Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

Times past, times present, or times to come, were they not all one, if he had the power to make them so?

Part ghost story, part time-slip fantasy and part historical fiction, Margaret Irwin’s first novel from 1924, recently reissued with a pretty new cover, is a wonderful, dreamlike read.

Jan Challard is a young woman living in 1920s London and trying to find her place in the new society which has emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Life seems to be going well, but Jan feels restless: she is bored with her office job, bored with the nice, suitable young man who wants to marry her, and haunted by a face in a portrait – a Gentleman Unknown, who seems to be following her everywhere she goes.

In 1779, we meet another bored young woman: seventeen-year-old Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family with an estate in Berkshire. Juliana spends her days walking in the gardens of Chidleigh House and writing in her journal, while waiting for something more exciting to happen and remembering a line from her favourite childhood fairytale: “…still she sat and still she span, and still she wished for company”. Company does eventually arrive, but perhaps not in the way Juliana had expected.

First, following the death of Lord Chidleigh, Juliana’s eldest brother Lucian returns after a long absence to take up his father’s title and his inheritance. Stories of the wild, debauched lifestyle Lucian has been leading have reached the family and he receives a frosty welcome at Chidleigh House. Juliana is the only one who is happy to see him and as the brother and sister grow closer, something strange begins to happen: the centuries separating Juliana’s life from Jan’s seem to dissolve and merge. Jan can see Juliana and Juliana can see Jan, but which of them is the ghost and which of them is real?

This is a very short novel, but just the right length for the story – or stories – being told, and it really doesn’t need to be any longer. Jan’s story frames Juliana’s and is confined to a short section at the beginning of the book and another at the end; Margaret Irwin appears to be more comfortable writing about the eighteenth century (a period she obviously knew well and knew how to bring to life) and most of the novel concentrates on Juliana. I couldn’t help comparing this to most of the dual time-period books being written today, where I usually find that far too much time is spent on a weaker present day narrative, leaving me impatient to get back to the more interesting historical one. The structure of Still She Wished for Company is much more effective, in my opinion, as I could become fully immersed in Juliana’s story without being pulled out of it after every few chapters.

The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read. There are no obvious anachronisms, no dialogue that feels jarringly wrong for the time period…it was just a pleasure to read! The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!

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

Catching up…three historical reads

I usually try to write about each book I read as soon as possible after finishing it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and I find myself with a backlog of reviews to write for books read earlier in the year. Here are three historical novels that I read a few months ago and haven’t got around to writing about until now.

I was drawn to The Minion (1930) both because I’ve loved some of the other Rafael Sabatini books I’ve read and because it is a fictional account of the Thomas Overbury Scandal, a 17th century murder case I’ve previously read about in The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle and The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen. Set during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, the novel follows the story of Robert Carr, a young man who becomes a favourite of the king. The ambitious Earl of Northampton sees a chance to get closer to the throne by encouraging his great-niece, Frances Howard, to begin an affair with Carr, but the romance is opposed by Carr’s friend, Thomas Overbury. When Overbury is found dead in the Tower of London, suspicion falls on Carr and Frances.

As a fan of Sabatini, I have to confess I didn’t really like this particular book very much. Unlike the other novels of his I’ve read that have mainly fictional characters and storylines, this one is based very closely on real history and I think maybe he felt too constrained by historical fact to be able to create a compelling, entertaining story like his others. The characters seemed quite lifeless and the writing felt a bit dry – not really his usual style at all. Having said that, the history on which it is based is fascinating and Sabatini makes no secret of how he feels about the petty rivalries of the Jacobean court. It’s still an interesting read, if not a great example of Sabatini’s work.

If you want to know more about the Thomas Overbury affair, try the Fremantle novel instead – and if you’re new to Sabatini, start with Scaramouche!

Joanna Hickson has previously written several novels set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of English history. Her latest book, The Lady of the Ravens (2020), opens just after the final major battle in that conflict – the Battle of Bosworth, which resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne as King Henry VII. This novel looks at the events of the early part of Henry’s reign from the perspective of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. We see how precarious Henry’s grip on the throne is, with challenges from various Yorkist pretenders, and the steps he takes to deal with these threats, and we are given some glimpses of his children, including Prince Arthur, his eldest son who is betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and the future Henry VIII, seen here as a charming, confident young child, already popular with his father’s subjects.

Joan herself has very little, if any, direct involvement in the political intrigues of the court, which perhaps makes the story less exciting than it could have been, but she does form a strong bond with Elizabeth, bringing her close to the lives of the royal family. Joan’s own family life is also explored; I don’t know how historically accurate the book is regarding her personal relationships, but the fictional Joan appears to have been quite fortunate in her marriage to Sir Richard Guildford. It might not exactly be love at first sight, but she and Richard soon learn to get along with each other and, for an arranged marriage in the 15th century, it’s not an unhappy one. As for the ‘ravens’ of the title, they are the birds that live at the Tower of London; as legend has it, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall, so Joan, who has become fascinated by the birds, does her best to protect them from those who wish to do them harm.

I didn’t find this quite as interesting as Joanna Hickson’s previous book, The Tudor Crown, maybe because that one was about Henry Tudor and took us straight to the heart of the action, whereas the choice of Joan as narrator of this book, as I’ve said, means a slower pace and a more domestic story. Still, I enjoyed it and was pleased to see that there’s going to be a sequel.

Having enjoyed some of Margaret Irwin’s other books, particularly the first two of her Elizabeth I trilogy (I must read the third one soon), I had high hopes for this one, about Charles II’s younger sister Henrietta – known as Minette. Royal Flush (1932) is a straightforward fictional retelling of Minette’s life, beginning with her exile in France as a child during the period of her father, Charles II’s, beheading and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Growing up at the French court, it is at first hoped that Minette will marry the young king of France, Louis XIV, but when another bride is chosen for Louis, Minette finds herself married off to his younger brother Philippe instead.

I won’t say any more about the plot as you will either already be familiar with Minette’s history or, if not, you won’t want me to spoil it for you. However, if you’re completely new to her story, be aware that the book is quite slow and detailed and possibly not the best starting point (although this is the first novel I’ve read specifically about Minette, I’ve come across her many times as a secondary character in books like Dumas’ Louise de la Vallière and Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Lady on the Coin and I found it very useful to have that little bit of prior knowledge about her). I do like Margaret Irwin’s writing and the old-fashioned charm of her novels, which have quite a different feel from most of the historical fiction being published today, but I think this is the weakest of her books that I’ve read so far.

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Have you read any of these – or any other books by these authors?

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.

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin – #1944Club

Since reading Margaret Irwin’s 1925 fantasy novel, These Mortals, a few years ago, I have wanted to read one of the historical novels for which she was better known – and when I discovered that Young Bess was published in 1944, I thought it would be a good choice for the 1944 Club Simon and Karen are hosting this week.

The ‘Bess’ of the title refers to the young Elizabeth I and this book (the first in a trilogy) covers her life between the years 1545 and 1553. Having read about Elizabeth several times before, I hadn’t expected Young Bess to offer anything new – and it didn’t, really; however, it was a pleasure to read a good old-fashioned historical fiction novel with elegant prose and strong characterisation, no present tense, no experimental writing and no multiple time periods! It’s a book which completely immerses the reader in the Tudor period and the lives of Elizabeth and the historical figures who surround her, so that you reach the end feeling that you’ve read something fresh and worthwhile after all. I loved it and will definitely be going on to read the other two books in the trilogy.

The novel opens in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign; the King, now obese and in poor health, is as dangerous and unpredictable as ever, and his twelve-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – or Bess as I will call her for the remainder of this post – is already learning to navigate her way through the layers of political intrigue, betrayal and treachery that are part of everyday life for a Tudor. With the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn, always at the back of her mind, Bess knows that nobody is safe at court and that fortunes can be made or lost in an instant.

One of the few people Bess does love and trust is her stepmother, Catherine Parr, and she goes to live with her following Henry’s death in 1547. But then Catherine marries Tom Seymour, and tensions in the household start to rise when what seem at first to be innocent games between Bess and Tom begin to develop into something more. As the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and therefore the uncle of the newly crowned Edward VI, Tom’s behaviour puts him in a precarious position at court. He lacks the power of his elder brother, Ned Seymour, who has been named Protector until the young king comes of age, but at the same time he is too powerful for his actions to be ignored. If he and Bess continue to pursue their relationship there could be tragic consequences.

All of this will be very familiar to anyone who has read Elizabeth’s story before; as I’ve said, Margaret Irwin doesn’t really offer anything different or controversial (at least nothing that hasn’t been suggested by other authors as well). Where this novel really shines is in the characterisation – although Bess is the main focus of the story, all of the other characters feel fully developed too and because the book is relatively long for the short period of history that it covers, there’s enough time for the author to go into the necessary amount of depth. I particularly enjoyed the insights we are given into the thoughts of Henry VIII in the days before his death, the transformation of Edward VI from lonely, vulnerable boy to ruthless, calculating Tudor, and the appearance at court of the Seymours’ other brother, Henry, who is far more shrewd and observant than his unsophisticated exterior suggests.

Finally, reading this with the 1944 Club in mind, I was interested to see what Tom Seymour had to say to his brother Ned about the German mercenaries he had brought in to fight in Scotland:

“Their Emperor is not the Emperor of Germany, he’s the German Emperor – of the World…And it’s this Master Race of mechanic monsters that you’re bringing into this island to fight your battles for you, against fellows who speak the same language as yourselves – and to do the dirty work you can’t get Englishmen to do.”

I suppose the war was never far from anyone’s thoughts in the 1940s, even when writing about the 16th century!

I am now looking forward to reading the other two books, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. Has anyone seen the 1953 film version of Young Bess, starring Jean Simmons?

These Mortals by Margaret Irwin

These Mortals I wasn’t familiar with Margaret Irwin until a few months ago when Jane wrote about one of her other books, Still She Wished for Company. It sounded intriguing, so when I had the opportunity to read this one, which has been released this month as an ebook by Bloomsbury Reader, I decided to investigate.

These Mortals is a fantasy novel originally published in 1925, taking its title from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Lord, what fools these mortals be”). But it was another of his plays – The Tempest – that I was reminded of when I began to read, because like Miranda in The Tempest, the heroine in this book is the daughter of a powerful magician. Her name is Melusine and she has grown up isolated from human society, living with her father, the Enchanter Aldebaran, in his palace by the sea.

Although Melusine loves her three best friends, the Cat, the Raven and the Snake, she longs to meet other human beings like herself. One day she makes a magic ship from a shell, a rose petal and a silver pin and uses it to sail across a moonbeam to the human world beyond. Arriving in the kingdom of the Emperor Eminondas, Melusine begins to learn the ways of mortals and discovers what it means to fall in love.

This book is written in the style of a fairy tale, complete with princes and princesses, shipwrecked kings and woodcutters’ daughters, poets, magicians and talking animals. It’s all very dreamlike and it feels timeless. There are elements of other classic myths and legends too, particularly the legend of the water fairy, Melusina, who married a mortal man, Count Raymond of Poitou.

The only problem with this fairy tale atmosphere is that I felt there was a distance between the reader and the characters; they didn’t feel like real people and apart from Melusine herself, they didn’t come to life at all. I found it difficult at first to distinguish between the various members of the Emperor’s court (Princess Blanchelys, Lady Valeria, Sir Oliver and Sir Diarmid) and to remember who was in love with who. I was much more interested in Melusine’s personal story. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where she uses her magical powers – and I found myself looking forward to any appearances of the Cat, the Raven and the Snake!

There’s also some humour in the story, as there are so many aspects of human life of which Melusine has no knowledge or understanding.

“Tell me,” she said, “of that game I have heard you speak of to others, an ancient solitary game that is played with clubs by half-naked savages in the northern hills. There seems so much to tell of that game that it must surely be more exciting than any tale of love or perilous adventure.”

“Ah, there’s nothing like a good game of golf,” he said.

I suspect this was probably not the best Margaret Irwin book for me to have started with, but it was an unusual and entertaining novel and I still enjoyed it. It’s a very short book, but long enough for the story that is being told. Now I’m interested in trying some of the historical novels the author is more famous for.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a review copy via NetGalley