Book Review: The Silken Rose

Hilary Mantel raised the bar for historical fiction when she wrote Wolf Hall. For readers who do not get on with her style of prose there are respected writers such as Alison Weir telling immersive stories of monarchy from times of old. And there are many other fine authors – it is a popular genre. The intrigues and extravagances of courtly life, along with the challenges faced by those living beyond palace walls, offer a window into times it would otherwise be hard to imagine given contemporary culture.

The Silken Rose, by Carol McGrath, focuses on Ailenor of Provence. In 1236, aged just thirteen years of age, she travelled to England where she married King Henry III. In this tale they fall in love and she gains power through her carefully managed influence on her husband and several of his courtiers. She is described as a beauty and produces healthy children. Henry is often fickle but she mostly handles his tempers. The English aristocracy of the time resent the royal couple’s nepotism. Perceived changes of allegiance can prove dangerous.

The portrayal of these medieval monarchs is one of vanity and entitlement. Both King and Queen believe they hold office by the will of God. They resent any argument or interference from powerful and rich lords, yet require these men’s monetary support to maintain their lifestyle and settle disputes. The church is also a factor as favours need to be bought.

All of this, along with the day to day habits of those living within and serving the royal household as it moves from palace to palace throughout the land and abroad is well portrayed in the story. There are nuggets of interest in the accepted customs. And yet the telling came across as a roll call of significant events populated by two dimensional characters. Ailenor, as the central figure, evoked little emotion. It is mentioned in places that she cried or was happy but her actions rarely reflect feeling other than a desire to keep Henry on side.

A merchants daughter, Rosalind, gains favour from the Queen for her exquisite embroidery. This friendship, and its repercussions, seemed far removed from other portrayals of ruthless, historic rulers.

The Silken Rose offers harmony with only brief mentions of potentially unhappy marriages or fickle friendship. At a time when positions were brokered for power or money, when marriages were forged to produce heirs and alliances, I struggled to believe there would be so much lasting loyalty over decades of lived experience and resulting change. When characters face difficulties, reasoning is skimmed over in the prose.

Dialogue provides exposition but offers little depth. Much is mentioned but little explored.

For readers looking for a nice story with added historical interest this may well be enjoyed. I found it bland and should probably have stopped reading when it became obvious the writing style wasn’t for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Accent.

Book Review: The Plague Charmer

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, is a substantial but eminently readable work of historical fiction. Set in a remote fishing village in the heart of Exmoor during the 1361 outbreak of the Great Pestilence, it introduces the reader to characters from all social classes. The high born confidantes of the King guard their secrets whilst seeking to protect and increase their wealth. Those subsisting on the sparse offerings of a challenging lifestyle and landscape seek to survive.

Into this world comes a foreigner, Janiveer, washed up from the sea when a boat capsizes on rocks. She warns of the plague to come and offers to save the village, at a price none are willing to pay.

What follows is an exploration of the beliefs and superstitions of the time. There is Matilda, the wife of a ship’s carpenter who has been raised by nuns and idolises the trappings of the established church. There is Will, a false dwarf accused of theft and banished from the manor life into which he was sold. There are dependents of the overlord, holed up together to escape the contagion; villagers jostling for position as they fight for their lives; a renegade priest who has established a cult following he holds captive by fear.

The story opens with an eclipse of the sun, regarded as a bad omen. The village is struggling due to an unseasonal drought. With most of the residents living their entire lives within the village bounds, educated only in how to survive, old beliefs have merged with the teachings of the church to produce a population fearful of what will befall them if they do not abide by the many habits and customs passed down through the generations. Famine, disease and death are blamed on reprobates, those who will not comply.

When the plague arrives any common goodness or humanity is lost as attempts are made to isolate the disease. Families are torn apart, neighbours blamed. It was not the grief at death that depressed me but the reaction of those who couldn’t see beyond themselves.

I enjoyed the role Janiveer played as she stood her ground while men struggled to dominate her. She used their arrogance and weakness against them. I enjoyed the role of Will, whose life could so easily have left him bitter yet who was amongst the most humane. Lady Pavia showed political expediency, Sara a strength that belied the attitudes of the time to women.

The story captured my attention yet, as it played out, I felt depression at the believable behaviour of so many. This was blinkered small-mindedness taken to extreme. Within the confines of the only world these poeple can have known it may well have been how it was. I wonder how far we have come.

I cannot fault the writing, this is a compelling story. It enlightened but did not entertain.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Random musings from a history course

Yesterday I completed the third on line course that I have studied through FutureLearn, six weeks of finding out more about England in the time of King Richard III. The main lesson that hit home was how many aspects are recognisable and relevant today. To quote Hegel: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

Prior to the 14th century, peasants in England were tied to a landlord through tenancy agreements that required them to maintain their dwelling and work both the land that they rented and common land. Starting at the beginning of the 14th century a series of crises, including poor harvests, murrains and famines, resulted in population stagnation and economic decline. This trend, clearly established in the early 14th century, was dramatically accelerated by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348-9. The most recent studies set the overall mortality figure as high as 50% of the population. Plague returned in the 1360s, and population remained low throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

The great mortality of the 14th century resulted in increased demand for labour in both town and country, and a corresponding rise in wages. The government of the time made strong attempts to control this and acts were passed that tried to curb the process. Records of transgressions reveal the strategies used by the workforce to improve their situation. It is clear, for example, that workers were now resisting attempts to make them stay in the same place, or enter into contracts that committed them to fixed wages for extended periods; mobility offered much greater opportunity for improved pay, and net mobility seems to have been in favour of the towns. Peasants were clearly abandoning the ties that held them to a perpetual subservient relationship.

The wealthy often strive to depress wages for the workers they rely on for their wealth. In Britain today we have a situation where the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and successive governments are doing all that they can to maintain this. Those who wish to find a job are often required to work unwaged in order to receive the safety net of benefits which ward off starvation and homelessness. The benefits system retains a series of sanctions that force compliance; payments are withdrawn if meetings are missed or if a recipient is not deemed to be trying hard enough to abide by the rules, however nonsensical they may be. Numerous deaths have been reported amongst those who have had benefits withdrawn, the stress and hardship of the withdrawal being cited as a factor in their demise.

Even amongst the more affluent, work experience placements and internships are now a common means of gaining contacts in order to secure future employment. These can be tricky to organise, often requiring the exploitation of familial associations only available to a few. With higher education costed to ensure that it may only be afforded by the rich, or those willing to accept the lengthy restrictions of a huge debt, certain jobs have been put beyond the reach of the new peasantry.

The middle ages saw a period of improvement in the lives of the poorest which the wealthy resisted. Alongside this improvement came innovation, for example the introduction of the printing press which enabled the production of affordable books (yay!). Alongside  increased mobility, information could be disseminated more easily. With the decrease in subjugation the masses were not so easy to control, a situation which those in power feared as it threatened to disturb their own, comfortable and established lifestyles.

I am not suggesting that modern Britain is returning to the conditions of the middle ages, but I find it interesting to note the parallels. Throughout history periods of economic growth have benefited all in society with innovation and improvements in living standards, yet the powerful continue to feel threatened by such changes. Ever eager to protect their own positions they put in place barriers and controls, suppressing those who they deem lazy or undeserving, promoting only those they recognise, who agree with their personal point of view.

On a lighter note, another parallel that I noted between 14th century England and the present day was to do with food. As peasants moved to the towns to find work, landowners could no longer find or afford enough labour to work the land in the old ways. This led to an increase in keeping livestock. Broader affluence alongside changes in supply resulted in the poorer classes eating more meat, a commodity previously beyond their means. As peasants regularly placed beef, pork and mutton on their tables, the wealthy looked to differentiate their meals in other ways. Consumption of, for example, birds that were hard to catch became popular amongst the gentry looking to impress their acquaintances. Hunting was restricted and poaching policed to ensure that only the wealthy had access to certain, elite foodstuffs.

This desire to eat exotic meals that were not available to the masses reminded me of the food fads that exist today. Certain TV chefs love to promote innovation, eating combinations of ingredients that would not previously have been known about or considered. Previously unheard of ingredients become popular, fading away when too many people start to use them as standard. Quinoa anyone?

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