A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

Continue reading “A circuitous tale”

Fixing moments in time

Raven from Sutton Hoo shield

John Preston: The Dig
Penguin 2008 (2007)

“Why don’t you tell me what made you become interested in photography?”
“I suppose it seemed a way of trying to fix moments as they went past. To try to capture them and give them some physical existence. Stop them from being lost for ever. Not that it necessarily works like that.”

Summer, 1939. Eight decades ago, with the prospect of war in the offing, a dig at the site of some mysterious mounds in Suffolk was under way. We now know that Sutton Hoo was the site of the largest ever ship burial in Britain, with the most unimaginably magnificent treasure forming the grave goods of a king of the East Angles. But when landowner Edith Pretty asked for an archaeologist to excavate the mounds nobody was prepared for what was to emerge from inside one of them, known as Mound 1.

What John Preston aimed for here was an imaginative reconstruction of those momentous events. While taking some major liberties with the timeline — sequences are occasionally telescoped — and inventing the odd individual he has nevertheless managed to conjure up a believable series of fictional accounts by key players for the novel’s backbone. In fact Diggers would be just as apt a title as The Dig has proved to be.

Continue reading “Fixing moments in time”

Distressed damsels

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Rosemary Craddock: Avalon Castle
Robert Hale 2015

1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.

Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.

As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

Continue reading “Childhood’s dreams”

Home from the sea

Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg
Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg

A S Byatt Angels & Insects
Vintage 1995 (1992)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. — R S Stevenson

I find I have contradictory feelings for Byatt’s fiction: I strongly admire what she writes, for its stimulating ideas, its in-depth research, its clever structuring and its examination of human nature; but I can’t say that I love the handful of her novels that I’ve read. It’s not that they seem preponderantly intellectual — I don’t think that’s necessarily a turn-off — but rather that I don’t always believe in, let alone warm to, the characters she depicts.

That certainly is the case with Angels & Insects, a pair of loosely-linked novellas set in the 19th century and infused with some of the obsessions that characterised that age. ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’ deal respectively with the Victorian urge to explore and catalogue that gave rise to that era’s expansion of knowledge and understanding in the biological sciences and, in an opposite direction, a rush towards spiritualism, séances and beliefs in otherworldly beings. Along the way we encounter lonely individuals ensconced in the bosom of family or among companions, taboos broken in the midst of Christian communities, grief and loss suffered in comfortable surroundings. Readers may feel sympathy for those who suffer in such circumstances but I wonder whether they really know or even care about them?

Continue reading “Home from the sea”

Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

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Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”

The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.

But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.

In a note the author reminds us Continue reading “The essence of good storytelling”

Not outstanding but vivid

tunnel

David Hancocks Cunval’s Mission
Lolfa 2004

David Hancocks studied Architecture and Building, and so it may have been inevitable that his historical interests have manifested themselves in reports and articles in archaeological journals. This, his first novel, is set in the Age of the Saints, that period which overlapped the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, and it may also be no coincidence that he was involved with landscaping several acres of woodland by the river Monnow where much of the novel is set.

A young priest called Cunval is sent to begin a mission in the territory of a pagan chief north of Abermenei (a precursor of the later medieval Monmouth). You can trace his journey from post-Roman Caerleon, where he has been trained, along rivers like the Usk, the Trothi and the Wye to the Monnow, where he sets up his llan or ecclesiastical enclosure. As you might expect, life is not easy for the new priest, what with bandits, local opposition, taboo violations and Saxon threats, but he persists and wins over the local population. But tragedy is never far away in such volatile times.

Continue reading “Not outstanding but vivid”

Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. Continue reading “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced”

Memorable female characters

Helen Hollick The Kingmaking
Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy
Heinemann 1994

Why does the Arthurian legend attract so many women writers? Rosemary Sutcliff, Catherine Christian, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, André Norton, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken and Jane Curry (to name but a few) have all mined that rich seam, producing gems in various genres including fantasy, historical fiction and children’s literature. Does the work of another exponent, Helen Hollick, provide an answer? Continue reading “Memorable female characters”

Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”

A complete possession

Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)
Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities
Collins Classics 2010 (1859)

History repeats itself, and too often repeats itself in terrible ways. The downtrodden masses of 18th-century France had genuine grievances but when the inevitable reaction came moderation soon gave way to the Reign of Terror between September 1793 and July 1794. So it also was in 20th-century Russia and later in China, and recent years have seen too many other risings with hopes for natural justice being perverted by cruelty, bloody mayhem and corruption.

Dickens’ early years just overlapped the close of the Napoleonic Wars: he was born in the year of the failed French invasion of Russia, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The French Revolution had begun not even a quarter of a century before and so its events were not at all dry-as-dust history for Dickens and his generation, but he does acknowledge a debt to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book” detailing this turbulent period when preparing for his novel, published seventy years after the start of the conflagration. Dickens 1859 preface also tells us that

“A strong desire was upon me then to embody [the main idea of this story]  in my own person … Throughout  its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”

This rather veiled personal admission also furnishes further clues on what motivated Dickens to write this novel, clues which, thanks to the sands of time and Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (now a feature film also called The Invisible Woman) we are better able to unravel from the text. Continue reading “A complete possession”

Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Continue reading “Two enthusiasms combined”

Danse Macabre

Innocents-SqueletteAndrew Miller Pure Sceptre 2012 (2011)

Paris, 1967
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971. Continue reading “Danse Macabre”