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.

Golden Lads by Daphne du Maurier

When I was making my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge last week, I remembered that one of the books I read for last year’s R.I.P. was Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. The title was from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” – the same lines that inspired the title of Daphne du Maurier’s Golden Lads: A Study of Anthony Bacon, Francis and Their Friends, a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while. Having been reminded of it, I picked it up and started reading, knowing that I have to be in the right mood for non-fiction.

Golden Lads was published in 1975 and was followed a year later by a second volume, The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall, which I may or may not read at some point. I love Daphne du Maurier and since discovering Rebecca as a teenager, I have read almost all of her novels and most of her short story collections, but only one of her non-fiction books, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë. I remember finding the Brontë biography almost as readable as her fiction, so I hoped this book would be the same. And it is certainly very readable – it only took a few days to read and was quite a page-turner at times, probably because, as stated in the introduction, du Maurier was writing this book with ‘her sort of reader’ in mind.

Anthony Bacon (born in 1558) and his younger brother Francis (born in 1561) were the sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, who was Elizabeth I’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and one of the most powerful men in England. Their mother, Anne Cooke, was the sister-in-law of the Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser. With such impressive family connections, the Bacon brothers were well placed to develop glittering careers of their own, but for Anthony that never quite happened, and for Francis not as quickly as he’d hoped.

After attending Cambridge University together at the ages of fifteen and twelve, their lives went in different directions with Francis entering Gray’s Inn as a lawyer while Anthony spent several years in Europe building up a network of contacts to send intelligence back to Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. During this period he became a friend of Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV of France) and the French essayist Montaigne. I was intrigued to find that another of his friends was Antonio Perez, whom I met just a few weeks ago in That Lady by Kate O’Brien! On his return to England in 1592, however, Anthony seems to have kept a low profile, which du Maurier explains as being as a result of his increasingly poor health (he suffered from gout and possibly other illnesses as well) but also due to a scandal which took place during his time in Montauban and for which du Maurier found new evidence in the form of archival records.

Francis is the best known of the Bacon brothers today, but most of the accomplishments in science, politics, philosophy and literature for which he is remembered are not discussed in Golden Lads as this book concentrates more on Anthony and only covers the period up to 1601. I didn’t mind this as I knew nothing at all about Anthony and was glad to have the opportunity to learn something new, but I didn’t feel that I got to know Francis very well at all. For that, I will obviously need to read The Winding Stair – although I’m not sure if or when I will get round to reading that book.

I found a lot to like about Golden Lads. As I’ve said, du Maurier’s writing style makes it easy to read and it’s obvious that she is enthusiastic about her subject. She includes extracts from letters and occasional bits of dialogue written in play format, which adds some variety, but readers who are hoping for an academic, scholarly biography might be disappointed as not everything is fully referenced (although she does include a bibliography and list of sources at the back of the book). I thought the first half of the book, which covers the Bacons’ early lives, was very enjoyable, but in the second half the focus switches to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and his military exploits in Cadiz and Ireland and this is where I started to get bored. I have read about Essex before and although I understand the important role he played in the lives of Anthony and Francis Bacon, I didn’t really want to read about him again in so much detail.

Golden Lads will not be a book for everyone, but I can definitely recommend it to readers who are particularly interested in Elizabethan England. I enjoyed it overall, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed it enough to want to continue with The Winding Stair. Has anyone read it – or any of du Maurier’s other non-fiction?

The Cursed Wife by Pamela Hartshorne

Having previously read Pamela Hartshorne’s time-slip novel The Edge of Dark, I found her latest book, The Cursed Wife, both similar and different. Similar in that they both explore the lives of women in Elizabethan England; different because this one is set entirely in the past, with no modern day storyline and no form of time travel.

The Cursed Wife is written from the perspectives of two women, Mary and Cat, who are both friends and rivals. When we first meet Mary in 1590 she appears to be leading a happy and contented life; she is married to the merchant Gabriel Thorne, and lives with him, their children and their servants in a comfortable house in London. Mary is devoted to her family and her household and has almost – but not quite – managed to forget that she was cursed as a child and predicted to die by hanging.

However, Mary’s whole life is built around lies and deception and she knows that if the truth is ever revealed she could lose everything. One rainy day she sets out to do some shopping in Sopers Lane to replenish her stocks of herbs and medicines, and is shocked to see a face from her past – a face she had expected never to see again. It’s Cat, her childhood friend, who was once as close to her as a sister, but who now possesses the secrets that could ruin Mary’s life…

As I’ve said, I found this a very different sort of book from The Edge of Dark; it doesn’t have such an eerie atmosphere and lacks the touches of the supernatural – although Mary does have a very creepy one-armed wooden doll called Peg. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Mary and Cat. It’s a relationship which changes and transforms itself over the years as the roles of the two women in each other’s lives are reversed, but the links between them are seemingly unbreakable and their stories are very closely entwined.

Cat and Mary take turns to narrate in alternating chapters and although their narrative voices are very similar, the author does use a few techniques to distinguish between the two – for example, Cat’s thoughts are often aimed directly at Mary (‘you say this’ and ‘you do that’). Cat is also a more bitter person than Mary, who can often seem quite naive and slow to understand things that are obvious to the reader. Neither woman is very likeable and although Cat is nastier, I can’t really say that my sympathies were with Mary either.

Pamela Hartshorne has written about the Elizabethan period before, not just in The Edge of Dark, but in other novels too, and she obviously knows it well. We are given lots of little details on domestic life in the late 16th century – the food people ate, the clothes they wore, the tasks carried out by servants in the home – and although historical events happening in the wider world have little direct effect on the story, there’s a sense of how precarious life could be in this period when hanging is a punishment for crime and when the most minor of illnesses can result in death. The novel also looks at the roles of women and the expectations that were placed on them regarding marriage.

The Cursed Wife is an interesting read and the storyline was compelling enough to hold my attention until the end, but I did prefer The Edge of Dark and as her earlier books all seem to be time-slip novels like that one I think I’ll have to investigate them at some point.

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

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Despite my love of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell is not an author I’ve ever really felt like reading. The usual settings and subjects that he writes about don’t appeal to me and although I did once start to read his book on Stonehenge, I didn’t get very far with it before giving up. His latest novel, Fools and Mortals, however, sounded much more like my sort of book, so I thought it was time I gave him another chance.

The title is inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”) and it is Shakespeare who is at the heart of the novel – not William, though, but his younger brother, Richard, who has followed him to London in the hope of becoming an actor. I found this slightly confusing, because I remembered from reading Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare that it was their other brother, Edmund, who was the actor. I don’t know why Cornwell gave this role to Richard instead; the rest of the background to the novel seems to have been thoroughly researched, so I would be interested to know whether that was a deliberate decision rather than a mistake.

Anyway, Richard Shakespeare is our narrator. The novel opens in 1595 just as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the acting company to which both Richard and William belong – are beginning rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Until now, Richard, like several of the other young men in the company, has been given only women’s parts to play. He wants nothing more than to play a man for a change, but it seems that his brother is still determined not to take him seriously as an actor. There are other companies, of course, and other theatres, and Richard receives a tempting offer from Francis Langley of the newly constructed Swan in Southwark. However, this will depend on whether or not he is prepared to steal two of William’s new plays. Will Richard betray his brother and leave The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – or can he find another way to earn William’s respect and win the bigger, better roles he believes he deserves?

I enjoyed this book much more than I’d expected to! I imagine that battle and military scenes probably form a big part of most of Cornwell’s other books, but there was nothing like that in this one, which is set entirely in the world of the Elizabethan theatre. There is still plenty of action, but it takes the form of the attempts of other companies to steal Shakespeare’s plays and the efforts of the Pursuivants to find evidence of heresy and close the playhouses down. As the narrator, Richard is involved in all the drama, both on stage and off, and tells his story in a lively, humorous style. He has his flaws but is a likeable character – although I should warn you that William is not!

The other members of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are also brought to life, from well known figures of the period such as the comic actor Will Kemp to those who are purely fictional. It was fascinating to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream take shape starting with the earliest stages – the allocation of parts to actors and the learning of lines – to rehearsals at the home of their patron, Lord Hunsdon, and then the final performance (I loved the hilarious description of the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play). However, I couldn’t help feeling that this all became very repetitive; I felt that the entire plot of the play had been described in detail a hundred times by the time I reached the end of the novel!

The book finishes with an author’s note from Cornwell; this is long and detailed, describing his interest in Shakespeare’s work and discussing the history behind London’s playhouses. Surprisingly, he doesn’t talk about Richard Shakespeare himself or why he was chosen to be the central character in the novel.

It would be nice to think that I would find the rest of Cornwell’s books as entertaining as this one, but I’m still not sure that any of the others would really be to my taste. I do have a copy of The Last Kingdom which I acquired when it was free for Kindle a while ago, so I will try it at some point and will be happy to be proved wrong!

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

Elizabeth Goudge Day: Towers in the Mist

I have Lory of The Emerald City Book Review to thank for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Goudge. Last year, for her Elizabeth Goudge Day (hosted on the author’s birthday, 24th April) I read The White Witch, and the year before I read The Child from the Sea. I loved both so there was no question of not taking part again this year – and I had high hopes for my third Goudge novel, Towers in the Mist, which was first published in 1937.

Not all of Goudge’s novels are historical, but it’s the historical ones that I’ve been drawn to first. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford in the Elizabethan period and, like the other two I’ve read, it’s a truly beautiful novel. It begins on May Day with Faithful Crocker’s first sight of the “fragile city spun out of dreams, so small that he could have held it on the palm of his hand and blown it away into silver mist”. At the age of fourteen, Faithful has found himself alone in the world and has made his way to Oxford where he hopes to achieve his ambition of becoming a scholar and attending university. With no money, no friends and not even any decent clothes to wear, this may seem unlikely, but Faithful’s fortunes improve when he catches the eye of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, who takes him into his household and treats him as one of the family.

Following the death of his wife several years earlier, Canon Leigh has been left to raise his children alone and most of the responsibility has fallen on his eldest daughter, Joyeuce. Joyeuce is devoted to her younger brothers and sisters, but when student Nicolas de Worde enters her life, she will have to decide what is more important to her. We also follow the stories of the domestically-minded Grace, who longs to step out of her sister Joyeuce’s shadow and take control of the Leigh household, and of four-year-old Diccon, who is thought to have been switched at birth as he is so different in looks and temperament to the rest of the family. These are the people with whom Faithful will build his new life, sharing in their small everyday dramas – such as the chaos of the Spring Wash – as well as the larger ones which affect the entire city and university.

I loved getting to know Faithful and the Leighs (and Nicolas, who ended up being one of my favourite characters after undergoing a bit of a transformation which I hadn’t expected at the beginning) but there are also several real historical figures from the Elizabethan age who play a part in the story. The most prominent are the poet Philip Sidney and the poet/explorer Walter Raleigh who, at the time during which the novel is set, are both young men attending university along with Faithful, Nicolas and Giles Leigh. I loved the contrast between the two characters – the flamboyant, daring Raleigh and the quiet, sensitive Sidney – and I enjoyed the little insights we are given into the work of a poet: “The loveliest phrases are winged, and when the poet opens the door of the place where he put them he finds that the tiresome creatures have flown away.”

Each chapter opens with a passage from a poem by Sidney, Raleigh or another 16th century poet and I thought this was a nice touch which helped to set the mood for the story. Goudge admits in her note at the beginning that not everything in the book will be entirely accurate historically, but I think she is very successful at capturing the overall feel of the Elizabethan period even if it may not be correct in every detail.

Towers in the Mist is a lovely book, but it does have a few flaws and could be too sentimental for many modern day readers. Although the descriptions of Oxford are beautiful and Goudge’s own love for the place shines through, sometimes she goes into long digressions on the history of the city and university which add very little to the plot – you either have the patience for that sort of thing or you don’t. As with the other Goudge novels I’ve read, there’s also a strong religious element which won’t be for everyone either (in fact, it’s not really for me, although it didn’t bother me at all when there was so much else to enjoy).

So, that’s three books by Elizabeth Goudge that I’ve read now and three that I’ve loved. Which one should I read next?

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

the-girl-in-the-glass-tower One of the things I like about Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical novels is that they deal with women whose stories aren’t told very often: Penelope Devereux in Watch the Lady, Katherine and Mary Grey in Sisters of Treason and Katherine Parr in Queen’s Gambit. In this, her fourth novel, she writes about two more – Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer.

The Girl in the Glass Tower is set towards the end of the Elizabethan period, with England waiting anxiously for Elizabeth I, growing old with no children of her own, to name her heir. Born in 1575, Lady Arbella Stuart is the granddaughter of Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece, and therefore a possible claimant to the throne. Her other grandmother, the formidable and ambitious Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, is determined to make this possibility a reality – and so Arbella grows up in isolation at Hardwick Hall, sheltered and protected from those who might try to plot against her.

Being close to the throne, however, doesn’t bring Arbella happiness and when her cousin, James VI of Scotland, is finally named as Elizabeth’s successor, she feels that her whole life has been wasted waiting for something that now looks unlikely to happen. Sadly, though, there is still more trouble ahead and when she makes the decision to marry William Seymour, who himself has Tudor blood, Arbella finds herself imprisoned again, this time in the Tower of London.

Arbella’s story alternates with the story of the poet Aemilia Lanyer, author of the poetry collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Aemilia (whom I have read about previously in Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly) is sometimes considered to have been the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but this theory is not the focus of this novel, which concentrates on other aspects of Aemilia’s life instead: how she coped financially after the end of her affair with her rich lover, Lord Hunsdon, and the death of her husband, Alfonso; her work as a poet and as a teacher; and her relationship with her son, Henry.

For both women’s stories, Elizabeth Fremantle sticks to the known historical facts as far as possible, but where details are not known – particularly where Aemilia is concerned – she takes the opportunity to use her imagination. There is no evidence that the two women were friends, for example (although they would probably have been at court at the same time and Aemilia did dedicate one of her poems to Arbella), but Fremantle imagines that they were and that their lives became closely linked.

I loved following Arbella’s story – I’d only read about her once before, in Maureen Peters’ The Queenmaker, which is written from Bess of Hardwick’s perspective, so it was interesting to see things from another point of view, with Bess almost as a villain, controlling and manipulating her granddaughter’s life. I found Aemilia’s sections of the book slightly less absorbing, maybe because I didn’t like the device Fremantle uses of having Aemilia looking back on her relationship with Arbella from a point several years into the future. Still, I thought her story worked well alongside Arbella’s and provided an interesting contrast; unlike Arbella, whose destiny is always in the hands of other people, Aemilia has a much greater degree of freedom, her own struggle being mainly for financial independence and the respect of her son.

I also appreciated the way Fremantle pulls aspects of her previous novels together in this one – Penelope Devereux, the Earl of Essex’s sister from Watch the Lady, has a role to play, and the memory of Katherine Grey from Sisters of Treason is a strong presence in Arbella’s life. The Girl in the Glass Tower is a sad novel, but one that I enjoyed reading – and now I’m wondering who Elizabeth Fremantle will choose to write about next.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

watch-the-lady I’ve fallen behind with Elizabeth Fremantle’s books; having read Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason shortly after they came out, the publication of her next book – Watch the Lady – seemed to escape my notice and now there’s also a fourth novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower. I discovered that my library had both and decided that Watch the Lady, her novel about the 16th century noblewoman Penelope Devereux, would be the next one I read.

Penelope’s story is one that is not often told; she has appeared as a minor character in other books I’ve read set during the Elizabethan period, such as Elizabeth I by Margaret George, but this is the first novel I’ve come across in which she is the main character.

Penelope is related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth’s aunt. Lettice has incurred the Queen’s displeasure by secretly marrying Robert Dudley, the man said to be Elizabeth’s own love interest, and has been exiled from court. Lettice’s children, however, are still welcome and Penelope’s handsome, dashing brother, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, has become a particular favourite of Elizabeth’s. As Essex rises higher and higher in the Queen’s favour, his enemies plot to pull him down and Penelope must do everything in her power to protect her brother and keep the family’s ambitions alive.

While Essex’s turbulent career, which is marked by military defeats, trials and banishments and ends in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, is followed in detail, Penelope herself is the real focus of the novel. Penelope is considered to be one of the beauties of the Elizabethan court and the inspiration for the poet Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence. The real nature of her relationship with Sidney is uncertain, but Fremantle gives one interpretation here. Penelope’s unhappy marriage to Lord Rich and her later love for Charles Blount are also described, but I was less interested in these parts of the story and I don’t think the balance between the romance and the politics in this book was quite right for me.

I did like the way Penelope is portrayed – a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman, but one who is still convincing as an Elizabethan woman, rather than feeling like a modern day character dropped into a historical setting – and Essex, if not very likeable, is always interesting to read about. Elizabeth’s adviser, Robert Cecil, however, is very much the villain of the novel; there are several chapters written from his perspective and from the beginning he is shown to be working against Essex and his family, acting on his father’s advice that people need someone to hate and that if he can learn to be that hated person he will be indispensable. I think Cecil does a good job of making himself hated, and it wasn’t until near the end of the book that I began to have some sympathy for him.

I enjoyed reading Watch the Lady and getting to know Penelope Devereux, but this is not my favourite of the three Elizabeth Fremantle novels I’ve read so far, partly because, as I’ve mentioned, Penelope’s love life didn’t interest me all that much, and also because I prefer the periods of Tudor history covered in Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason. I’ve now moved on to The Girl in the Glass Tower and am finding it a much stronger novel; my full thoughts on that one should be coming soon.