Monday, 12 December 2011

Books for Four Seasons

 I am an obsessive reader. Here I choose four of the many historical novels I have enjoyed in each season of 2011. It was hard to select but these are particularly good historical fictions.


Last winter I particularly liked This January Tale written in 1966  by Bryher, an unusual writer who is often forgotten.  It tells of how the people of England endured the aftermath of the Conquest in 1066. At its centre is the city of Exeter. For months the people of Exeter watched the progress of the Normans from a distance, hoping that they would not try to push so far west. This proved futile. The Conqueror came and besieged their city for three freezing, terrifying weeks. The magic of this novel is its re-creation of the England of 1066. Towns, fields, the primitive remote hamlets and great forests dominated the land, and Bryher's bleak book is beautifully written from the point of view of those who inhabited them. It is a novel which has had a particular influence on my current WIP, The Handfasted Wife.



Last Spring I read The Queen of Silks by Vanora Bennett. The Queen of Silks tells the story of a fictional relationship between Richard 111 and a silk merchant's daughter. It is notable for the careful way in which Bennett interweaves real historical characters and fictional ones. The characterisation is excellent and she brilliantly re-creates the final years of the English Wars of the Roses, those years leading up to 1484 and the Tudor take-over. Importantly, she faithfully describes London during this period- particularly from the perspective of the silk merchants, some of whom were women.

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For summer my suggestion is Outlaw by Angus Donald. This is a story of Robin Hood from  Alan Dale's point of view. It is really Alan's story and an absolute page turner. Where else to be in summer but the medieval English green-wood with its caves, isolated manors and huge spreading oaks. I am impressed by Donald's plotting and also by the way in which he takes a legendary English hero ( made  famous during the Victorian era after his appearance in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe) and reinvents him as a ruthless but likeable war lord. Donald also faithfully recreates the atmosphere of the twelfth century. It was a period when many believed in the fantastic, dog men and mermaids and monopods, as well as being devout Christians.

Outlaw, by Angus Donald, UK paperback


Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick is an exceptional historical fiction. I read it in October and loved it. It tells the story of England's terrible twelfth century civil war emerging out of the power struggle between Matilda and her cousin Stephen. Can a woman be Queen in her own right in this period and remain unchallenged? Matilda's attempts to be Queen of England involve pursuit, escape, battles and high politics and perhaps a hint of romance along the way. Henry 1's second wife, (and Matilda's stepmother) Adeliza's story, parellels and intersects with that of Matilda.  Both stories are rivetting and the contrasting personalities are  engaging. I loved the way in which Chadwick's meticulous research is seemlessly integated into the novel's narrative and descriptions.

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Happy Christmas and Happy Reading and, of course, there are many more superb historical fictions not mentioned here for us to read over the holiday period.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Mistletoe, Mont St Michel and a Norman Castle

It is the edge of Winter, a liminal time and the trees in Normandy have great balls of mistletoe growing amongst bared branches. In Norman towns people are preparing for Advent, hanging municiple decorations and holding Christmas craft markets. So, last week, we set out from our borrowed farmhouse in the Norman Bocage to visit places we had not seen in four years. It was bitterly cold but the skies were blue and because the tourist season is past, we had Bayeux, Mont Saint Michelle and Falaise almost to ourselves.

I have been reading a novel about Eleanor of Acquitaine so in Rouen Cathedral it was moving to see the tomb to her favourite son, Richard Coeur de Lion. It contains his heart. His body is entombed elsewhere. The Cathedral is magnificent, possessing an austere beauty and atmosphere, its Romanesque skeleton and pillars the colour of bleached bones. As for the colourful old city with its plethora of half timbered houses-I could imagine the ghost of Emma Bovary flitting about Rouen's medieval streets and courtyards.

Richard the Lionheart

Richard's preserved heart is one of Rouen's treasures.
In the confined space of a Medieval fortified city buildings had to be
tall and narrow to maximise living space.

Everytime I visit Bayeux I try to focus on something different in the Tapestry and each time I find myself being distracted by some new and hitherto un-noticed detail. This time it was the small things that caught my eye, notably the blazing comet that to the medieval mind signified a dramatic change in a kingdom's rule; the hand of God so elegant and significant reaching in blessing from the border; tiny figures ploughing, who, in the face of great events, represent life circling through the agricultural year, the figures and animals both filled with energy.

The Viking inspired longboat outside Bayeux's Tapestry Museum
is a reminder that the Normans antecedents were Viking.

 Norman warrior on horseback in the Museum

Gothic Mont St Michel is perched high on a rocky island surrounded by sands. When the tide comes in and the sun begins to set the Abbey is at its most atmospheric. I discovered my favourite views just by walking around the outside of the small town. On this route the jewel in the rock reveals itself to be a tiny garden with a statue of St Christopher, secret and tucked away beneath the looming abbey church. Below me miniscule figures walk the damp tidelines.

                                                                      Mont St Michel conveys both a sense of martial security and mystical power.

Another day we visited Falaise. There, we learned that William the Conqueror's castle was indeed built of stone. I checked because I had wondered if the original had been a wooden construction. Falaise emanates a sense of how a Norman medieval castle was, not primitive but sophisticated and probably comfortable. Falaise was a very pleasant seat by twelfth century standards with the latest in mod coms: spacious loos, deep windows, graceful stairways, light corridors and fireplaces set into pale walls. 

                                                                                                            William's Castle at Dusk

                                                                                                            A corridor in the Castle

The predominant theme for the self guided tour is chess because as a game it embodies the ultimate principle of power politics and control - "Protect the King!". Here it represents the power games that involved all the Dukes of medieval Normandy and the Kings of France from William the Conqueror who struggled with his son, Duke Robert to King John, his great, great grandson who finally lost Falaise to Philippe Augustus, the then French King.  

                                                                              In one of the Royal chambers there are life size chess pieces
                                                                                                  representing King, Queen and Knight.

The Tower
Philippe Augustus proceeded to celebrate his take-over by building his own tower to link the old part of the castle to his new build. Finally, we descended to the lowest rooms and there we found, at last, the sense of the Conqueror's castle, a much, much gloomier place.

  Descending to the lower depths

                                                                              The statue of Guillaume le Conquerant in Falaise near his castle
Leaving Normandy on a quiet November Sunday, laden with Christmas gifts from a tiny specialist shop in a back street of Villedieu les Poeles, I was tempted to pull down one of the balls of mistletoe that was roosting in the tree behind our house. Yet, I restrained my impulse. Mistletoe is better there growing into a memory, along with the dark birds that perch in the tree's highest branches. So, I left the mistletoe in its tree behind a small farmhouse down a country lane, in the depths of the Bocage, off the beaten track, in a territory that is permeated with echoes of its medieval past.