Thursday 13 December 2012

Books for Four Seasons 2012

As Christmas approaches it is time to review four of my favourite historical novels of this year. I have chosen four that are set in the seventeenth century and each of these absorbed me during 2012.  Again, I have selected one for each season.


The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian
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I have just finished reading The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian. This fabulous un-put-downable historical fiction tells the story of three siblings from the Lancashire gentry and their fate during the first years of the English Civil War. Giles Kristian is writing a trilogy so the Bleeding Land ends shortly after the battle of Edge hill in 1642, instilling in a reader a longing for the next book.

When civil war breaks out between the king and his angry Parliament two brothers from a royalist family fight on opposing sides. Mun, his royalist father and their friend Emmanuel fight for King Charles whilst Tom, though not exactly Parliamentarian and a religious cynic, fights for the rebels.

A horrific event in the opening chapters of the novel sets Tom's personal motivation in progress. On an historical level the actual incident illustrates  mob mentality and how this was, and still is, manipulated by those with power. A key personal factor driving Tom's story is revenge. The characters in the book are superbly realised and we see political and domestic events through each of their experiences. Whilst Mun and Tom are fighting Bess, their pregnant sister and their mother defend their estate as it is besieged by Parliamentary troops who aim to requisition it.

The Bleeding Land is a superb action story told through beautiful and clear writing. It is a thrilling narrative with excellent plotting and, importantly, the characterisation cannot be bettered. The interaction between the characters and how their actions impact on each other and the story is what makes this book stand out. It is impossible not to feel engaged with each of the protagonists. Accurately researched history is embedded in the story's narrative and revealed through their narratives and through scene setting which is extraordinarily atmospheric. Every location from London with its busy and gruesome head studded London Bridge, the claustrophobic nastiness of the lanes around Southwark, the countryside with its threatened villages, the frozen wintry woods and the hills of Lanchasire and Warickshire are all settings that reflect the sorrow of this war. Like the people who inhabit this story they are troubled places. The English Civil War is not much written about, at least, not well. This novel is without doubt one of the best I have ever read set in the period. And it has integrity. So, move over, Bernard Cornwall. Giles Kristian is more than your match as a writer of brilliant adventure historical fiction.


The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

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The Rider of the White Horse is an old classic which I first read as a teenager. Because I thought I might write about the period, after writing Hastings from a woman's viewpoint, I picked it up from Amazon marketplace in the spring. This novel, written in 1959, is the story of Sir Thomas Fairfax's marriage and the narrative of the English Civil War told from his point of view and also that of his courageous wife Anne. Anne followed her husband's army for three years just so that she could be there for him. Again the landscape is beautifully depicted and the torn threatened villages are places that once tranquil become part of the war's theatre. Again, I was drawn to the characters and into an alien world where I could still recognise human emotions of love, anger, revenge and loyalty to mention but a few that permeate fabulous historical fiction. Again, I felt immersed in the little details of that foreign era.


The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts

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During the summer I had to revisit The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts as I was submitting my MPhil thesis in the Autumn. I had chosen this novel as an example (in one of my chapters) concerning how romance tempers realism in historical fiction. The Apothecary's Daughter is set in the 1660s during the plague of 1665 and the fire of 1666. Susannah, an apothecary's daughter, has unusually for the times, the freedom to pursue her talents as her father's apprentice. But, she cannot establish herself as an independent apothecary. After her father remarries she accepts a proposal of marriage from a handsome scoundrel interested in her dowry. And so a story is set in motion with a Cinderella type heroine who after thrilling events does find love and independence.  Bett's detailed depiction of the period and her psychologically developed characters allow her to write about seventeenth century London with realism. She thus recreates the illusion of an alien historical world along realist principles and successfully locates our interest in Susannah's fate within this world. Betts filters the shocking abnormality of the effects of the plague on the inhabitants of the city through a selection of interesting, very human and engaging characters.   She uses authentic detail to draw us into her historical world. The novel has a strong emotional pulse and I found it a page turner.


John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

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The story of John Saturnall, opens in 1625 with echoes of witchcraft and mob violence. As John and his mother flee their village to live hidden in ancient woods in a remote corner of England John Saturnall learns the recipes of a secret timeless feast. After his mother dies John, now an orphan, is taken to Buckland Manor, the ancestral seat of Sir William Fremantle. There, he is put to work in its subterranean kitchens. There, life is ruled by a fierce master cook who is impressed by John's gift of smell, his mysterious heritage and his talent for cooking. So, of course, John moves from the lowliest job scrubbing dishes to cooking fabulous menus for the great house.  He soon meets Sir William's daughter,Lucretia, a girl who is imaginative and headstrong. She insists on fasting. John's personal destiny is set in motion as it becomes entangled with persuading Lucy to eat, falling in love and the looming English Civil War. On the eve of the war, a marriage is made for Lucretia and the story takes further twists and turns. Then, as the dark winters of the war grip hold and the mansion is threatened by puritan militia, the story teases the reader into wondering where, when and how this skating rink of a narrative will come to rest.

The characters who inhabit Norfolk's story are absolutely engaging, original, quirky as people can be, multilayered, and who always possess, to lesser or greater degrees, universal human traits of ambition, jealousy, a sense of duty, honour and the need to love and be loved. At times I felt I had entered a new Gormenghast. Yet, this novel is no fantasy. Rather, it is rooted in folk traditions that penetrated the seventeenth century consciousness. Importantly, too, for the lover of the historical novel, it is firmly set, with realism, against a fascinating history, the course of the English Civil War, its aftermath and how it impacted on the lives of a small gallery of real and imagined characters. Norfolk's characterisation is totally faithful to history and the story itself is written with fabulous imagination, a perfect combination. I found the point of view of a chef a brilliant perspective on these great events and at all times felt myself present at the Battle of Naseby or in the woods or at the manor as Saturnall cooked up rabbits and woodland foraging for the vanquished cavalier leaders. The civil war was notable for inhabitants of a manor or village following the local magnate's sympathies without question. That was where their loyalty lay. But this novel is also a love story and an extremely unpredictable one too and it concludes long after the civil war is ended.

So what historical novels are you reading? I would love to know so that I can read them too?

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath (a novel about Edith Swanneck, Harold's handfasted or common-law wife) will be published by Accent Press in 2013.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Midwinter in the Eleventh Century

In the December drawing of the Julian Work Calendar the nimble little figures that labour month by month are flailing, winnowing and taking away the produce of their harvest in baskets of fine woven wattle. The medieval Calendar is dedicated to work and prayer and its message is that you must labour as unquestioningly as you worship God. November was the time to cull animals that could not be fed during the winter, to preserve meat by salting it and the time to stack firewood. December was the time for threshing. And, of course, a time for celebration as it was, for all, the mid-winter Feast.

Julian calendar: page from the “Julius Calendar and Hymnal” [Credit: © The British Library/Heritage-Images]
The Julian Work Calendar

Chopping wood in January, Add. 24098 f.18v, 1520-1530
Midwinter ( pic. accredited to the BL)

January shows pictures of the ploughman handling massive oxen just as if they were enormous machines. This energy helped produce the food that fed the medieval English man throughout the year. Their often hard life is depicted in an old Anglo-Saxon poem entitled The Fortunes of Man. The poem is a meditation on fate in which the author examined the different destinies that a child of this period might encounter as he grows into an adult. Although life was filled with hazards it could offer joy as well. In the poem, there is a wish list of sport, easy money and feasting and drinking. Just as the year turns the question hangs in the air, which way will an individuals life turn. Will it be to tragedy or to happiness. Wyrd or fate was a significant concept for the eleventh century Englishman or woman.

Chartres Cathedral window showing Winter


The Anglo-Saxon year was punctuated with feast days attributed to Saints. The most significant of these was the Christmas Feast. This feast was also an important communal act which reinforced social bonds and provided the occasion for the discussion of and dissemination of important information. Moreover in addition to a wide range of home-produced foods and drinks at the mid-winter feast, a noble family might have access to spices, herbs, wine, oils, fruits and nuts from abroad. Trade routes stretched from the Baltic to the Indian Ocean. Imports included coriander seeds, pepper and oil. Bede is recorded as having bequeathed lavender, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, cardamon, galingale, ginger, liquorice, sugar and pepper to his fellow monks on his death. So a Christmas or New Year's gift may have included exotic spices and Christmas fare may have contained surprising exotic flavours. By the end of the period, the court, and other large households, appear to have secured suppliers of pepper. 10 lbs of pepper was paid at Christmas by subjects of the early medieval King Ethelred as part of a toll. By the eleventh century, pepperers were organised and established. Pepper was widely used to season omelets, in wort drinks, in honeyed apple dishes whereas we might use cloves.

Medieval Saints' Days illustration

Winter clothing is described in an old English poem called The Seafarer. The seafarer's feet were so pinched by cold that he felt shackled by chains of ice. In Aelfric's Colloquay the ploughman is very aware of the difference between his outdoor life and the comfort experienced by his lord. His boy's voice was hoarse from the cold and shouting as he urged on the plough oxen.  They needed clothing to keep out the rain and the snow and so the main material for wet-weather wear was leather. These garments included boots, ankle leathers, shoes and leather trousers. The leather maker in the Colloquy proclaims that 'no-one is willing to go through winter without my craft.'  However the majority of Anglo-Saxon garments were made of wool, black, brown and white wool, spun, woven and dyed.


The King travelled around his estates with great worldly displays of daily rejoicing and feasting. Several hundred people would travel long distances to the king's winter feast. And closer to the estates that spread throughout the countryside, workers entitlements varied, but a perquisite might be feasts such as Christmas, Easter as well as harvest, ploughing and haymaking feasts. The mid-winter Christmas feast was a special occasion enjoyed by all, labourers and nobles alike and it is recorded that the major festivals of the church were to be celebrated on the pain of excommunication. The Rule of Chrodegang stated that two or three drinks could be taken in the room with the fire but this rule also cautioned: 'however great the gladness, see that drunkenness does not prevail.' Yet, Christmas then as now was a special celebration. The Penitential of Theodore excused penance for the priest who drank too much on a saint's celebration feast, or at Christmas! And after all there is Lent to come before winter is out and a long cold lean season ahead. I have written about The King's Christmas Feast of 1065 here
St Nicholas

St Nicholas came later but he is always associated throughout Europe with Christmas. I love the richness of the stained-glass window painting above and could not resist including it here.

In the Liverpool museum there is a walrus tusk from the eleventh century that has been carved with two cheeky sheep peering out from below the manger of the Christ child. There were English early medieval superstitions attached to the twelve days of Christmas. For example wind on the eleventh of the twelve days meant that all cattle will perish. If the mass-day of mid-winter fell on a Sunday 'sheep shall thrive'; if on a Tuesday , they were imperilled, but if the mass-day of mid-winter fell on a Saturday 'sheep will perish.'
Pinned Image
A December picture from a calendar in A Book of Hours

I write about the dramatic events of King Edward's mid-winter feast at Westminster in 1065 in my novel The Handfasted Wife, the story of Edith Swanneck, to be published by Accent Press in 2013.