The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

Although I have read a lot of books set in 17th century England, I can’t remember ever reading anything about the astrologer William Lilly so I was immediately intrigued by the title and premise of Tobsha Learner’s new novel which promised to bring Lilly’s story to life.

We first meet Master Lilly in 1641, living quietly in the Surrey countryside after finding himself out of favour with Parliament. Even in exile, though, he is still famous for his knowledge of the occult and his skill at reading fortunes, and it’s not long before he is summoned back to London to draw up an horary (a form of horoscope) for Charles I. As Master Lilly looks to the future to discover what fate has in store for his King and his country, he sees only war, fire and plague on the horizon. He and his fellow ‘Cunning Folk’ will need to use all the magical powers they possess if they are to avert disaster – but is it really possible to change what is written in the stars? Master Lilly thinks it is:

We are all born with our Fates written like maps across the cosmos, but our faith and humanity give us choice. This is what I, William Lilly, believe: the Stars incline, they do not compel, and it is up to us mortals to know when to play our hand and when to fold.

The Magick of Master Lilly had the potential to be a good book, and in some ways it was. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about William Lilly before I started reading, so it was nice to be introduced to him and to learn about his life and work (the author includes some notes at the end to give some indication of what is based on fact and what isn’t). Whether you believe that some people can really see into the future or not, it seems that Lilly, among his other achievements, quite accurately predicted the Great Fire of London. He is also a healer and herbalist, and a writer of astrological texts and almanacs, although his day to day work, as he explains in the first chapter of the novel, consists mainly of “horaries, Natal figures, seduction of reluctant lovers, the finding of lost things, and the location of errant husbands”.

Lilly is not always the most likeable of characters, particularly where his relationship with his wife, Jane, is concerned, but despite this his narration is warm and lively, pulling us into his story. The tone of the novel reminded me of Rose Tremain’s Restoration and Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight. I could have done without the long, in-depth descriptions of every horoscope Lilly casts, though! I found myself skimming through those sections as I was much more interested in Lilly himself – his interactions with people at court; his meetings with other magicians; his romance with the (fictional) Magdalene de Morisset – than in the intricate details of his work.

My biggest problem with this book was the language. I’m usually the first to complain when the language used in historical fiction is too modern, but sometimes when the author attempts to write in a style appropriate to the period it can be just as distracting and I felt that was the case here. The word ‘hath’, for example, was used in place of ‘have’, but not consistently and not always when it made grammatical sense within the sentence. Modern words and phrases are used alongside the archaic ones, which just felt wrong to me. Also, Lilly often talks about his wife being a Quaker, a term which wasn’t used until the end of the English Civil War.

Just little things, but there were a lot of them, and they meant that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to. Still, I was pleased to make Master Lilly’s acquaintance. I do love reading about this period of history and with appearances from characters such as the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, this was still an interesting read at times.

Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Winter Prince by Cheryl Sawyer

After reading Charles Spencer’s biography Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier a year or two ago, I mentioned that I wanted to read more books, either fiction or non-fiction, about Rupert of the Rhine, surely one of the most interesting and colourful characters of the English Civil War and Restoration period. The suggestion I was particularly drawn to was The Stranger Prince by Margaret Irwin, but with another of Irwin’s books already unread on my shelf (The Galliard) I wanted to read that one first before buying another one. Meanwhile I came across The Winter Prince by Cheryl Sawyer and decided to give it a try.

The Winter Prince is the first in a trilogy which continues with Farewell, Cavaliers and The King’s Shadow. It opens in 1642 with conflict building between King Charles I and his Parliament. When Mary Villiers is informed by her husband, the Duke of Lennox and Richmond, that the King is planning to arrest five members of Parliament in the House of Commons, she thinks she is doing the right thing by warning the five men of his intentions. Mary is a royalist – the Duke is one of the King’s closest advisers – but she believes it will send out the wrong signal if the men are arrested.

Around this time, the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, arrives on England’s shores having recently been released from imprisonment in Germany. Charles needs all the loyal support he can get and, when civil war does inevitably break out, Rupert (accompanied by his beloved white poodle, Boy) is given the task of leading the Royalist cavalry. Mary Villiers was only fourteen the last time Rupert had come to Charles’s court and they don’t have very fond memories of each other. Meeting again now, as adults, they are instantly drawn to each other and a friendship quickly forms which could develop into something more – except that Mary is already married and Rupert is her husband’s friend.

The Winter Prince is written partly from Mary’s perspective and partly from Rupert’s. There is no actual evidence to prove that they were involved in a romantic relationship, but there are rumours to suggest that it may have happened and Cheryl Sawyer expands on this to create a romance for Rupert and Mary that runs throughout the novel. Because Rupert is away with the army so much of the time and because Mary doesn’t want to hurt her husband (whom she likes but doesn’t love), our hero and heroine don’t often have the opportunity to be together which makes the occasions when they do meet more significant. For me, though, there was something slightly lacking in the romantic aspect of the story. Although Cheryl Sawyer’s writing is very good in other ways, I thought the characters felt a little bit lifeless and because I couldn’t fall in love myself with her version of Rupert I couldn’t entirely believe in Mary’s feelings for him and his for her.

As far as I could tell, the book had been well researched, although as I am definitely not an expert on Prince Rupert or Mary Villiers (or this period in general) it’s hard for me to judge the historical accuracy. I did notice that on the first page the king is referred to as Charles the First whereas at the time he would have been simply King Charles as at that point there had not been a second, but I didn’t pick up on anything else like this. I just don’t have the knowledge to be able to comment, though. Anyway, it is not a light or fluffy novel – in fact, I felt as though I was being overloaded with information at times.

The romance is only one element of the novel; a large part of the book is also devoted to the Civil War itself and there are pages and pages of detailed descriptions of each battle, the tactics and strategies used and the role played by Rupert and his cavalry. I struggled to stay interested through these long military accounts, but this was probably my fault rather than the fault of the author as it’s not very often that I do enjoy reading battle scenes!

My feelings about this book were mixed, then, but it was good to have an opportunity to learn a little bit more about Rupert. I probably won’t read the other books in this trilogy, but I do still want to read Margaret Irwin’s The Stranger Prince.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a season.

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

Pamela Belle: Wintercombe and Herald of Joy

Having read and loved Pamela Belle’s wonderful Heron series, I knew I would also have to try her other series, of which Wintercombe (originally published in 1988) is the first. Although I was looking forward to reading it, I have to admit that after being so captivated by the adventures of the Heron family, I doubted whether I could possibly enjoy this book as much. Of course, I was wrong. What I found was another beautifully depicted setting, another moving story to become absorbed in and another set of characters to fall in love with (or to hate, as the case may be).

Our heroine this time is Silence St. Barbe, whose unusual first name was bestowed on her by her strict Puritan father as it represented one of the qualities he valued in a woman. When we meet Silence at the beginning of the novel, she has been married for several years to another Puritan – George St. Barbe, a man much older than Silence and with little love or compassion for his young wife. With the outbreak of England’s Civil War, George has gone off to fight with the Roundheads, while Silence stays safely behind at Wintercombe, the family’s country estate in Somerset, with her three children and two step-children.

When a troop of Cavaliers descend upon Wintercombe, however, it seems that it is not such a safe haven after all and soon the house is full of noisy, drunken soldiers under the command of the vicious and ruthless Lieutenant-Colonel Ridgeley. As she struggles to keep her family and servants safe and her lovely home intact, Silence is grateful for the help of Captain Nick Hellier who is able to provide some protection from the worst of his Colonel’s cruelty and violence. But much as Silence comes to value Nick’s friendship, she still isn’t sure whether she can trust him…he is one of the enemy, after all.

I have read a lot of novels set during the Civil War but one of the things I liked about Wintercombe (and also The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate) is that, although the progress of the war is followed and battles and significant political events are mentioned, the focus is on the lives of ordinary people, showing how, in one way or another, the effects of war eventually touch even those who have stayed at home and aren’t directly involved. A Parliamentarian house being garrisoned by the Royalist army is an aspect of the war that I haven’t read about in fiction before and I really felt for Silence and her family as they tried to prevent their beloved house and gardens from being destroyed. According to the author’s note, the model for Wintercombe is Great Chalfield in Wiltshire. I have never been there but it looks beautiful and is now on my list of places to visit if I’m in that area of the country.

There is also a romantic thread to the story, although I won’t say too much about it other than that I loved both hero and heroine and enjoyed watching their relationship slowly develop, giving them time to get to know each other – and the reader time to get to know both characters. But there are also other relationships which I found it interesting to follow, particularly the ones Silence has with her two teenage stepchildren, the difficult, troubled Rachael and the gentle, loyal Nat.

After finishing Wintercombe I couldn’t wait to continue with the story, so I moved straight on to the second book in the series, Herald of Joy. *Spoiler warning – you may wish to avoid reading the next few paragraphs until you’ve read Wintercombe.*

Herald of Joy takes up the story about six years after Wintercombe ended. Death is approaching for George St. Barbe, Silence’s husband, but it seems that his eldest daughter, Rachael, is the only person at Wintercombe who will truly grieve for him. Silence’s marriage to George has never been a happy one and even in death he manages to cause more problems for her. She and her stepson Nat are dismayed by the contents of his will, which leaves Silence reliant on Nat’s goodwill and Rachael faced with marrying a man who, as the rest of the family can see, is completely unsuitable. To complicate things further, Silence’s younger sister, the inappropriately named Patience, has recently been involved in a plot to restore Charles II to the throne and has been packed off to Wintercombe by their brother, where he hopes she will be kept out of trouble.

For Silence, George’s death means she is now free to be with her lover, Nick Hellier, after six years of separation – but Nick is fighting in Charles’ army at Worcester and is unaware of events at Wintercombe. When the battle ends in defeat for the Royalists, Nick is forced to go on the run. Will he and Silence be reunited at last?

Following Wintercombe’s emotional final chapter, I was hopeful that this novel would have a happier ending. But although some of our characters do find happiness by the end of the book (I’m not saying any more than that, of course) they have to endure more drama, betrayal, heartache and danger before they get to that point! While the story of Silence and Nick is at the heart of the novel again, I also enjoyed catching up with the rest of the St. Barbe family, their servants and friends, and seeing how they had developed and changed during the intervening years. The new characters are great too, particularly the lively, irrepressible Patience, the aristocratic Mervyn Touchet, who bears a striking resemblance to the King, and, best of all, the children’s ‘profane and Royalist’ parrot.

*End of spoilers*

I loved both of these books and will definitely read the other two in the series, A Falling Star and Treason’s Gift. However, I’m aware that they deal with the next generations of the St. Barbe family so I will wait a little while before reading them as at the moment I would probably just want more of Silence and Nick!

Dora Greenwell McChesney’s Civil War

Rupert by the Grace of God I have not just one book but two to tell you about today. Dora Greenwell McChesney is an author from the late 19th/early 20th century whose work I discovered a few months ago when I read her Richard III novel from 1913, The Confession of Richard Plantagenet. I love reading about Richard III, but I also enjoy reading about the English Civil War, so when I spotted reissues of two of her Civil War novels on NetGalley recently I was curious to see what they were like.

Rupert, by the Grace of God, originally published in 1899, was the first one I read. I was attracted to this book by the title; it refers, of course, to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I and commander of the Royalist cavalry. When I read a biography of Rupert earlier in the year, I said that I was interested in reading more about him (and was given a few suggestions in the comments, which I will get around to reading eventually – I promise!) so that was definitely part of the appeal of this particular novel for me.

The story is narrated by Will Fortescue, a young man who has defied his father to join the Royalist army. Taking refuge in a church to hide from enemy soldiers one day, Will finds an unusual golden coin on the floor and picks it up, unaware that in doing so he is changing the whole course of his life. The coin is recognised by Cosmas, an elderly man whom some say is a wizard, and Will finds himself drawn into a secret plot to put Rupert on the throne in place of Charles. Rupert himself, however, is loyal to his king and wants no part in such a treacherous scheme!

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t really what I’d been expecting. Being part historical adventure novel and part gothic melodrama, it was entertaining at times, but I have to admit, I can see why it was allowed to go out of print for so long. I was interested in Will Fortescue’s personal story and in his involvement in the battles and key moments of the Civil War, but there was too much focus on secret conspiracies and black magic rituals for my taste and after a few chapters I felt my attention starting to wander.

Cornet Strong of Iretons Horse The second McChesney novel I read was Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse, published several years later in 1903. This is a different sort of story, concentrating on the relationship between two soldiers within the Parliamentarian army: Nathan Standish, a young captain, and Reuben Strong, who is promoted to the rank of cornet after capturing Prince Rupert’s banner. Throughout the novel, Strong and Standish cross paths on several occasions with a young Irish Cavalier, Roy O’Neil, and his sister, Eileen.

Strong is a dedicated, inflexible person who believes very strongly in carrying out God’s work. When another character tells him “we are all somewhat more than mere engines of soldiership,” Strong answers “I am no more! I am a sword, a sword tempered to this work and to no other use.” Standish is a more likeable character and plays such a prominent part in the story, I wondered, at least for a while, why the author had chosen to put Strong’s name in the title.

Of these two books, I preferred Cornet Strong. Although it was still quite reliant on coincidences, chance encounters and last-minute escapes, it felt like a more ‘serious’ historical novel, telling a more straightforward story. Instead of the magic and mystery of Rupert, by the Grace of God, this one deals with battles, military campaigns and army life. Again, though, I never really felt fully absorbed – not until near the end, when something was revealed which made me think differently about everything I’d read up to that point.

Dora Greenwell McChesney’s writing style won’t appeal to everyone – the language used in her dialogue is archaic and her prose in general feels old-fashioned, even for books published in 1899 and 1903. These two novels haven’t won a place on my list of favourite Civil War books, but they were interesting in parts and were fairly quick reads, particularly the shorter Cornet Strong, so I did find them worth reading.

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Rider of the White Horse Rosemary Sutcliff is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years, having heard only good things about her work. I wasn’t planning to start with this particular book (The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset are the ones which have been recommended to me most often) but as I had the opportunity to read The Rider of the White Horse via NetGalley and have been enjoying other books set in the same time period recently, I thought I would give it a try.

Many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books were written for younger readers, but this is one of her adult novels, published in 1959. The ‘rider’ of the title is Sir Thomas Fairfax, also known as Black Tom, commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, and the ‘white horse’ refers to his stallion, White Surrey. Sutcliff’s novel tells Fairfax’s story, from the events leading up to the conflict, to his exploits on the battlefield and the formation of the New Model Army. But this is also the story of Anne Fairfax, the devoted wife who – along with their daughter, Little Moll – follows her husband to war.

Written largely from Anne’s perspective, The Rider of the White Horse is a moving portrayal of the relationship between husband and wife. It’s not so much a sweeping romance as a quiet, poignant tale of a woman with a passionate love for a man whom she knows does not – and probably never will – feel the same way about her. Despite this, Anne wants to be there for Thomas whenever he needs her; she wants to help in any way she can. Following him on campaign, travelling from one town to another, a lot of time is spent anxiously awaiting news of Thomas, but Anne also has adventures of her own – including one episode in which she is captured by the Royalist commander, Lord Newcastle.

NPG D27098; Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Baron Fairfax of Cameron possiby by Francis Engleheart, after Edward Bower As for Thomas Fairfax himself, I have to admit that he’s someone I previously knew very little about. Although I’ve read other books (both fiction and non-fiction) about the Civil War, Fairfax tends to be overshadowed by Oliver Cromwell. In this novel, he comes across as a decent, humble, honourable man who loves his daughter and – even if he is unable to return her feelings – appreciates and respects his wife. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which I hadn’t really expected as from the little I’d read about him I had picked up a more negative impression. Of course, that could be partly because I tend to be drawn more to the Royalist side anyway (not for any good reason, I have to confess, but purely because from a fictional point of view, they seem more colourful and interesting). I have no idea how accurate this portrait of Thomas is – or how much of Anne’s story is based on fact – but I did like this version of both characters.

I’ve never been a fan of battle scenes as I often find them boring and difficult to follow. There are several in this novel and while I could see that they were detailed and well-written, they didn’t interest me as much as the domestic and family scenes. Luckily for me, there are plenty of these too. What I’ll remember most, though, is the character of Anne and her love for a man who is simply not able to give her what she wants, cherishing each moment of happiness, however brief and fleeting…“You could not hold a winged thing; you could not even perfectly remember it afterwards, for that, too, was a kind of holding.”

Elizabeth Goudge Day: The White Witch

The White Witch A year ago I read The Child from the Sea as part of Lory of The Emerald City Book Review’s birthday celebrations for Elizabeth Goudge. This year, Lory is hosting another day devoted to the same author and this seemed like a good time to read my second book by Goudge. There were plenty to choose from – some historical and some contemporary, some for adults and some for children – but I decided on The White Witch. I loved The Child from the Sea, which was set in the seventeenth century and told the story of Lucy Walters, a mistress of Charles II, so as The White Witch is set in the same period the chances were good that I would love this book too – and I did.

The English Civil War forms the historical backdrop to the story, but the focus of the novel is on the inhabitants of a small Oxfordshire village and the ways in which their lives are touched by the greater changes taking place in the country as a whole. The ‘white witch’ of the title is Froniga, a healer and herbalist who has family ties with both the Puritan household of Robert Haslewood, the village squire, and with the band of Romany gypsies who camp nearby. Caught between both of these worlds while fully belonging to neither, Froniga is the character around whom all the others revolve.

Froniga is a fascinating character, but there were others whose stories interested me too, particularly Francis Leyland, the secretive stranger who offers to paint a portrait of Haslewood’s two young children, and the mysterious Yoben, who is in love with Froniga. There’s a ‘black witch’ too – and a parson who tries to save her soul – and a vengeful gypsy woman who causes trouble wherever she goes. Whether Parliamentarian or Royalist, Puritan or Catholic, nobleman or gypsy, in the hands of Elizabeth Goudge each of these characters becomes a well-rounded, believable human being – a person we can sympathise with even if we don’t necessarily agree with their views or their choices.

In this novel, the conflicts that take place in an individual’s heart or soul are as important as those which take place on the battlefield, though we do get to see some military action as several of our characters become involved in the major battles and events of the Civil War. But what I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

The White Witch, although never boring, has a slow pace and – as it was originally published in 1958 – it is written in a style which may not appeal to readers who prefer more modern historical novels and as with The Child from the Sea, there are strong religious and spiritual elements. I love Goudge’s writing style, though; it’s warm and gentle and comforting. I’m looking forward to working through the rest of her novels…and would like to thank Lory for introducing me to her work!