The Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

Today I am taking part in a blog tour for The Butcher’s Daughter, a novel set in Tudor England during and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s a time period and subject that interests me, so I had high hopes for this book, my first by Victoria Glendinning.

It’s 1535 and Agnes Peppin is the ‘butcher’s daughter’ of the title – a young woman from Bruton in Somerset who, after giving birth to an illegitimate child, has been sent to live with the nuns at Shaftesbury Abbey as a novice. Agnes can read and write, having been taught by the canons at her local church, and these skills make her useful to the abbess, Elizabeth Zouche. Before she has time to take her vows and become a nun herself, however, Shaftesbury Abbey, like other great religious houses across the country, becomes a target of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to dissolve the abbeys and monasteries, seizing their assets for the crown and then demolishing the buildings.

The Butcher’s Daughter is narrated by Agnes herself in the form of a memoir as she first describes her life at the abbey and then tells us what happens afterwards as she and her fellow nuns and novices find themselves facing uncertain futures. It’s a slow-paced novel and definitely one which is driven more by character than by plot, but I still found it quite gripping because Agnes pulled me so thoroughly into her world. The chapters set within the abbey are informative and detailed; as a novice, Agnes has a lot to learn, from how to dress herself correctly to studying the Lives of the Saints, as well as getting to know the other women with whom she will be living within the confines of the cloister.

The second half of the book was even more interesting. While the inhabitants of Shaftesbury Abbey have been watching the downfall of other smaller, less profitable houses, telling themselves that ‘in our case, of course, surrender is unthinkable and indeed unthought of’, it eventually becomes evident that they will not be spared and must prepare to suffer the same fate. We see the final days of the abbey through our heroine’s eyes, before following her through a series of adventures as she rejoins the secular world and attempts to find a place for herself in society again. Although Agnes has spent a relatively short time at Shaftesbury, there are others who have known no other sort of life and who find it much more difficult to cope with the changes enforced on them.

Although Agnes is a fictional character and her personal story is invented, Shaftesbury Abbey was real and characters such as Elizabeth Zouche really existed too. Towards the end of the novel, Agnes crosses paths with Sir Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet of the same name), bringing more real historical events and political intrigue into the story, but the focus is always on Agnes herself and the things she experiences during this traumatic and eventful period of religious history. And yet, despite the upheaval Agnes goes through and the challenges she faces, there is still a sense of optimism…a comforting knowledge that, whatever happens, life must go on, “Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies”.

Thanks to Duckworth Books for providing a copy of this novel for review.

The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence

The Alchemist of Lost Souls is the fourth book in a series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England and featuring the character of Bianca Goddard, an alchemist’s daughter. Not having read any of the previous novels, I wondered whether I would be at a disadvantage in starting with this one, but that wasn’t really a problem. Although it would have been nice to have been more familiar with the backgrounds of the characters and to have followed them from the beginning, this novel works as a standalone mystery and it was easy enough to understand what was happening without any prior knowledge.

The story takes place in London in the spring of 1544 and opens with Bianca’s father, the alchemist Albern Goddard, discovering a new element – a stone which gives off a brilliant light and which has properties that are both powerful and dangerous. Before he has time to explore the potential of this new substance, it is stolen from him and the suspected thief is found dead in a street near the Dim Dragon Inn with a glowing green vapour rising from her mouth. Albern asks for his daughter’s help and soon Bianca is investigating both the theft and the murder, as well as looking for any trace that may remain of her father’s precious element.

This is an entertaining mystery and a more complex one than it appeared to be at first, with a range of suspects including alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers – and even Bianca’s mother, Malva Goddard. I didn’t manage to guess the solution correctly, but I was happy just to watch Bianca try to unravel it all. Bianca is a very likeable character; she is intelligent and independent, but her behaviour is usually believable enough in the context of being a sixteenth century woman. Like her father, she is interested in science, but her gender means she cannot be an alchemist so instead she works as a herbalist, making remedies for common ailments in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’.

Bianca’s relationship with her husband, John, is one area where I felt I may have missed out by not reading the previous books in the series. In this book he, like the other men from Southwark, has been called up to fight in Henry VIII’s army (as a pikeman after failing to impress with his archery skills) and faces being sent away from home to deal with the threats from Scotland and France. With Bianca pregnant with their first child, a separation at this time is obviously going to be particularly difficult for them both, but I think I would have found their storyline more emotional if I had known both characters better and had seen how their relationship developed.

Apart from Henry VIII’s military endeavours, which are kept mainly in the background of the novel, the story concentrates very much on fictional characters and fictional events, but I could see that Mary Lawrence was making an effort to capture the atmosphere of Tudor England and the details of how people may have lived and worked at that time. The focus is on ordinary, working class Londoners rather than the royalty and nobility, which gives the story a gritty feel and a sense of reality, despite the more fantastical elements of the plot (not just the alchemy but also the mysterious character of the Rat Man, whose role I’m not sure I fully understood). I also appreciated the author’s attempts to use vocabulary appropriate to the period and although some of the slang didn’t feel quite right to me, it did add colour to the writing and there is a glossary at the back of the book if you need to look up any unfamiliar words.

It was nice to meet Bianca Goddard and now I’m wondering if there will be more books in the series.

Thanks to Mary Lawrence and Kensington Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Years before I started this blog – sometime in the 1990s, anyway – I read The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the English market town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. I found it much more exciting than it had initially sounded and I was soon gripped by the evil machinations of William Hamleigh, Prior Philip’s battle against the ruthless Bishop Waleran, and the seemingly doomed romance between Jack and Aliena. I’m sure I would be much more critical of it if I re-read it today and more likely to be bothered by the historical inaccuracies, but I loved it at the time. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but one was published in 2007 – World Without End, set in the same fictional town (or city, as it has now become) more than a century later. I enjoyed that one too, although in some ways it felt to me like the same story being told again.

A Column of Fire, published in 2017, takes us back to Kingsbridge again for a third story, set this time in the 16th century. As the novel opens in 1558, Ned Willard is returning home to Kingsbridge from Calais, where he has spent a year working in the family business. Ned can’t wait to be reunited with his mother, Alice, who runs the Kingsbridge branch of the business, but there’s also someone else he is looking forward to seeing again – Margery Fitzgerald, the young woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for Ned, things have changed during his absence and Margery is now betrothed to Bart, the heir of the Earl of Shiring (and those of you who have read the other Kingsbridge novels will remember exactly what those Earls of Shiring are like). Margery would prefer to marry Ned, but her parents won’t allow it – the Fitzgeralds, like the Earl and his family, are Catholic, but the Willards are suspected of having Protestant sympathies.

While Mary Tudor still sits on the throne of England, families like the Fitzgeralds and the Shirings may have the upper hand, but Ned knows that one day things will change. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, promising greater religious tolerance, is waiting for her turn to wear the crown and, when she does, she will need men like Ned to be her trusted servants and spies.

Across the sea, meanwhile, France is also experiencing a period of religious conflict and turmoil as the ambitious and staunchly Catholic Guise brothers, whose young niece Mary, Queen of Scots has married the heir to the throne, engage in a power struggle with Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France. In Paris, we meet one of the villains of the novel, Pierre Aumande, a man who believes he has Guise blood and will do anything to inveigle his way into that family – including hunting down French Protestants and sending them to their deaths.

So far, I have only touched on a few of the characters and storylines this novel contains. There are many, many more. We follow the adventures of Ned’s brother Barney in Spain and then the New World. We meet Sylvie Palot, a French Huguenot who works in a Parisian bookshop, buying and selling forbidden literature. We see the story of Mary, Queen of Scots play out as she returns to Scotland and eventually becomes a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I. And we witness the Siege of Calais, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. The novel has a huge scope, and that, I think, was a problem. There’s too much happening – far too much for one book – and that made it difficult for me to become truly absorbed in the lives and struggles of any of the characters. There’s no depth, no passion, no emotion; I didn’t really care about Ned and Margery’s romance, and I didn’t hate Pierre and the other villains as much as we were probably supposed to either.

That doesn’t mean I found nothing to like about this book. It’s certainly a fascinating period of history to read about and I can understand why Follett didn’t want to leave anything out, even though I would have preferred a tighter focus on just a few of the historical figures and incidents, rather than everything and everyone! The main theme of religious change and conflict was handled well. I really enjoyed the first half of the book but my interest started to wane as characters were abandoned for long stretches while others were introduced and as we spent more time in France, Spain, Scotland and the Caribbean, almost losing sight of Kingsbridge entirely.

I’m not really sure why this book involved Kingsbridge at all; I’m assuming it was probably done for marketing purposes, to pull in readers who enjoyed the previous two novels, but I think if it had been written as a standalone with no connection to the other two I would have had different expectations and might have judged it less harshly. One of the things I liked about The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End was that they were set in and around Kingsbridge Cathedral itself. We get to know the people who live and work in the city and there’s a strong sense of community as they come together to confront their enemies and face the threats of the outside world, but A Column of Fire is a different sort of story with a different feel. If anyone else has read this book I would be interested to know what you thought of it and how you felt it compared to the first two books.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Tudor Christmas and Henry VII

I didn’t have time last month to write about all of the books I read for Nonfiction November, so I’m combining the final two into one post today, which I think is quite appropriate as they are both Tudor related!

First, A Tudor Christmas. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, this lovely little book by historian and novelist Alison Weir and her co-author Siobhan Clarke, a guide for Historic Royal Palaces, could be the perfect gift for any history lovers in your life (or for yourself, at any time of year, of course).

Divided into twelve sections to represent each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book takes us through the origins of many of our favourite Christmas traditions, as well as some that were popular in Tudor times but have disappeared over the years. The text is interspersed with recipes, poems, carols and illustrations, so if you don’t want to read it straight through from beginning to end, you could just pick it up and read a page or two whenever you have a few spare moments over the festive period. This is much shorter than the other non-fiction books I’ve read by Alison Weir and obviously doesn’t have the same level of depth, but even so she and Clarke manage to cover a large amount of material, touching on almost every aspect of Christmas you could think of.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways in which St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day was celebrated in different parts of Europe, ranging from hunting the wren and taking beribboned horses to be blessed by the priest, to distributing alms to the poor. There’s a discussion of when the turkey was first introduced to England, a fascinating chapter about the typical games that would be played at home or at court, and some eye-opening accounts of how much money Henry VIII would spend on celebrating Christmas. There are also descriptions of earlier traditions such as the burning of the yule log and the origins of holly, ivy and mistletoe being used as decorations and, although I would have preferred a tighter focus on the Tudor period itself (which is what I’d expected from the title), I did find the whole book an interesting and worthwhile read.

From a Tudor Christmas to a Tudor king…Henry VII by Gladys Temperley is a biography of the first Tudor monarch who reigned from 1485 to 1509. Originally published in 1914 (and reissued more recently by Endeavour Compass), it does feel a bit dated and dry in places, but I still found it perfectly readable.

I started to read this book shortly after finishing The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, a fictional account of Henry’s life before he became king, so I was particularly interested in the earlier sections which gave the facts behind some of the episodes which were featured in the novel such as Henry’s time in exile and preparations for his return to England at the head of an army. However, all of this is passed over very quickly, to be followed by a much longer section on the rebellions, conspiracies and pretenders to the throne – including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel – that repeatedly threatened Henry’s reign. As Temperley says, “He trusted few men, suspected many. He had plunged too early into the bitter waters of adversity, and as a fugitive exile, eating the bread of dependence at the courts of France and Brittany, had learnt to watch and school himself until repression had killed all spontaneity.”

Henry VII isn’t one of my favourite kings, but Gladys Temperley seems to have a lot of respect and admiration for him, which I think is a good thing – as long as it doesn’t lead to too much bias, I always think it’s better when an author likes and is genuinely passionate about their subject. Temperley highlights many of Henry’s lasting achievements, such as his ‘Mercantile System’, a policy which aimed to increase foreign trade and improve England’s economy, and the steps he took towards reforming the country’s judicial system.

The book feels thoroughly researched; there are footnotes throughout the text, three appendices giving more information on The Star Chamber, Perkin Warbeck and Juana of Castile, and a very impressive bibliography. You do need to remember, though, that this is a very old biography and that what we know of history is constantly evolving. For a more modern look at Henry VII, I recommend Winter King by Thomas Penn.

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?

Lamentation by CJ Sansom

When I heard the exciting news that there was a new Shardlake novel – Tombland – coming in October, I remembered that I still needed to read Lamentation, the sixth book in the series, so I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it sooner rather than later and be up to date in time for the new one.

Lamentation is set in London in 1546, about a year after the previous novel, Heartstone, ended. Henry VIII is in poor health and although it is treason to predict the death of a king, it is obvious to everyone who sees him that he can’t have much longer to live. Having broken away from the Roman Catholic Church several years earlier, it now seems that Henry is slowly moving England back towards Rome. A power struggle is taking place at court between the religious traditionalists and the reformers, while those suspected of heresy are being hunted down, tortured and burned at the stake. Even the Queen herself – Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr – is not above suspicion, and when a book she has written on the subject of her faith, titled The Lamentation of a Sinner, is stolen, she knows her life could be at risk.

Our narrator, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, has worked for the Queen before, and it is to Shardlake that she turns again to ask for assistance in finding the missing book. Despite having vowed to stay out of politics following the events of Heartstone, Matthew can’t resist a request from his Queen, but when the first page of the manuscript is found clutched in the hand of a murdered printer, the danger involved in the mission becomes clear.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Shardlake novels, but I think this is one of the best in the series. It’s a long book, with over six hundred pages, but at no point does it ever start to feel slow or repetitive. The plot is complex and does require some concentration – it’s important to try to remember the religious and political backgrounds of various characters and which are allies and which are rivals, especially as various groups of suspects begin to emerge – but in my case I was so absorbed in the story my concentration never wavered for a moment anyway. I always find Sansom’s portrayal of Tudor England very immersive; he manages to make the history of the period easy to understand, but without simplifying things too much, and shows us how the decisions made by those in power affect the lives of ordinary people who are just trying to survive from day to day.

As well as the search for Catherine’s stolen book, there is also a secondary mystery taking place in which Shardlake is representing a client who is locked in a feud with her brother over the wording of their mother’s will. Most of the Shardlake novels have multiple storylines and sometimes they feel a bit unconnected, but everything in this book comes together very effectively. The two feuding siblings are on opposite sides of the religious divide and this eventually has implications for Matthew.

Of course, Matthew doesn’t have to deal with all of this alone. His friend and legal assistant, Jack Barak, is there for him as usual and always ready for an adventure – although with Jack’s wife expecting another baby, Matthew is reluctant to let him get involved. He also has a new assistant – Nicholas Overton, a young man who has been sent to London to study law – and over the course of the novel he comes to value Nicholas’s courage and loyalty. Another old friend, the doctor and former monk, Guy, is back too, but their friendship is put under strain by Guy’s disapproval of Matthew’s mission and the very different religious views they each have. Nobody, including Shardlake, ever comes out of a Shardlake novel entirely unscathed and this is why, although it would be possible to treat the books as standalones, I still recommend reading the series in order. That way, you’ll be able to watch the characters develop and see how the things that happen in one book affect their lives in the next.

By the end of this book Henry VIII is dead, to be succeeded by his son, the young Edward VI. The change of monarch – and the consequences this will have for the country – is sure to bring new challenges for Shardlake but we will have to wait for the publication of Tombland to find out what they are.

This is book 11/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were getting married at Windsor Castle yesterday, I have spent the weekend absorbed in reading about the lives of a much earlier royal couple…Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the third book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry’s wives. Having read the first two novels on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, I have been looking forward to this new one; I’ve read about Jane less often than Katherine and Anne so I was interested in learning more about her and curious to see how she would be portrayed.

The novel begins by introducing us to Jane as a young girl, living with her parents and brothers and sisters at Wulfhall, the Seymours’ manor house in Wiltshire. For several years, Jane is convinced that she would like to become a nun but eventually she discovers that she has no true vocation for a religious life and she decides that her future lies at court instead. With the help of Sir Francis Bryan, a courtier and family friend, she obtains a place in the household of Katherine of Aragon as one of the queen’s maids-of-honour. Jane is devoted to the queen, but when Henry puts Katherine aside so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, she finds herself in the unwelcome position of having to serve Anne instead of Katherine.

When Jane catches the king’s eye, her ambitious brothers see this as an opportunity to make the Seymours the power behind the throne, while Jane herself is keen to use her new influence with Henry to help reinstate Katherine and her daughter, the Lady Mary. But then comes Anne Boleyn’s downfall and suddenly Jane, who has watched her younger sisters marrying before her and has almost given up hope of ever finding a husband herself, is elevated to the highest position of all: Queen of England, as Henry’s third wife. With only two daughters from his first two marriages, Henry is desperate for a son, but can Jane succeed where her two predecessors failed?

I have given a basic outline of the plot of The Haunted Queen in the two paragraphs above, but I’m sure none of it will be very surprising to anyone who already knows their Tudor history. Weir sticks closely to historical fact as far as possible although, as she explains in her author’s note, the information we have on Jane is limited and there are areas where she has to use her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps – for example, the possibility of Jane contemplating taking religious vows, the question of whether she could already have been pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry, and the probable cause of her death shortly after giving birth in October 1537. There were enough new ideas and interpretations here to make this, for me, a worthwhile and compelling read.

Jane Seymour often comes across as one of the less interesting wives, particularly following Anne Boleyn, but I liked the way she was portrayed in this novel. Was Jane used as a pawn by Thomas Cromwell and her ambitious family, or was she as manipulative as they were in bringing down Anne Boleyn and taking her place as queen? Different authors and historians have different views on this, but Alison Weir’s version of Jane is somewhere between the two and I found it a realistic, convincing portrait of a quiet, compassionate young woman who did not set out to become queen but who seized the opportunity when it arose in the hope of using the power it would give her to help those she loved and to restore the ‘true religion’. Henry is depicted in quite a balanced and nuanced way too; we see a more loving side of him in his relationship with Jane, as well as his cruelty towards his previous two wives and his daughter, Mary. We also get to know some of the other characters who play a part in Jane’s story, including her brothers Edward and Thomas; I particularly liked the portrayal of Sir Francis Bryan, who is a good friend of the Seymour family, despite his reputation as ‘the vicar of Hell’.

I enjoyed reading about Jane’s early life at Wulfhall (marked by the scandal caused by her father’s affair with his daughter-in-law Catherine Fillol – something I have previously read about in Suzannah Dunn’s The May Bride) and, later in the book, her brief reign as queen, but the section in the middle which covers Henry’s attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon and then his marriage to Anne Boleyn, was less interesting to me. This is because it’s the third time in this series that I’ve read about those same events. Obviously, the three women involved – Katherine, Anne and Jane – have very different views on the matter, but I still found it just a little bit tedious to read it all again. I was also not a fan of the supernatural elements which are suggested by the title, The Haunted Queen, but I’m sure other readers will disagree.

I am now looking forward to the fourth book in the series which will tell the story of Anne of Cleves, definitely the wife I know the least about!

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley.