I knew nothing about Walter Ralegh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I. Was this legend true? Read more here on History Extra to find out.
In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R N Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Ralegh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. We are shown a thief having his hand cut off, and later we witness a massacre in Ireland, and wince at the way a horse might pick its way across a corpse-strewn field. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. What impresses is that Raleigh experiences these things as part and parcel of his life – to him they are every day occurrences. We are really treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man.
Ralegh is of course obsessed with gold, and we see his ambition and his turbulent relationship with the Queen. Yet his literary ambitions are also on show – the novel includes a whole scene after a tennis match written in blank verse, where the dialogue zips back and forth like a tennis ball as if we are in a Shakespeare play. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.
Sunday morning, and outside there is what my mother used to call a ‘mizzle’, which is a cross between rain and mist. Autumn is already here and after a hectic time launching Pleasing Mr Pepys, I’ve finally got the time to write reviews for some of the books I’ve read, including one I actually read in the summer. But it seemed appropriate just before Hallowe’en to feature two books which show the darker side of magic. In Anna Belfrage’s book the magic travels through time, through the Inquisition, to 17th century Scotland and even to modern times. In Pamela Mann’s book the magic is anchored in the Elizabethan world – it could be superstition or it could be magic – and Pamela leaves the reader to decide.
A Rip in The Veil – Anna Belfrage
This one had been on my kindle for ages and came highly recommended, but I’m not really a fan of timeslip novels so I had kept putting it to one side. I think I always find that the actual time shift moment stretches my disbelief a little too much – the moment when someone falls through a picture, or gets sucked into a vortex. However Anna Belfrage is an expert at making the most of that moment, so I need not have feared it was going to be ‘too cheesy’. Instead we are treated to a moment which tingles all the senses, and allows us to feel what such a moment might really be like.
Of course being transported back into the 17th century gives Anna Belfrage a chance to refect on society both then and now. There is what you would expect – the repression of women, the narrowness of society, but also an understanding of just how violent society was before our modern judicial system, the importance of agriculture and land, and the lack of material possessions, all things that Alex Lind has to come to grips with in her new life in a new century.
More than just a romance, this will please readers who like accurate history, but also appreciate a passionate relationship that is realistically portrayed. I appreciated all the minor chracters in the book too, such as Matthew’s bitter and vengeful brother, and Alex’s traumatised husband, as they each have a story to tell. Multi-layered and exciting, this is romantic fiction at its best.
I met Pamela Mann at the Historical Novel Conference where she first told me of this novel which sounded interesting, and an unusual way to approach an Elizabethan story. Midwife Margory has never lost a child, but becomes the subject of malicious gossip by two other midwives who are jealous of her success. Things take a darker turn, when Margory is invited to attend at the birth of one of Lady Winchester’s children and things do not quite go to plan.
Through the book we learn Margory’s backstory, how she met her husband Arthur, and became a well-respected wife in a big house, and then how her fortunes fell. Of course it is also a story about witchcraft and about rumour and the deliberate blackening of another’s name, not to mention the responsibility of midwifery in an age before anaesthetic, caesarians, or edpidurals.
It is also a story in which the narrator may not be all she seems, and Pamela Mann skilfully uses this twist at the end to untether the reader’s presumptions. Told in the first person, we are privy to all of Margory’s thoughts, and her changes in status, and she shows a strength, even a stubbornness, which is very convincing. The cover, in my opinion, does not do the book justice, as it conveys none of the colourful atmosphere and detail of the times which are present in the actual story. Pamela Mann’s descriptions of the Manor and how much Margory regrets the loss of its heyday, are very atmospheric. All in all, this is an immensely engaging read which rattles along at a good pace.
Today I welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Ashworth, author of many historical novels and several books of non-fiction. Elizabeth’s new book The Merlin’s Wife tells the story of John Dee’s life from the point of view of his wife, Jane. Dee was the most famous magician in the reign of Elizabeth I. My review of the book follows the article.
John Dee and his strange friendship with Edward Kelley
By Elizabeth Ashworth
It would be impossible to tell the story of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, without writing about his relationship with Edward Kelley. Kelley was employed by Dee as a medium or scryer in his quest to have conversations with the angels. Whether Kelley’s visions were genuine or whether he was a charlatan no one will ever know for certain, but it seems that John Dee had complete faith in his abilities.
There is no question that John Dee was an intelligent and educated man. He was born in London on July 13th 1527, just before Henry VIII’s Reformation, and lived through the turbulent reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary, who returned the country to Catholicism, Elizabeth and finally James.
At the age of 15 he went to study at St John’s College, Cambridge where he spent 18 hours a day at his work, allowing himself four hours a night to sleep and two hours to eat and drink. He graduated in 1546 and went on to gain an MA from the newly founded Trinity College before going to study mathematics and science at Louvain in Belgium. He was known as one of the most learned men of his time. He tutored a young Robert Dudley, who would become the Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and later he became a key advisor to the queen, possibly a spy and the originator of the sign 007 (with the 7 stretched over the 0s to represent the palm of a hand shielding secret eyes).
He developed an interest in a range of sciences. Some such as geometry, cartography, and astronomy seem quite normal to us. Others such as astrology and alchemy, the belief that it is possible to transmute base metals into gold, seem odd. But we must remember that Dee didn’t have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge and such ‘sciences’ were considered mainstream in his lifetime. Even Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity in the following century, made an in-depth study of alchemy.
It was in the pursuit of more knowledge that John Dee began to experiment with making contact with higher beings or angels. He was assisted in his work by various scryers, but none so successful as Edward Kelley.
Kelley was born in Worcester and was only half Dee’s age. He sometimes called himself ‘Talbot’ and is said to have performed necromancy (raising the dead) in a churchyard at Walton-le-Dale in Lancashire. He also seems to have been in trouble for forgery of some description and may have been pilloried in Lancaster and had his ears cropped as a punishment. It therefore seems surprising that Dee employed him in his household and paid him a good wage. But Kelley was able to make contact with the angels where others had failed, providing Dee with names and ciphers and visions that held the tantalising promise of the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone – the key to alchemy, transmutation and everlasting life.
One person who expressed doubts about Kelley was Dee’s young wife, Jane Fromonds. She had an intense dislike of the man and did not trust him. That, however, did not deter John Dee and his faith in Kelley’s abilities led him to persuade her to agree to a pact that he thought would bring him the knowledge he craved.
To many modern minds, the idea that a reputable scientist and scholar could believe in magic is difficult to comprehend, although as Shakespeare rightly said ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. I think that John Dee who is credited with inventing the phrase British Empire and who petitioned Queen Elizabeth to create a royal navy as well as a national library lost much of his credibility because of his association with Edward Kelley. Even in his lifetime he was viewed with some suspicion and called a conjuror, a dabbler in black magic.
He died in 1608 at Mortlake, cared for by his daughter Katherine, after a time as Warden of the Collegiate church of St Mary in Manchester (now Manchester Cathedral) where Jane died in a plague epidemic in 1604.
Kelley had by this time been dead for some years. Having fallen foul of the Emperor Rudolph of Bohemia he reputedly fell from a prison window in 1595 whilst trying to escape.
It is a sad story at times, especially for Jane, who stood by her husband throughout their troubled life together – a story of a fine intellect that was possibly wasted in the pursuit of an impossible dream.
The Merlin’s Wife
I was offered an early review copy of The Merlin’s Wife and it proved to be a fascinating insight into the magical beliefs of Elizabethan England. In this novel Jane, John Dee’s wife, is given centre stage and the story is told from her point of view. Jane represents the voice of sanity and reason, but through instinctive distrust of Edward Kelley rather than through any 21st century sensibilities. Jane is a credible and likeable heroine, and Elizabeth Ashworth gives her enough superstitious beliefs to make her fit comfortably into the magical world view of Dee. All the same, I couldn’t help but feel immensely sorry for her as she is thrust fearfully into Dee’s bizarre world of angels and demons. Apparitions are conjured by Dee’s ‘scryer’ Kelley, to give the partners in magic ‘angelic advice’. Of course the angels, and their supposed advice, are invisible to everyone else but Kelley. When the advice is contrary to all that is holy, then there is a problem – and Ashworth uses this as the lynchpin of her book. (Can’t give too much away here).
Of course when dealing with subtle or invisible realms of perception, it must be no easy task to decide what is real and what is not, but what was so strange was that Dee himself failed totally to see through Kelley’s self-serving hokum. In The Merlin’s Wife this tension between real and unreal works very well. It helps that Dee is not the main character and so we aren’t privy to his mental processes, but when I’d finished reading, it made me think that Kelley must indeed have been very charismatic to fool someone so intellectually capable as Dee. The poor wives in this novel have no choice but to follow their husbands to various foreign courts, and are totally dependent on their husband’s status and fortune – a depressing, yet no doubt historically accurate state of affairs. I was saddened particularly by Anna, Kelley’s wife – at least Dee seemed to have genuine affection for Jane, whereas Kelley seemed to have none whatsoever for Anna.
All in all, this is a read that will make you marvel at the strange magical world-view of our forbears, but want to rage at the gullibility and weaknesses of human beings. People still study Dee’s Enochian magic today, so The Merlin’s Wife would make a very interesting choice for a book group discussion, and I thoroughly recommend it.
The Pedlar’s Song, from ‘The Triumphant Widow’ 1677
I love looking at what people have found under our feet by metal detecting or digging in their garden. The past is buried so close to the surface! Here’s an Elizabethan pin found by Don Sherratt of Taynton Metal Detecting Club in a field on the outskirts of Newent in 2006. The pin is very small but decorated with coils of gold wire and raised heads – such exquisite workmanship! The loop was probably for the attachment of a chain to help prevent such a valuable item from being lost. It could have been used to pin a dress, or more likely, the hair.
During the Elizabethan period gold hair decorations were very fashionable with wealthy women, as you can see from these portraits . These ornate gold and silver pins were worn in the hair, often with dangling pearls, or droplets made of gold wire. Sometimes the decorated finial would protrude over the centre of the forehead, and sometimes the decoration would be set off-centre wound into the hair. Hair was sometimes padded out with horsehair or false hair to give the required bulk. Several Tudor hair pins have been found by metal detectorists during recent years, and most have the pin deliberately bent. You can imagine the lady twisting the pin into the hair to encourage it to stay put, but on this occasion the twisting obviously didn’t work as it was there for someone to find, all these years later.
My local bookshop has 100,000 second hand books. It’s a five minute drive, or a brisk half hour walk along country lanes. I always think I must have exhausted their supply of Tudor and Stuart gems, but they keep getting more stock, and this week I was lucky.
Here is my find – ‘Rude Forefathers’ by F H West. The title doesn’t give much away, but the subtitle , ‘the story of an English Village 1600-1666’ made it well worth my £2.50. Since then, I’ve looked, and the book is also available on various online sites such as Abebooks.
First published in 1949, its chapters are focused mainly on the Churchwarden and the Constable and their role in village society, as gleaned from account books of the time. The study was undertaken by Francis West, the Archdeacon of Newark who collated the information from the Churchwarden’s book which dates from 1601-42, and from the Constable’s book from 1642-1666.
Nearby, Newark was under siege during the English Civil Wars for much of that time, so these records of one of the outlying villages make for great reading. ‘Rude Forefathers’ also has chapters on the English Civil War and the Plague. Although this is a slim volume, (90 pages) and somewhat knackered, it was a great find, and will be of interest to anyone who studies the late Elizabethan, Jacobean or Stuart period.
And talking of the Plague, which I am researching right now – I recommend Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of The Plague Year. Written only sixty years after the event, it is full of facts and figures of the weekly death toll, as well as being a wonderful (if gruesome) description of events.
More reading? A controversial Historical Fiction article that might be of interest is here.
It is a brave writer that sets out to tackle anything about William Shakespeare and how he wrote his plays. Even more so when the author posits the idea that Shakespeare relied on a female poet as his collaborator. I dare say the novel will have its detractors, particularly those who find the portrait of Shakespeare doesn’t live up to their expectations of him as a romantic hero. But this is a superb novel that immerses the reader firmly into the seamy world of the Elizabethan Court, viewed through the eyes of court musicians and courtesans, and then into the olive groves and vineyards of Renaissance Verona.
Aemilia Bassano Lanier, the Dark Lady of the book’s title, is a strong and engaging protagonist. Well-educated, musical, and with an ear for poetry ‘that intoxicated her like wine’ she teams up with the not-yet-famous Shakespeare to bring sparkle to his plays. A long sojourn in Italy consolidates their romantic relationship, where together they write some of the most well-known of his plays, such as Twelfth Night. The relationship is filled with artistic and sexual tension, and undercurrents of themes which appear in the plays. The idea of turning Aemilia into a Viola – a cross-dressing disguise – works very well in this Elizabethan context. Mary Sharratt has incorporated many references to Shakespeare’s plays, and these add enjoyment to the narrative as the reader spots the allusion. The passionate liaison between Aemilia and Will lasts until Will hears of the death of his son, when, filled with guilt, he decides to return to his wife.
After this episode the book becomes more Aemilia’s own, and we come to appreciate what a remarkable talent she had, and how hard it was for a female poet to find an audience in those times. Filled with extracts of Lanier’s own poetry, which is seamlessly integrated into the narrative, this is a literary tour de force. Aemilia’s situation forces us to examine what role women had (and have) in the role of poetry as a means of expressing deeper engagement with the human condition, and how religious views about woman’s ‘fall from grace’ affected Lanier’s life, and by reflection, female poets of today. Anyone interested in the cultural climate of Elizabethan England will find much to engage them, and I learnt a lot about both Shakespeare and about Aemilia Lanier from this novel. Highly recommended.
Excellent murder mystery with larger than life characters and a tone in which you can tell the author is enjoying the telling of the tale. John Lovat, the bastard brother of one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers and always second fiddle to his snooty brother, is employed to solve the mystery of the death of a Portuguese nobleman, and to hush up any scandal that might affect the court.
The author has researched the times thoroughly, with detailed knowledge of London streets, the theatres, the waterways and the politics of the day including the taking of slaves and the ruthlessness of piracy on the high seas. There are plenty of false leads and a surprising denouement. All in all an excellent read.
The House of York is loosely based on events during the era of the Wars of the Roses. It includes part of the plot of the Princes in the Tower (albeit updated) and this adds extra interest for history buffs.
The events are told from several points of view, mostly unreliable (!) and this family saga is part thriller, part crime, part intrigue, with a good dollop of psychology thrown in. This makes it sound complex, and it is, but it is also a seamless and entertaining read. The voices are clearly delineated, and each character convincing. Like the best historical sagas, Terry Tyler’s books are about power. Who owns it, who wants it, and the lengths people will go to to get it. Jealousy, back-stabbing, manipulation are all a part of the game. The ending leaves enough intrigue for the reader to wait anxiously for the next instalment.
A Dangerous Mourning is the second book in the William Monk Series, set just after the Crimean war, and full of Victorian atmosphere – the foggy Thames, and the complexity of the Victorian legal system. Both these outside forces are mirrored by Monk’s mind – his amnesia and how he copes with it, alongside his determination to be better than Mr. Runcorn, his superior, who would be happy to get rid of him from the Force.
The plot revolves around the murder of Octavia Moidore, a wealthy aristocrat’s daughter, who has been stabbed to death in her bed. Of course in those days there was no fingerprinting, no forensics, and the police force is full of ineptitude. Some of the time Monk is outwitting the system itself, as well as the perpetrator of the crime. Gripping, atmospheric stuff, with a great courtroom drama ending.
Letters to the Lost is a double romance set during World War Two and today. The plot is built around an empty house in which Jess finds herself after she escapes her violent boyfriend, Dodge. The letters she discovers in the abandoned house describe a sweeping love story that went wrong. At the same time, the airman of the letters is trying to find his long lost sweetheart and hopes she is still alive. With the help of her friend Will, Jess begins to unravel the mystery behind Dan and Stella’s wartime story, and in doing so finds a love of her own. Our hopes for a happy ending propel the two narratives along, and anyone looking for an exceptionally well-written romance with true heart and poignancy will love this.
What does it take to write an Elizabethan Murder Mystery?
I asked the actor Jonathan Digby, whose novel, ‘A Murderous Affair’, is currently flying high in the UK Amazon charts, for some clues.
What appeals to you about Elizabethan History?
The Elizabethan Age is known as the Early Modern period in British history and I think that sums up what is so fascinating about it. It is the perfect crossover point between the medieval period and the modern age and quite a few seeds of our modern obsessions – trade, nationalism, self-made people, famous artists and so on – are sowed, to some extent, during that period. It was also a time of great change – the old world order had collapsed in England – particularly the power of the Roman Catholic church – and out of the ashes a whole new system grew up – I do find trying to pinpoint characters within that whole dynamic quite a fun challenge! There are also lots of great figures – Queen Elizabeth I, Burghley, Walsingham, Leicester, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sydney (the list could go on and on) – about whom there is a lot of research and who are also fun to try and capture to some extent in the stories.
I also have a love of the period through being an actor and doing Shakespeare plays – Shakespeare is the pinnacle of an age of enlightenment in the arts, a bit like the Beatles in the 1960s. There was a whole movement of great playwrights during the period and the body of plays gives the modern writer an incredibly rich source of information to draw on.
Please tell me about your main character and what made him enjoyable to write.
John Lovat is an illegitimate son of a Lord. I chose this background for him because I wanted to have a character who could cross believably through the different tiers of Elizabethan society. In the Elizabethan world everybody had their place – their were even maps drawn showing where everyone fitted in from the Queen downwards – and so it presented a problem for a character solving crime amongst both rich and poor. Getting up the social ladder was very desirable but also very difficult. Lovat’s position gives him access to the upper-echelons of society, although his place as one of society’s ‘have-nots’ is never in doubt! To some extent, I also enjoyed making him an ‘anti-Elizabethan’ thus hopefully a prism through whom the wider Elizabethan world can be offset and glimpsed. It is also great fun putting him into difficult situations (as I imagine is the case with a detective from any era) and trying to help him solve them!!
What’s unique about sleuthing in the Tudor era?
I think this is a point where a certain amount of artistic license needs to be taken – there weren’t any ‘detectives’ during the period (they didn’t exist until the 19th century) and certainly very few of the methods that modern crime writers rely on – fingerprints, CSI, DNA etc – had yet to be invented. ‘Policing’ in London in the 16th Century was done by a variety of bodies – the constables who ensured that peace was kept in the different wards, the clergy who made sure that their flock were in church on Sundays, rich and influential individuals who had retainers to do their bidding, the army to a certain extent – it was all a bit of a mess and only loosely corresponded to an idea of justice!
I think sleuthing in the period partly comes down to a character having a unique point of view or insight and also being very observant – it also comes down to being someone who loves solving puzzles. Also, the character has to be compelled to solve the mystery – i.e. if he fails something bad will happen to him, and has to be in a position where he is asked to solve mysteries in the first place. In Lovat’s case he moves from being a retainer in his (legitimate) brother’s household to becoming a spy for Francis Walsingham. In the future, I’m planning on putting him other positions where he will have an opportunity to solve crimes with a distinct set of circumstances. For example, in book two he is heading to France and getting involved in the secession battles that tore the country apart in the later part of the 16th Century. In a later book I am planning on sending him to the English countryside where he will have to battle against people’s superstitions and a ‘conycatcher’ or wise man who the country folk look up to! But all that is for the future …
In A Divided Inheritance, Elspet Leviston stands to lose her family’s house and business to a cousin she never knew existed. To recreate the house in my mind I researched the late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean style – a period much overlooked, but with its own distinct characteristics.
Elspet lives in London and her house has been in the family for generations, so it is likely that the actual fabric of the building would have been Tudor or even earlier, but with more modern furnishings. She also tells us in the novel that her father is quite reluctant to update the house – to buy new drapes or replace worn items. Westview House in the novel would be quite shabby, but with good quality furniture. In the picture below of Crewe Hall, notice the typical ceiling of the period with its pendant plasterwork, which would soon have grown grubby from the smoking fires and tobacco.
I used a real house to model Elspet’s home on. I find it much easier to write if I have a good sense of the geography of a house and a real picture of where doors, windows and so forth would have been. I couldn’t find a suitable house in London of the right middling size, though I used the street map of the time to locate where the house would have stood. Much of this area of London was lost in the subsequent Great Fire of 1666.
The house I chose to use is Bampfylde House which is actually in Exeter, but was the period and style which would have been similar to London houses of the time. Sadly this building no longer stands, as it was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1942. Such a catastrophe! It had survived right up until the twentieth century intact. But there is a fascinating article about its history here, along with interesting tales of when it was visited by the Duke of Bedford.
The paintings of the house were done by Robert Dymond, an antiquarian who visited it when it was still there, in 1864. The house has a small courtyard and the front, and a larger one behind, which I make good use of in the novel for Zachary Deane’s sword practice.
Jacobean furniture was massive, heavy and built to last. Often from oak, and built on simple lines, it is characterised by ornate carvings, and friezes of decorative designs. Chairs were probably quite uncomfortable as upholstery was little-used.
Shutters were used at the mullioned windows to keep in the warmth, and drapes possibly hand-embroidered with crewel work. Here are some examples of crewel work designs from the Victoria and Albert museum. Elspet’s mother may have spent long hours embroidering items such as these, and rubbing them with lavender or sandalwood to keep off moths.
It was crucial to me to have a real sense of what Elspet might lose if she failed to keep her family’s house, so the reader can empathise with that. Re-creating the dark, somewhat structured interior of the house was also vital as a contrast to what Elspet later finds in Spain when she has to pursue her cousin to hot and dusty Seville. At the time Seville is the busiest port in Europe during Spain’s Golden Age, full of new and exciting sights, scents and sounds. There Elspet finds a completely different lifestyle, architecture and customs. Not only that, but she finds a new physical freedom she could never have found in London.
By the way, those interested in Jacobean houses might also find this article of interest – how Apethorpe Hall, a Jacobean treasure, was saved by one man.