The Altarpiece: Sarah Kennedy

★★½

The Cross and the Crown: Book I

It is 1535 and Henry VIII, bedazzled by a pair of black eyes, has put aside his wife Katherine of Aragon and turned his back on the Catholic Church in favour of Reform. His sentence falls heavily on the kingdom’s monasteries, which are charged with immorality and avarice, and their rich goods and lands seized for the benefit of the king – or more accurately the benefit of the local lord, should he have the courage to take them.

Mount Grace Priory, north of York, is just one of the numerous foundations affected by the king’s edict and Robert Overton is just one of a number of avaricious lords. But Mount Grace will not be easily won: many of the sisters have accepted the Oath of Supremacy and quietly departed to secular lives, but the prioress Christina Havens stands firm with a devoted handful of nuns about her: the elderly Veronica; the doughty young widow Ann; and Christina’s adopted daughter, the foundling and talented medic Catherine. Between them they try to hold off the king’s men who would drag them from their home, seize their belongings and leave them with neither security nor vocation – believing that, if only they can last out long enough, King Henry will come to his senses and that his queen Katherine, who has a particular fondness for Mount Grace, will intercede for them.

But events are not in their favour. Robert Overton’s eye has fallen on a valuable altarpiece which is the pride of the convent; and now, on the day his men are due to arrive, the altarpiece is missing. Worse, one of the priory’s servants has fled from the village, and another will soon be dead. As summer heightens and the pox makes its appearance, the nuns find themselves at the heart of a popular hysteria in which they risk being accused of murder, witchcraft and treachery. The convent’s only hope is sensible, level-headed Catherine, who is determined to find out what has happened to the altarpiece. Her journey will lead her to revelations not only about her community, but also about herself; and will force her to question her own ambitions for the future along the way.

Most of the books I’ve read about this period have focused on the people at the top of the tree and so this is an interesting counterpart, in that it shows us the confusion and suffering inflicted on ordinary people by Henry’s and Cromwell’s machinations. For once we are in the shoes of the everywoman, who finds her existence changed for ever by the edict of a king she’s never even seen. Catherine is an engaging character, blessed with intelligence and self confidence; and her upbringing has given her the chance to see beyond the usual lot of women in these times and to question whether it might not be possible to have and do more than simply being a wife and mother. There were some times when she seemed to be emancipated beyond her historical period, but I did find her enjoyable and was pleased to see that, despite the predictable romance, her independence and autonomy remain key concerns for her.

My other favourite character was Ann, bless her: down to earth and no-nonsense, she leapt into my mind fully-formed with her stout figure and capable forearms. I would rather enjoy a spin-off of Ann-meets-world: I think it would have a comedy and Chaucerian bawdiness all of its own. The other characters were not quite as well-developed and I felt that the book would have benefitted from a slightly deeper exploration of Christina’s character. She is, after all, a key figure in the novel and yet she comes across as rather impetuous, arrogant and ill-advised. Robert Overton also felt rather flat: he is driven purely by greed and ambition and there is little sense of the fact that he must, for years, have somehow rubbed along with the convent.

It would have been interesting to see a little more of the struggle that must have existed between community feeling and orders from on high. Men like Robert were, doubtless, motivated by the lure of wealth which would make them more notable landowners. But how does that weigh up against their role as patrons and benefactors of the very monasteries they now faced abolishing? Surely there must have been a slightly more complex attitude than is represented by Robert here? This is a genuine question, and perhaps my assumption is wrong: perhaps the old loyalties snapped at the first prospect of advancement. (Yes, it’s well past time to read The Stripping of the Altars.)

There were some points when the plot felt as if it were being directed, rather than organically developing. Of course there will be spoilers in this paragraph (and major spoilers towards the end), so please do be careful if you would like to read this yourself. In particular, when the characters set off to find Thomas Aden, I couldn’t help feeling that it seemed less like a desperate last-minute flight to prove the convent’s innocence and more like an opportunity for Catherine and William to realise their feelings for one another. There were quite a lot of nights spent in inns dealing with blossoming emotions, and perhaps not quite enough sense of all the terrible things that might be happening in their absence. And then there is the question of the mysteries. The novel is built around the enigma of the altarpiece, whose disappearance adds extra venom to Robert Overton’s suppression, and whose location is a driving force of the narrative. (Major spoilers ahead.) I have to say that I guessed its location, and the person behind its disappearance, at a very early point in the novel. It all boils down to the principle of Chekhov’s gun: if something is drawn to our attention at every opportunity (a table, say), it doesn’t require that great a leap to think that it might be significant. The same goes for the identity of the murderer. Sometimes it pays not to give away too many clues: if the reader figures it out too early, then some of the novel’s grip is diminished.

When I read the book I assumed that it was entirely fictional: that people and places were, alike, the product of the author’s imagination. Since finishing the novel, however, I’ve been prompted to look up some things and I’ve become aware that Mount Grace Priory actually exists. Although its name and location are the same as in the book, the rest of the historical facts seem to have been altered. As I understand it, the real Mount Grace was a priory for Carthusian monks, not nuns. There was an upheaval when certain monks refused to swear to the Oath of Supremacy, but that was in 1534 not 1535. I would be curious to know why this particular real monastery was chosen as the setting for the story, rather than adopting a real-life nunnery or creating an entirely fictional foundation. There is, however, one tantalising link between the real and fictional worlds of Mount Grace. The only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe came from the real-life priory; and the book plays a cameo role in the novel, as a treasured possession of Catherine’s which is regarded with some disapproval by her superiors.

Overall, Kennedy’s novel offers a sympathetic look at the emotional and religious turmoil unleashed by the Reformation, and the fates of the women (and presumably men) who found themselves turned out of the places they had come to regard as home. It questions what is left when your function in life – your very vocation – is removed. Where do you go then? And how do you define yourself? I enjoyed the close focus on the changing dynamics between villagers and convent, as everyone adjusts to the new status quo, and how even in a provincial community the changes of religious policy could have a real and sometimes very brutal effect. As I’ve said, the historical mystery aspects didn’t quite work for me, and I felt that some of the characterisation could have been worked up a little more. Nevertheless, it offers a different slant on historical fiction of this period. For those who have enjoyed this novel, a sequel, City of Ladies, follows Catherine’s further adventures.

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I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

4 thoughts on “The Altarpiece: Sarah Kennedy

  1. Jean Gobel says:

    Interesting review. For some reason this makes me think of DD's Niccolo, can't really say why. Or maybe it's Mother Hildegard in Outlander series. I do think I would like to read this.
    Jean

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I hope you enjoy it, Jean! I'll keep my eyes peeled for your review of it on Goodreads, then – or just drop me an email to let me know what you think. It certainly takes a different angle to the usual, and I'm all for new perspectives.

  3. drmaf says:

    Having read your review, I've just gone and ordered a copy, seems like exactly the sort of book I would like. Had to order it online since no bookshop here seems to have it but thats pretty much par for the course here.

  4. Leander says:

    I'll be interested to know your thoughts. I feel that the above is a fairly generous review (with first books I try to give them the benefit of the doubt) and as I say there are some aspects which I felt didn't quite flow in the characterisation and plotting, but it is always difficult to know if I'm just being overly critical… And I'll also be curious to see your take on the mystery angle.

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