Review 1874: The Fire Court

The second book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood/Lovett series, The Fire Court begins shortly after the Great London Fire that was the setting of the first book. James Marwood’s father wanders off in his senility and discovers a salacious scene in chambers near where the Fire Court sits—a lascivious painting of a woman dressed like a whore stretched out on a couch.

His father comes home with blood on his sleeve babbling about what he has seen, but James thinks he has experienced a senile delusion. However, a few days later the body of a woman is discovered nearby in a pile of rubble. She is dressed up like a whore, but she is not one. She is Celia, the widowed niece of Mr. Poulton, a client of Mr. Hakesby.

Hakesby has given refuge to Cat Lovett, who has fled her family. She is now going by the name of Jane Hakesby, supposedly Mr. Hakesby’s cousin and servant. But Mr. Hakesby is very frail, suffering from an ague. Cat has been helping him with his architecture work, and he badly needs the custom of Mr. Poulton, who has a case before the Fire Court.

The Fire Court’s mission is to make decisions quickly about competing rights of property so that London can be rebuilt. Mr. Poulton wants to develop some property called Dragon yard that is mostly owned by himself and his niece Celia, and Hakesby is drawing up the plans. But Philip Limbury, an upperclass personage with influence at court, has some rights to Dragon Yard and also wants to develop it. Marwood is sent to look into the death of Celia, and he soon realizes that his father must have seen her murdered in the apartments of Mr. Gromwell, his father’s description of where he went being so vivid. Marwood begins to believe there is some sort of conspiracy going on involving the Fire Court, and both he and Cat are soon in danger.

Although I felt the characters in this book took too long to realize they were involved in real estate conspiracies, this was another complex and interesting novel in this series. The 17th century setting seems convincing, and James and Cat are interesting characters.

Related Posts

The Ashes of London

Merivel: A Man of His Time

The Bookman’s Tale

Review 1837: The Ashes of London

London is in the midst of the Great Fire of 1666. James Marwood is on an errand for his master when he stops to watch St. Paul’s burn. He is barely able to stop what he thinks is a boy from running right into the fire. When clothes begin to burn, the resulting dishevelment reveals a young woman rather than a boy. James puts his cloak around her, and she runs off still wearing it.

The girl is Cat Lovett, whose father is an attainted traitor as a result of the Restoration. She was supposed to meet him next to St. Paul’s. She has been living with her uncle’s family, the Alderleys, but they are trying to force her to marry Sir Denzil Croughton, a man she dislikes. She is hoping her father can help her. That night, though, her cousin Edward rapes her, and she stabs him in the eye, so she runs away with the help of her servant Jem to Jem’s sister.

James is also the son of a man who was on the wrong side of the Restoration. His father is a member of a sect called the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that after the King was put aside, Christ would be King. Now frail and senile, he keeps saying things that are deemed traitorous.

James works for the publisher Williamson, but soon he is asked to meet Mistress Alderley. She wants James to find her niece, and later he is asked by government officials to try to find Lovett.

There is also the matter of two bodies that have turned up. They both have their thumbs tied together behind their backs and have been stabbed in the neck.

I decided to read this series after the strong recommendation by Helen of She Reads Novels. I found it to be engrossing and entertaining. The atmosphere of burning London is well done as is the general paranoia following the Restoration. James and Cat are both appealing characters. Although it is quite a long novel at 400+ pages, it went very quickly. I’ll just have to look for the next one.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

The Devil in the Marshalsea

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

Review 1805: The Mercies

A freakish storm kicks up one day in 1617 and drowns all the men on the island of Vardø who are out fishing. Only young boys and old men are left. There is no one to help the women, so they have to learn to fend for themselves, including fishing, which is considered unwomanly. Maren’s fiancé and her father and brother are all gone, so she must try to take care of her mother, her brother’s Sámi wife Diina, and her little baby nephew.

In Bergen, Ursa’s father has made one poor decision after another since her mother died, leaving the family relatively poor. She is happy taking care of her invalid sister, but soon she learns her father has betrothed her to Absolom Cornet, a Scot he hardly knows, who has been appointed the Commissioner of Vardøhus, the rarely occupied fort on Vardø. Her father thinks he has done well for her, but they have no idea that Cornet is being sent to root out witchcraft.

Ursa is taken aback at the primitive conditions she finds in Vardø, in remote Finnmark, and she knows nothing about keeping house. When Maren brings her some skins the villagers have prepared to keep the cold from coming up from the floor, Ursa asks her to teach her how to take care of the house and cook. Thus begins a deep friendship.

But Ursa’s husband has already begun looking for witches. The first names that come up from a vicious bunch of pious women are Maren’s Sámi sister-in-law, an older woman whose large house is a target of envy, and Maren’s bold and unconventional friend Kirsten.

The Mercies is a deeply involving fictionalization of true events in early 17th century Norway. Seldom have I felt such a growing feeling of dread as when I read this novel. It is truly gripping. It seems well researched and has believable characters.

Widdershins

Corrag

The Witches: Salem, 1692

Review 1804: Beheld

In the Afterword to Beheld, TaraShea Nesbit says she wrote it because she wanted to hear the women’s voices she missed in reading about Plymouth Colony. Certainly, the voices we hear in the novel are mostly those of the women or the dispossessed.

Beheld focuses on some of the stories we never heard about Plymouth, particularly the divide between the Puritans and the other residents—indentured servants, farmers, carpenters, and the other people meant to do the work and who do not share the Puritans’ beliefs.

Alice Bradford is the second wife of the governor, William Bradford. His first wife was her beloved friend Dorothy. But Dorothy died upon her arrival in Plymouth under circumstances Alice doesn’t understand, and shortly after Alice’s own first husband died, William sent for her to be his wife.

John and Eleanor Billington signed contracts to work for seven years as indentured servants in exchange for a parcel of land for each male in their family in the proposed colony in Virginia. But first the Puritans’ boat The Speedwell sprung a leak and the Puritans forced themselves onto The Mayflower. Then the boat went north to Massachusetts instead of Virginia. The Puritans took charge of the colony, not allowing the same rights to other men, not allowing anyone but themselves to trade with the natives, giving themselves the best parcels of land, and finally cheating John out of his son’s parcel.

This is an interesting novel that depicts the Puritans as self-righteous and self-serving. Of course, most of us who have studied this period and place since grade school know this, but perhaps not how much. Miles Standish is shown as greedy and violent. I felt this novel was quite eye-opening.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

The Witches: Salem: 1692

Caleb’s Crossing

Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

The Poison Thread

This House Is Haunted

The Séance

Review 1741: Classics Club Dare 2.0: The Bride of Lammermoor

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Bride of Lammermoor, you might be wondering why I picked it for the Classics Club Dare 2.0, Time to Get Your Goth On. It’s not a gothic horror story common for the time but one of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels about a doomed love. However, the ending, which I’m not revealing, puts it in a more appropriate category as do the dark local legends and prophesies of withered old dames (perhaps witches), not to mention the ruined tower.

Edgar, Master of Ravenwood, is from a proud Scottish family of distinguished lineage. His profligate father, however, did his best to waste the family estate and finished things off by fighting on the wrong side of the revolution. With other parties in power, lawsuits filed against the estate by William Ashton, Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, have resulted in almost all of the Ravenwood property being turned over to Ashton and in an early grave for Ravenwood’s father. The impoverished Master has sworn vengeance against Ashton.

Ashton, however, is a politician, and he hears that the political situation is changing. Things may be looking up for the Marquis of A___ and thus for his relative, the Master. After the Master saves Ashton and his beautiful daughter Lucy from a wild bull, Ashton tries to befriend him, even encouraging him to spend time with Lucy and Ashton himself considering the benefits of a marriage between the two. Against the Master’s better judgment (and supernatural warnings), he begins to fall in love with Lucy. They become betrothed, but Lucy wants it kept secret from her family.

Some meddling from a neighbor who is not a friend of the Master’s leads Lady Ashton, staying with friends away from home, to hear the rumors that her daughter is engaged to him. She is his implacable enemy, so she swoops home to Ravenwood Castle just as the Marquis of A___ comes for a visit. The Master has been residing there at Ashton’s invitation, but Lady Ashton unceremoniously throws him out. He has already agreed with Lucy, however, that he will consider himself betrothed until she herself releases him. Then he goes off to make his fortune.

This novel was quite hard going for me at times, particularly in the sections and whole chapters that are in Scottish vernacular. These are the parts concerning the common people, and some of them are supposed to be funny, especially the ones about the machinations of Caleb Balderstone, the Master’s only servant, as he tries to hide what everyone already knows—that his master is destitute. I just felt they slowed down the action as well as being hard to understand and not that funny.

The action, however, eventually gets going and really picks up toward the end of the novel. I read the second half twice as quickly as the first.

Related Posts

Guy Mannering

Waverley

Kenilworth

Review 1695: The Bridge of the Gods

A friend who knew I was writing a story set locally before the arrival of white men gave me The Bridge of the Gods, which was written in 1899 as a result of Balch’s years of collecting Native American folklore and customs in Oregon. The novel is based on a legend about a bridge of stone across the Columbia.

The novel begins in 17th century Massachusetts, where Reverend Cecil Grey feels the mission to preach Christianity to the indigenous people of the West and dreams of a huge stone bridge over a river. His wife having died, he sets off to do just that, accompanied by his Native American nurse.

Eight years later, Multnomah, chief of the Willamette tribe, decides to test his allies. His tribe is the leader of a confederation united against their enemies, the Spokanes and the Shoshoni. The ascendancy of the Willamettes is prophecied to last until the Bridge of the Gods, a massive stone arch over the Columbia River, is destroyed. However, Multnomah has been hearing that some tribes want to leave the confederation. He decides to summon all of the tribes for a great council on Wappatta Island (now Sauvie Island).

Multnomah has a beautiful daughter, Wallulah, whose mother was an Asiatic princess shipwrecked at the mouth of the Columbia. Multnomah wants to betroth her to Snohomish, chief of the Cayuses, to cement their alliance. Wallulah, having seen Snohomish once, is not averse—until Cecil Grey comes on the scene.

I didn’t expect much from the attitudes of this book, considering when it was written, and I didn’t get much. Despite the young Balch having been interested enough to travel around and interview indigenous people, they are referred to constantly as savages, their traditions are treated with abhorrence, their villages are described as degraded, they are shown as violent and cruel. Even Multnomah, who compared to Snohomish is a good guy, is depicted as obdurate and cruel. Grey’s faithful nurse doesn’t even have a name.

Only Wallulah escapes this treatment, but note that she is half “Asiatic” (and a confused half at that, for her mother is said to have taught the Willamettes something about Buddha but calls god Allah). Her mother is described as white. Wallulah is herself a typical late 19th century romantic heroine, fragile and weak and a completely unlikely indigenous woman.

Although this novel is billed as a romance, Grey’s struggle is between his mission and Wallulah (even though they do not seem mutually exclusive), and since Grey is a zealot, Wallulah doesn’t have much of a chance. This is actually a romance in the older sense of the word, an adventure novel.

Since Balch went to so much trouble to personally speak to indigenous peoples and collect stories, I was hoping this book would be a little more enlightened—say, perhaps, written by someone who actually liked the people. It wasn’t. If you’re interested in an older book based in the life of indigenous peoples, I recommend The Loon Feather.

Related Posts

The Loon Feather

Caleb’s Crossing

One Thousand White Women

Review 1674: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a widow, and her brother Ferdinand does not want her to remarry, so that he will eventually inherit her estate. So, he sets a spy on her, Bosola.

Despite Bosola’s efforts, the Duchess marries her steward, Antonio. It’s not clear what would have happened if she had picked someone closer to her station, but this choice outrages her brothers. (Oddly enough, Bosola doesn’t report that she has a lover until she has three children by him.)

At first, the brothers think the Duchess has been whoring around, but the situation isn’t improved by their finding out she is actually married. Ferdinand has her imprisoned in rooms of her castle, and things get worse from there.

When I studied 17th century drama, these plays were called revenge tragedies, but the introduction to my very old Mermaid edition calls them Tragedies in Blood. Since pretty much all the main characters are dead by the end, this is a fitting name.

Webster’s play is a bit rough around the edges. Certainly, it doesn’t have the power of Shakespeare or even Marlowe, and most of it is in prose. Still, there are some effective moments. I think this play is probably much more moving when performed rather than read. I read this play for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

Othello

Macbeth

Edward II

Review 1668: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

My edition of the Collected Works of Alexandre Dumas explains that The Vicomte de Bragelonne was originally published as a massive work but is traditionally published in English as either three or four separate novels: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I read the first book, which was quite long in itself.

I felt I was at a disadvantage in reading this book because it is one of the D’Artagnan novels and I haven’t read The Three Musketeers for many years or Twenty Years After ever. Although all four of the original characters appear, I felt that I didn’t understand their relationships to each other. As for the title character, who is the son of Athos, although he makes a couple of appearances, this first novel in the set is about D’Artagnan.

In the beginning of the novel, Louis XIV is a young king, but he has been under the control of Cardinal Mazarin for most of his life. D’Artagnan is the lieutenant of the musketeers, and he overhears when Charles II of England comes penniless to the king to ask for money and men to take back his kingdom. Louis’s finances are kept strictly in the Cardinal’s hands, so Louis goes to the Cardinal to ask for the money or men. The Cardinal, who has made himself wealthy at the kingdom’s expense, tells Louis there is no money and he can’t spare any men. When D’Artagnan sees Louis send Charles away with nothing despite wanting to help him, he resigns in disgust, determined to help Charles.

D’Artagnan’s friend Athos, now the Comte de la Ferre, also wants to help Charles. He was present at the beheading of Charles’s father and knows the Charles I buried a million livres at Newcastle. Athos determines to fetch the money.

This novel seems disjointed. More than half of it deals with the two missions on behalf of Charles, while the rest deals with Louis finally coming into power and sending D’Artagnan on a mission. Perhaps as a complete work, with all its parts, it would seem more coherent, but at this time I was not willing to put in the time to read the whole thing.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

Related Posts

The Black Tulip

La Reine Margot

Captain Paul

Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

Washington Black

Sugar Money