The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

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

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman

I tend not to read non-fiction very often, but Barbara W Tuchman’s 1978 history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, is one I’ve been intending to read for years. It looked like such a long book, and I’d heard that it was also a very detailed one, so I knew I would need to pick the right time to read it – and that time came at the beginning of April this year. It took me all of that month to read it, but I actually found it a much easier read than I’d expected, due partly to the style of Tuchman’s writing and partly, of course, to the 14th century being so fascinating!

I couldn’t possibly list everything that this book covers, but here are some of the topics it explores: the Hundred Years’ War, the conflict between England and France usually dated as beginning in 1337 and ending in 1453 and including the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers; the Black Death which ravaged Europe and then reared its head again and again throughout the rest of the century; the Papal Schism which resulted in a split within the Catholic Church; and the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the similar uprising, the Jacquerie, which occurred in France. A lot of destruction, disaster and devastation, but the book is subtitled The Calamitous 14th Century, after all, and – as Tuchman points out – it tends to be the negative rather than the positive which survives in historical records. It is not really necessary to have any prior knowledge of any of these things before you begin, as Tuchman does take the reader through everything you need to know and more.

In an attempt to pull all of these different threads together, Tuchman uses the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy, as a central point of focus. There are a few reasons for her choice of this particular historical figure: not only did he live through most of the major events of the 14th century (being born in 1340 and dying in 1397), but his noble status means that he appears in historical records and sources, and as the husband of Isabella, daughter of Edward III of England, he had close connections with both the English and the French. When I first started reading, I really liked the idea of seeing the century from one man’s perspective, but actually this aspect of the book wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. There are whole chapters where Enguerrand is barely mentioned, and others where I felt that too much attention was given to him and his actions when other people or incidents might have been more interesting.

Of course, as well as Enguerrand de Coucy, we do hear about lots of other historical figures of the period – such as Charles the Bad of Navarre, whose horrific-sounding death sticks in the mind! I enjoyed reading about some of the notable women of the time, including the poet Christine de Pisan; Marcia Ordelaffi, left to defend the city of Cesena in her husband’s absence; and in particular, Jeanne de Montfort (Joanna of Flanders), who also proved herself more than capable in moments of crisis:

When Charles de Blois besieged Hennebont, she led a heroic defence in full armour astride a war-horse in the streets, exhorting the soldiers under a hail of arrows and ordering women to cut short their skirts and carry stones and pots of boiling pitch to the walls to cast down upon the enemy. During a lull she led a party of knights out a secret gate and galloped a roundabout way to take the enemy camp in the rear, destroyed half their force and defeated the siege.

War is, understandably, a major theme of the book, as is religion, but Tuchman also covers almost every other aspect of 14th century life you can think of, from food, clothing and housing to music, literature and entertainment. She often goes off on a tangent, for example starting with a description of a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor to the French court then digressing to talking about miracle plays and how they were performed. There are interesting discussions of medieval artwork and why there were so few pictures of children, of the decline of chivalry and the changing role of the knight, and all sorts of odd snippets of information – did you know that during one of France’s failed attempts to invade England they tried to transport an entire portable wooden town across the sea to house the invaders in when they landed?

The book’s title, A Distant Mirror, suggests the mirroring of 14th century events by more recent ones, and Tuchman does draw some parallels with her own century, the 20th, particularly with reference to the two World Wars:

For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.

She also compares World War I and its effect on society with the devastation caused throughout medieval Europe by the plague:

An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.

However, I’m sure links and similarities could be found between any two periods in history if you looked for them, so I would have liked more specific examples and analysis of why the author considered the 14th century in particular to be ‘a distant mirror’.

I know this sort of long, detailed, in-depth account is not for everyone, especially if you’re not as interested in medieval history as I am, but I enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot out of it. If anyone else has read this book, I would love to know what you thought.

Historical Musings #16: Exploring Europe

Historical Musings I think it’s safe to say that, if you live in the UK, the subject of Europe will have been very much in your thoughts over the last few weeks. Now, don’t worry – I have always made an effort to keep politics away from my blog, so I’m not planning to discuss the EU referendum here or to ask whether you voted Remain or Leave. However, when I sat down to choose a topic for this month’s Historical Musings post, the first thing that came to mind was Europe…and specifically, how little I’ve read about the histories of certain European countries.

Obviously, I have read a large number of historical fiction novels covering various periods of British history and quite a lot set in France and Italy. Looking back through my blog archives, I can see that I’ve read several historical novels set in Spain (including The Last Queen by CW Gortner, the story of Juana of Castile, and By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan, set in a Jewish community in 15th century Granada) and have also been introduced to Dutch history through books like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip.

The Wild Girl German history has featured less often in my reading – apart from books about the Second World War, I can only really think of The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth (the story of Dortchen Wild and her relationship with the Brothers Grimm) and The Beggar King by Oliver Pötzsch (a mystery set in 17th century Bavaria). My recent read of Kristin Lavransdatter, which I wrote about last week, is the first time I’ve read about medieval Norway, and the only other book I can think of which touched on Norwegian history was Lucinda Riley’s The Storm Sister.

Far to Go I’ve read one novel set in 18th century Portugal (The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman), one in 1930s and 40s Hungary (The Invisible Bridge) and one in the former Czechoslovakia (Far to Go by Alison Pick). Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series have introduced me to the histories of several other European countries, including Cyprus (Race of Scorpions), Iceland (To Lie with Lions) and Malta (The Disorderly Knights). These novels, though – excellent as they are – only cover a brief time period and I’m very aware that I still have a lot to learn.

This month, then, I’m looking for some suggestions. I would love to hear about any historical fiction you’ve read set in any of the European countries I’ve already mentioned and also in any I haven’t – for example, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Baltic states, Austria, Greece (other than ancient history and mythology), Bulgaria, Romania/the Balkans, Poland, Switzerland to name just a few. I’ve read contemporary fiction set in some of these countries but know little to nothing of their histories and that’s something I would like to change.