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Historical Fiction – Halloween winter reads #HistFic

The Dark Side of Magic

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.

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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.

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Birth of GossipThe Birth of Gossip – Pamela Mann

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.

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Magician John Dee and his strange friendship with Edward Kelley

Eliz AshworthToday 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.

Dee A_Magician_by_Edward_KellyThere 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.

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The case for Dee’s magic mirror. British Museum. A later inscription tells us that Kelley, with this very mirror, “did all his feats upon the Devil’s Looking Glass.” Photo courtesy Stella Maris Mackenzie.

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.  

Merlins Wife
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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.

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