Review 2005: Rose Nicolson

It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.

This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)

William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.

As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.

As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.

William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.

This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.

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Review 1892: Rizzio

The Scots mystery writer Denise Mina is still concerned with crime, but with this novel, she has turned to historical true crimes. Rizzio is a novella that deals with the 1566 murder of David Rizzio, a musician and favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The murder has been engineered by Lord Lennox and Lord Ruthven, with the aid of Henry Darnley, Mary’s worthless husband. Darnley thinks the shock will cause his hugely pregnant wife to miscarry, most likely causing her to die. Then, he can be king. This is what came of their love match of the year before. To Lennox, Darnley’s father, this outcome would put him in power over his weak son. Lord Ruthven, almost dead already, is the tool of a group of aristocrats about to be dispossessed by parliament.

The novella is mostly description with little dialogue, but it has deep insight into the thoughts and personalities of its characters. It is mostly concerned with the activities of one night, March 9, 1566, in Edinburgh.

It is fast-paced and interesting. Mina has made no attempt to reflect the language of the time, and in fact wrote using modern idioms. Hence, perhaps, the lack of dialogue.

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Review 1687: The Sea-Hawk

Sir Oliver Tressilian is in a good place. As one of Elizabeth I’s privateers, he has made a fortune and gained the Queen’s favor. He is also engaged to marry the woman he loves, Rosamund Godolphin, or at least she has promised herself to him. When he calls on her brother Peter to ask for her hand, though, Peter refuses it, determined to keep up the feud begun between their parents. Indeed, he is insulting to the proud Sir Tressilian, so much so that Oliver would have killed him had he not promised Rosamund he would not.

Peter’s refusal seems of little moment to Oliver, because Rosamund will soon be of age. When Oliver’s brother Lionel returns home, however, he has fought with Peter without witnesses and killed him. Oliver promises to protect him but later learns that the wounded Lionel left a trail of blood to his door and everyone thinks Oliver murdered Peter. When Oliver tries to speak to Rosamund, she refuses to hear him. He is able to prove he is innocent to a magistrate and a minister because he has no wounds, but Rosamund will not listen.

Lionel becomes frightened that Oliver will tell the truth, so he arranges with a shady sea captain, Jasper Leigh, to kidnap Oliver and sell him into slavery. Jasper Leigh actually intends to let Oliver buy himself back, but their ship is taken by Spain and both Oliver and Jasper end up as galley slaves.

When next we meet him, Oliver is named Sakr El-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk, for his famous acts of piracy. He has adopted Islam and is a chief of Asad-ed-Din, Basha of Algiers. He learns that his brother and Sir John Killigrew have had him declared dead and Lionel has taken over his property and his former fiancée. Upon hearing this, Sir Oliver sends a messenger to Rosamund with the proof of his innocence in her brother’s death, but she throws it unread into the fire. Oliver is overcome with anger against both Lionel and Rosamund. How will it end?

I thought this was a very interesting swashbuckler, mainly because both the hero and heroine have more dimensions than in the usual adventure tale. There are times when both of them behave very badly, and I especially disliked Rosamund for much of the book because she was so quick to distrust Oliver. However she is also more brave and self-possessed than the majority of adventure story heroines. They get into some seriously exciting situations.

This is my last book from my second Classics Club list, which I have finished a couple of weeks late, so I’ll be publishing another list tomorrow.

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Review 1682: Titus Andronicus

I knew nothing about Titus Andronicus except that it is a blood bath. And it is, too, with rape, murder, dismemberment, and a woman being served her sons’ corpses in a pie.

The introduction to the play in my Riverside edition points out that the play was long poorly regarded and even by some thought not to be the work of Shakespeare. But more lately its reputation has been rehabilitated.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who has been fighting the Goths for years—having lost 20 sons in battle—when he returns to Rome. The emperor has recently died, and the citizens of Rome want to elect Titus, but he gives his support to the emperor’s brother Saturninus, who is duly elected but resents Titus for this.

In rapid succession and a confusing first scene, Saturninus says he will marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia while openly ogling Tamora, the captured queen of the Goths that Titus has brought back with him. Titus has just sacrificed her son to thank the gods for his triumph. Then Bassianus, the brother of Saturninus, comes in and claims Lavinia as his own, supported by some of Titus’s sons. Titus kills his own son Mutius for acting against the emperor. Although Saturninus rebukes Titus for slaughtering his own son, he still banishes Titus’s other sons for supporting Bassianus’s claim to Lavinia.

Saturninus marries Tamora, and she begins to plot her revenge against Titus for killing her son, aided by her lover, the villainous Moor Aaron. Aaron convinces Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron to murder Bassianus and rape Lavinia during a hunt. They improve upon this plan by cutting off her tongue and hands, and then they frame Titus’s sons for Bassianus’s murder. More villainy follows, but once Titus has had enough, he gets his own revenge.

There aren’t very many striking passages in this play, but it is very tightly plotted. I could see some similarities to Coriolanus, another Roman revenge tragedy. I think the play might be quite horrifying and effective when performed. This play is one of the last books on my second Classics Club list.

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Review 1656: Edward II

I haven’t read any Christopher Marlowe plays since college, so when I made up my Classics Club list, I picked Edward II, because I didn’t remember reading it. And it’s true, it didn’t ring any bells except through reading fiction about his reign until I got to the part about the line in Latin that could be read in two ways.

The play begins with the return, after Edward’s accession, of his favorite Gaveston, who had been banished to France. Edward has summoned him with a love letter, and Gaveston tells us straight out that he’s going to use Edward’s homosexuality to manipulate him. And he does. Almost the first thing Edward does is throw the Bishop of Coventry into jail and give all his possessions to Gaveston. Although Mortimer, in particular, is bothered by how “basely born” Gaveston is, the main complaint is his greed: “While soldiers mutiny for want of pay/He wears a lord’s revenue on his back.” Basically, he’s bankrupting the kingdom.

Further, Edward is slighting his queen, Isabella of France, who seems at first an innocent victim. But things are going to get a lot more interesting.

In Marlowe’s plays, government is usually corrupt. He’s not very interested in appeasing power. Usually, this corruption is a result of greed or sex—in this case both.

I have always found Shakespeare to be a great deal more poetic than Marlowe, but Marlowe’s plays have their power. This one also has the benefit of being a great deal more true to the actual events than most of Shakespeare’s history plays are, but of course Shakespeare was interested in appeasing power.

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Review 1627: Hamnet

Hamnet explores the impulses that went into the writing of Hamlet as well as important moments in the marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. It focuses on grief from the death of a beloved son.

The similarity in the name of Shakespeare’s son to that of his most famous protagonist is obvious, but I wasn’t aware until this book came out that they were essentially the same name. O’Farrell’s newest book parallels scenes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne (called Agnes in the book) with the hours leading up to Hamnet’s death from bubonic plague. Then she deals with the aftermath.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked all the invention going on, as O’Farrell depicts Agnes as a sort of wild child/wise woman. Then I reflected that little is known of the couple and that I was reading fiction, after all. I don’t like it when a fiction writer knowingly distorts the truth, but O’Farrell stuck fairly closely to the few known facts. The result I found extremely touching. I admit that my initial reluctance to buy in changed to my being completely rapt. This is a deft, sensitive story that concentrates mostly on Agnes’s feelings and reactions.

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Review 1618: The Prince

I put The Prince on my Classics Club list mostly out of curiosity. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I can well understand some of the controversy surrounding it.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the newly arisen Medici family, and the last chapter is basically a plea for Lorenzo di Medici to rise up and conquer Italy. The Prince is a treatise on power: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it. It is utilitarian rather than moral. For example, it advises princes that they need not honor their promises once they are in a position of power if the promises are not in their best interests.

Although Cesare Borgia was considered ruthless and cruel even in his own time, Machiavelli several times holds him up as a model and clearly venerates him. But then, his ideas are not ours, for he tells a story of a principality being won. The principality needed good government, so the prince put in charge a man known for his ruthlessness and rapacity. Once the area was settled, the prince “wiped out” his lieutenant. Good work!

The book is regarded as a realistic analysis of the pursuit of power. This is why it is still widely studied. It is written in a straightforward style, assertion followed by example.

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Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Review 1499: Tombland

My understanding was that Lamentation was supposed to be the last of C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries; then Tombland came out. I had previously wavered about whether to continue with the series about the dour lawyer, but Lamentation was so good that I decided to read Tombland.

It is 1549. Edward VI is 12 years old, so the country is being ruled by Lord Somerset, the Protector. It has been a late summer, so crops are not expected to be good. Further, landlords have begun illegally enclosing common land for sheep, throwing their tenants off the land. As a result, thousands of poor are roaming the country. The Protector has promised that a commission will look into this problem, but so far nothing has happened.

Lady Elizabeth asks Matthew to look into a case where a distant relative, John Boleyn, has been arrested for murdering his wife, Edith. Lady Elizabeth does not wish anyone to know that Edith came to her for financial help and did not receive it. Edith had left her husband nine years previously, and no one knew where she went. Recently, she was found brutally murdered, upside down in the creek on her husband’s property. Lady Elizabeth wants to know whether John was guilty and if not, have Matthew find the murderer. If need be, she will try to get John a pardon. This notion is difficult politically because of the Boleyn connection, so it is a last resort.

Matthew thinks it is unlikely that John would have killed his wife and left her body so exposed, because he is the likely suspect and it negates his subsequent marriage to his mistress, Isabella. John’s twin sons, Barnaby and Gerald, seem like demented feral animals, but Matthew also believes they loved their mother. He finds Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, to be an angry, hateful man. Still, aside from a land dispute, he can’t find a motive for Edith’s murder.

This novel is 800 pages long, and John’s trial is in the first few hundred pages, so I was wondering about that as we approached the verdict without a solution to the crime. But, for this novel, the mystery is really an excuse, almost a McGuffin, for what Sansom is really interested in, the story of Kett’s Rebellion. Common men anticipating the promised commission begin making camps, rounding up landlords who have enclosed their land, and tearing down enclosures. Matthew, his assistant Nicholas, and his old friend Barak are taken up by the rebels when they go to visit a potential witness, Flowerdew. The last half of the novel is about this incident in history.

I thought this novel was interesting, but I also felt that if Sansom wanted to write about the rebellion, it might have been better not to wrap it into a mystery. In fact, I felt that the section dealing with the rebellion was a bit too detailed, taking up more than 400 pages, with a 50-page essay at the end of the novel. As a result, I didn’t think this book was as good as some of his others, particularly Lamentation. Sansom appears to want to be a straight historical novelist, and maybe he should just do that.

Finally, although I feel that some of the books in this series are outstanding, it has always bothered me that no one in them ever shows a vestige of humor, and Matthew has to be one of the most depressed characters ever.

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