That doesn’t mean I found nothing to like about this book. It’s certainly a fascinating period of history to read about and I can understand why Follett didn’t want to leave anything out, even though I would have preferred a tighter focus on just a few of the historical figures and incidents, rather than everything and everyone! The main theme of religious change and conflict was handled well. I really enjoyed the first half of the book but my interest started to wane as characters were abandoned for long stretches while others were introduced and as we spent more time in France, Spain, Scotland and the Caribbean, almost losing sight of Kingsbridge entirely.

I’m not really sure why this book involved Kingsbridge at all; I’m assuming it was probably done for marketing purposes, to pull in readers who enjoyed the previous two novels, but I think if it had been written as a standalone with no connection to the other two I would have had different expectations and might have judged it less harshly. One of the things I liked about The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End was that they were set in and around Kingsbridge Cathedral itself. We get to know the people who live and work in the city and there’s a strong sense of community as they come together to confront their enemies and face the threats of the outside world, but A Column of Fire is a different sort of story with a different feel. If anyone else has read this book I would be interested to know what you thought of it and how you felt it compared to the first two books.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

I loved Young Bess, the first book in Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth I trilogy, so I didn’t want to wait too long before picking up the second. I was hoping for another great read but, although there was still a lot to like about this book, I didn’t think it was as good as the first one.

Published in 1948, Elizabeth, Captive Princess, continues the story of the young Elizabeth. The novel begins with the death of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, leaving the succession to the throne of England in doubt. We then follow the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days before eventually being beheaded after Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary comes to the throne. This is a fate that Elizabeth could face herself as she also becomes linked with plots and conspiracies during Mary’s reign, leading to her imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Before the novel ends, two very different men have entered Elizabeth’s life: one is Robert Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland and another prisoner in the Tower; the other is Philip of Spain, who has come to England at last to marry Queen Mary. I would expect Elizabeth’s relationships with these two men to form the basis of the final book in the trilogy, Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but this particular book concentrates on the stories of Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. We actually see very little of Elizabeth herself in this book, which I thought was strange as she is the title character, although I suppose it’s not too surprising as a lot of the drama during this specific period was taking place elsewhere.

The lack of focus on Elizabeth wasn’t really a problem for me in itself; after all, in Young Bess it had been the secondary characters that I found most interesting anyway, particularly Thomas Seymour and his brothers Edward and Henry. But the characters in this book just don’t come to life in the way that the Seymours did and I struggled to connect with any of them on an emotional level. This made the novel feel a bit slow and flat, which was disappointing for me after enjoying the first one so much.

I don’t want to sound too negative, though, because I did like this book and the quality of Margaret Irwin’s writing still makes it a worthwhile read. I love her descriptive writing and the way she recreates Tudor London:

It was seven o’clock as they entered the city of London. The sun was setting in a fury of flame and storm-clouds. All the dark rickety wooden houses leaning top-heavily across the streets as though they were nodding to each other, all but rubbing each other’s foreheads, all seemed to have put on scarves and petticoats, so many bright cloths fluttered from the windows, while the gaily painted shop signs flaunted and creaked and clattered in the breeze.

Away from the main storylines, I enjoyed all the other little details of 16th century life and 16th century history. For example, I was interested in the account of the Edward Bonaventure’s voyages to the White Sea and the ‘strange land of endless snow’ which I first read about in The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett.

Having come this far, I will be finishing the trilogy with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but will then look forward to reading some of Margaret Irwin’s other books. I have The Galliard, her novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell on my TBR and would also like to read The Stranger Prince, about Prince Rupert of the Rhine.