The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart

Having read two of Martha Rofheart’s other books, Lionheart and Burning Sappho (about Richard I and the poet Sappho, respectively), I decided to try her 1978 novel The Savage Brood next. It sounded different from the others, being a multi-generational family saga and concentrating on fictional characters rather than real historical ones. I liked it enough to finish it but, as I so often find with this kind of book, the earlier sections were the best and I struggled to stay interested as the action moved closer towards the modern day.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Savage family, who have a long history as actors of one sort or another. It is divided into three sections which are set in different periods and work almost as self-contained novellas. We begin in Tudor England where we meet one branch of the family, a group of travelling players who make their living moving from town to town in a horse-drawn wagon and putting on performances for the local people. Finding English law too restrictive, the troupe move to Italy where, under the patronage of Cosimo I de’ Medici, they learn the skills of Commedia dell’Arte.

After a short ‘interval’, the story then jumps forward to 1752 where some of the Italian Savages (or Savaggi, as they have become known in the intervening years), return to London’s Drury Lane to work with the great English actor and producer, David Garrick. Garrick identifies young Miranda Savage as a special talent, but loses her when she moves to America – just in time for the Revolution.

There’s another interval and then we skip forward again, this time to San Francisco in 1906. The Savages have now made a name for themselves as vaudeville entertainers, but this form of theatre is in its final days as the first silent films begin to make their appearance. This section of the novel takes us right through both world wars and follows the careers of comic actor Sammy Savage, showboat musician Solange Sauvage, and Hollywood star JP Savage.

As I said, the first two sections were the most enjoyable, at least in my opinion. The third dragged on for too long, and except for the wartime parts, when the action moves to France for a while, I found the storyline much less interesting. The characters were unlikeable and self-obsessed, lacking the charisma of some of their earlier ancestors and little more than stereotypes of early Hollywood stars. By contrast, I loved the eighteenth century section and was particularly fond of Miranda Savage’s cousin Beau, who rises from humble beginnings to become a stage and fashion icon. Taken as a whole, though, I found the saga of the Savages unconvincing, with too many chance encounters between people who turn out to be distant Savage cousins.

Although Rofheart does acknowledge that women couldn’t act on stage in England until the Restoration, she does depict some of her sixteenth century female characters as acting with a travelling troupe. I didn’t think women were allowed to perform at all during that period (apart from in Italy), so that bothered me while I was reading, although I have since discovered a book on Women Players in England, 1500–1660, which suggests that women may have had more opportunities to act in sixteenth century England than I had imagined, at least on an amateur basis. I really don’t know enough about the subject to comment any further on Rofheart’s historical accuracy.

Despite the problems I had with The Savage Brood, I think it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in the theatre, incorporating almost every type of acting you can think of – Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, vaudeville, film and more – set against a backdrop of major historical events. I’m not really in any hurry to read the rest of Martha Rofheart’s books, but if anyone has read The Alexandrian, Cry God for Glendower and Fortune Made His Sword I would like to know if you enjoyed them and if you think they’re better than this one?

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart

burning-sappho There are some historical women whose lives have been written about in fiction many times but I think it’s safe to say that Sappho, the Greek lyric poet, doesn’t seem to be one of them. This novel, first published in 1974, is the first I’ve come across that tells her story and much as I do enjoy reading about Tudor queens and medieval princesses, it’s always refreshing to have the opportunity to read about somebody different!

Very little is known for certain about Sappho’s life. We do know that she was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, possibly between 630 and 612BC, and grew up in the port town of Mitylene. We know the probable names of some of her family members and we know that she was exiled from Mitylene twice. Beyond this, most of the information we have about Sappho is unreliable or based on the remaining fragments of her poetry, which may or may not have been autobiographical. It’s enough to build a novel around, though, and in Burning Sappho Martha Rofheart uses the known facts as a starting point to give a possible interpretation of what Sappho’s life could have been like.

We don’t have much factual information about the other characters who appear in the novel either – and I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard of most of them and didn’t know whether they were real or fictional, so Google proved very useful there! Some of the most notable characters include Gorgo, a girl from Sparta who angers Sappho by befriending Andromeda, the Nubian slave purchased by Sappho’s father; Alkaios, a fellow poet and the man Sappho loves; Pittakos, who rules Mitylene after the downfall of the Tyrant, Melanchros; and the famous courtesan Doricha, known as Rhodopis. I was also pleased to see Aesop make a few appearances – one character I had at least heard of!

The novel is divided into five sections; there are two narrated by Sappho herself and one each from the points of view of Alkaios, Doricha/Rhodopis and the sea trader, Kerkylas of Andros. There’s not a lot of difference between the voices of the narrators so it took a while to adjust to each change of perspective, but otherwise I thought the structure worked well. I preferred Sappho’s own narration, but hearing from other people who were close to her helped me to form a more balanced view of her as a person. There seems to be a lot of debate surrounding Sappho’s sexuality (the word lesbian is derived from the name of Sappho’s home, Lesbos), but Rofheart portrays her as having relationships with both men and women. In particular, she is shown to be in love with a girl called Atthis, whose name is mentioned in some of her love poetry.

I always admire people who write fiction set in ancient periods; I think it must be very difficult, when we have such limited knowledge of how people lived in those times. On reading Martha Rofheart’s Author’s Note and list of acknowledgments at the end of the book, I can appreciate the efforts she went to in researching her novel – for example, she states that as the geographical landscape has changed so much over the centuries, she has based her descriptions of the Greek islands on how they appeared in ancient writings rather than modern day ones. However, I still felt that there was something a little bit too ‘modern’ about this book – maybe it was the attitudes of some of the characters and the language they used. It wasn’t a huge problem, but the best way I can explain it is that I was always conscious that I was reading a story written in the 1970s, rather than being completely swept away to another time and place.

Still, I thought this was a fascinating novel and an educational one too. I knew absolutely nothing about this period before I started to read so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the historical accuracy or the choices Rofheart makes, but even if not everything happened as she describes it, I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the history of Lesbos. Although the focus is usually on Sappho and her music, she lived through a time of political turmoil; one of the most memorable scenes in the book describes the overthrow of Melanchros the Tyrant (which is sparked, in Rofheart’s version of events, by Sappho’s performance of a song she has written in protest against the custom of child sacrifice).

Burning Sappho (also published as My Name is Sappho) was an enjoyable read. Although it wasn’t quite as immersive as I would have liked, I thought it was much better than Lionheart, the other Martha Rofheart book I’ve read. She has written several other historical novels, all set in different periods, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them. As for Sappho, I can only find details of one or two other novels about her, but there seems to be plenty of non-fiction, including collections of her surviving writings. Now that I’ve been introduced to this fascinating woman, I’m interested in reading more about her!

Note: The spellings of names and places used in this review are as they appear in the novel and may vary between different sources.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)

~

edward-lear-book-of-nonsense

“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)

~

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)

~

In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

~

“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)

~

robert-cecil

“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)

~

Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

~

Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

~

lantern-clock

And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)

~

A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)

~

I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

~

sappho

Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)

~

“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)

~

“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)

~

Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

Lionheart by Martha Rofheart

Lionheart Martha Rofheart (1917-1990) was an American author of historical fiction who wrote several novels on subjects as diverse as Cleopatra (The Alexandrian), Henry V (Fortune Made His Sword) and the Greek poet, Sappho (Burning Sappho). Lionheart, her 1981 novel on England’s King Richard I, is the first of her books that I’ve read and although I had one or two problems with it, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to trying her others.

The story of Richard I, known as the Lionheart, is told from the perspectives of not only Richard himself, but five other people who each played a significant role in his life: his mistress, Blondelza; his mercenary captain, Mercadier; his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his wife, Berengaria of Navarre; and his foster-brother and scribe, Alexander. All of these people really existed, apart from Blondelza, who is fictitious, and each of them is given their own section of the book in which to relate their own version of events and to share with us their personal opinion of Richard as a man and as a king.

With six different characters each telling their side of the story, I would have liked their narrative voices to have sounded more distinctive, but they did all seem to blend together, the exceptions being Richard (a child during most of the first section of the novel), and his mother, Eleanor. I have read about Eleanor and Richard recently, in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Winter Crown, and it was good to read another author’s interpretation of the same characters. The portrayal of Richard here is balanced and well-developed, with each narrator throwing more light on a different aspect of his personality. He is shown to be a complex man, capable of being selfish and inconsiderate, but also courageous, kind-hearted and down to earth.

I’m not sure how I feel about the character of Blondelza, Richard’s mistress. As most of the other characters are real historical figures and the plot of the novel closely follows historical fact, it doesn’t seem quite right for an entirely fictional character to be given such a prominent role in the story. On the other hand, Richard did have an illegitimate son (Philip of Cognac) by an unidentified woman, so there’s plenty of scope there for an author to fill in the gaps, which is just what Martha Rofheart has done. And Blondelza, being a glee-maiden (a female poet or minstrel), is an interesting character to read about, fictional or not!

All of the major events of Richard’s life and reign are covered in the novel, from his childhood and his rebellion (with his brothers) against his father, Henry II, to his meeting with and marriage to Berengaria and, of course, his time on crusade. Obviously the crusades were of huge importance to Richard and it’s understandable that Rofheart goes into a lot of detail in describing them, but I did find that this section of the book (narrated by the monk Alexander) really started to drag, and it didn’t help that it was twice the length of any of the other sections.

Still, this was an enjoyable novel overall and I feel that I learned a lot about not only the life of Richard the Lionheart, but also medieval life in general. I was particularly intrigued by the descriptions of the Courts of Love in Poitiers and the tasks which must be carried out by a knight who wished to prove his love for his lady. Now that I’ve had my first introduction to Martha Rofheart’s writing I’m definitely planning to read her other books, all of which sound interesting.

Thanks to Endeavour Press for providing a review copy via NetGalley.