John Knox made a brief cameo appearance in my GCSE History course, mainly to demonstrate that many people in the 16th century thought female monarchs were A Bad Thing. As part of a monstrous regiment of my own, in my girls’ school, I never had the chance to learn much more about him than the title of his most famous work, which naturally made me regard him with slight disapproval; and now, fifteen years later, it’s time to finally redress the balance. Marie Macpherson’s novel – the first in a proposed trilogy – turns him from merely a name on a history syllabus into a much more rounded and appealing figure, set firmly in his time.
And what a time that is! For all my admiration of certain Scottish historical novels, I’m not all that good on the country’s history in the early part of the 16th century, and found myself plunged into a period of political and religious turmoil. Plagued by a series of misfortunes – a regency, followed by a weak-minded king, and yet another regency – the Scottish monarchy is becoming little more than a fragile shell, circled by ambitious magnates who see their chance to seize power through an advantageous marriage or a place on the Regency Council. Without a strong figure at its head, the realm risks descending into chaos, while on its southern borders the menace of England ebbs and flows in periodic bloody invasions. As if this isn’t enough, new ideas are seeping in from the Reformation on the Continent, and finding rich soil in a country where the great churchmen are nobles first and clerics second; and where gluttony, avarice and fornication are rife. Sickened by the lack of Christian feeling in their church hierarchy, a small handful of men begin to question the need for priests and mysteries; and among their number is a young clerk, called John Knox.
But I’m getting ahead of myself of course. Macpherson’s novel shows us this whole dense, dazzling period through the eyes and experiences of one powerful family: the Hepburns. In 1511, when the book opens, Elisabeth Hepburn, her sister Meg and their cousin Kate are on the brink of adolescence, still bewitched by folk traditions and fairy ballads; but by 1548, at the novel’s close, they will each have experienced for themselves the danger and bitterness of a world in which they can never rest on their laurels, but must always strive for more to keep their family strong. The most determined and most successful of these three is Elisabeth, a strong spirit who falls in love and dreams of marriage, but whose qualities fit her out for a very different kind of life. Directed by their formidable aunt and uncle – respectively a prioress and prior – each of the three orphaned girls finds herself pressed in a different direction. Sweet, malleable Meg is destined for a great marriage; flirtatious Kate is packed off to the Court to delight the king’s eye; and Elisabeth finds herself designated as her aunt’s successor as prioress of the great foundation of St Mary’s. And it is through her life there that she comes into contact with the newborn child whom she takes as her godson: John.
There are many things to like about this book: it veritably teems with detail, not only in the kind of everyday scene-setting context that makes it feel real, but also in the care given to the language. Scottish words are used not only in the dialogue but also in the narrative and, while I’m not always a fan of such things, I thought that it worked remarkably well here. It means that the whole book has a linguistic integrity and richness. There were several words I’d never heard before, but the context made them plain and by the end of the novel ‘hirpling’ had become something of a favourite. Chapters all begin with quotations from contemporary books, often ballads or works by the real-life David Lindsay, and this too helps to maintain the period flavour. And, which is a true blessing in a Kindle version of a book, the novel opens with a generous spread of character lists, family trees and maps, so you haven’t the slightest excuse not to know who someone is or how they all fit together.
This kind of historical sensitivity is precisely what I enjoy in a book, but there were a few things, largely on the stylistic front, which prevented me being able to lose myself in the story. I couldn’t help noticing, for example, an effort to avoid the word ‘said’. Some of the alternatives used could come across as inappropriately charged or melodramatic. For example, some characters would ‘simper’ or ‘whine’ when such behaviour wasn’t consistent with their strong personalities, their mood or the tenor of their conversations. I did find this particularly distracting, although I confess it’s a personal foible and not something that will bother everyone. (I feel that if someone ‘says’ something, you pay attention to the words, but if someone ‘bellows’ something then your focus is on the bellow, not the words.) Occasionally there were also points when there was a little too much exposition, when it might have been more effective to drip-feed hints about the political situation or characters’ feelings. And one final thing to mention is actually a matter of formatting, which might be entirely due to the Kindle format. We would sometimes jump from one location and conversation to another, with no more distinction than a line break; and this can leave the reader a little disorientated about where the characters were and whether any time had passed.
Nevertheless, let’s return to its strengths. Another of the book’s most interesting aspects is its main character: Elisabeth. She is competent, determined and innovative, and I liked the fact that despite her youthful infatuation with David Lindsay she is able to meet him on a more equal ground as she grows older and, indeed, to hold the greater power and authority in their relationship. And yet, for all her good qualities, she’s also flawed and that made her much more absorbing. She is not suited to be a prioress of a convent in an ideal world, because she has no religious conviction; but she is exactly suited to be a prioress at this particular thorny, difficult period in history, when the rule of a religious house requires firm handling rather than piety. The convent of St Mary’s offers a very historically plausible vision of what life in a wealthy priory might have been like. Indeed, there are times you almost forget it’s a convent: rather than being cloistered away, these nuns are players in the great game in their own right. The convent seemed remarkably open, too: with so many men coming in, including grooms and altar-boys and noble visitors, and nuns going out, it’s hardly shocking that one or two of the sisters might have let their vows slip slightly. It’s striking too that someone who grows up to be something of a misogynist – or so he was presented in my syllabus – should have been raised in a convent community. Do I foresee a rebellion against the overpowering female figures of his boyhood?
For those who enjoy the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, but are looking for something slightly different, this will certainly be up your street. Full of passion and knowledge, it’s a book that certainly makes its mark, even though I felt its stylistic quirks were just that little bit too distracting for me to fall in love with it. I’m very much out on my own in that respect, however. The book has been garnering a plethora of rave reviews wherever it goes, so in this particular case I would thoroughly urge you to try it for yourselves. It’s been a very enjoyable way to build on my (limited) knowledge of Scottish history and to give me a foundation of understanding for a certain other series. On that note, actually, I couldn’t help wondering all the way through if there was going to be some kind of reference – sparked off by the sudden appearance of a Mariota, Lady Crawford (who may, for all that, have been a genuine historical figure). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help ‘scanning the background’ just in case, especially when one of the characters is sent off to the galleys. I’m glad, of course, that Macpherson didn’t bow to temptation: her book has heroes and villains and love stories all of its own, and it will be interesting to see how John Knox develops, both as a character and a preacher, as the trilogy goes on.
I received a copy of this book from the author in return for a fair and honest review.