A Princely Knave: Philip Lindsay

★★½

In the past year, Endeavour Press have republished at least seven historical novels by the Australian author Philip Lindsay (1906-1958). A Princely Knave, which follows the fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne in 1497, is the only one I’ve read, but Helen has reviewed two of the others, Here Comes the King and The Devil and King JohnJust to make matters more confusing, Endeavour are also publishing A Princely Knave as an ebook under its original title They Have Their Dreams, so be warned. First published in 1956, it’s very much of a novel of its time, in which some beautiful writing is ultimately stymied by stiffly two-dimensional characterisation.

For it is by dreams that we all live; and it is through
dreams alone that we love and find beauty in human clay.

When the young man lands in Cornwall with his men, he has almost begun to believe what everyone tells him. They say he is Richard of York, younger son of Edward IV, who miraculously escaped the Tower and has been brought up abroad, biding his time, until he can take back his crown. It’s a pretty fiction and he looks the part, with his broad shoulders, easy grin and golden hair. He even has a royal wife, Katherine Gordon, the cousin of King James of Scotland. The prince believes his advisers when they tell him the country is discontented and ready to rise to his banner. All he needs to do is ride onward to victory, scattering the disenchanted troops of the usurper Henry Tudor (or ‘Tydder’), who cares more for gold than he does for his people. But, when the young man and his army reach Exeter, the bitter truth reveals itself: the only people who will follow him are those with nothing to offer and nothing to lose, and without armed noblemen at his side the prince’s cause is lost.

And then the young man begins to wonder. Is he really Prince Richard? Or is he humble Perkin Warbeck, the son of Tournai merchants, who by some cruel trick of fate resembles the murdered prince? He has been hailed as one, dimissed as the other, for so many years that he no longer truly remembers who he is. ‘He felt as though his skin were somebody else’s skin, a stranger’s, a man he did not know and whom he did not like.’ This is the great tragedy of Lindsay’s hero: that he has lost even the comfort of knowing himself. Reduced to living on a knife-edge, the young man finds all his certainties slipping away: his beloved wife scorns him; his friends are lost to him; and his enemy Henry, quiet and calculating, lures him into a deadly game of cat and mouse in which the young man’s life is the ultimate prize.

A hero who genuinely doesn’t know himself is an interesting plot device, and Lindsay is very good at teasing out the uncertainties of Perkin’s / Richard’s situation. He gives us plenty of opportunity to share the young man’s doubts, and also to see his plight through his wife Katherine’s eyes, although this frequently goes on rather too long and, crucially, it still doesn’t give us any sense of the three-dimensionality of the characters. Katherine is a typical fiery romantic heroine, disdainful in daylight but passionate in bed, too proud to admit that she loves her husband, while inwardly pining to be mastered by him. (I’ll leave it to you to imagine my feelings on that.) The young man himself is easily frightened, propping up his noble demeanour with occasional flares of arrogance.

And Henry Tudor… ah, Henry Tudor is where this book really falls down. Henry is nothing but a tyrant: a miser, a spymaster, a spider, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, a hated upstart, a ruthless tax-master, an untrustworthy friend, a cold lover and a machiavellian ruler. He has no good qualities and is shrivelled, cruel and ugly to boot, a mere shadow of the young pretender’s strapping blond good looks. It is significant, I think, that Lindsay has also written a book passionately defending Richard III, and his beliefs bleed through here. Poor Richard III, whom we never even see alive, is a noble, beloved king, cruelly betrayed on Bosworth field; he was a good uncle to his nephews and a devoted brother to Edward IV; Elizabeth of York would happily have married him; his first wife Anne was simply delicate… Lindsay can’t let a single scene with Henry go by without rolling out more pro-Riccardian propaganda, which grows a little tiresome.

I like my villains subtle and I like my characters, whether good or evil, to have depth. I also like my plots to have some flavour to them, and Lindsay’s book stretches its material too thin, interspersed with repetitive scenes of lovelorn agonising. And it’s a shame, for he’s a good writer even if his prose can be fussy. He comes up with a bevy of words I’ve never heard before, or poetic compounds: ‘dart-cliffed’, ‘uncrumbled’, and ‘sadcheeked’ sit alongside the more fantastical ‘tirliry-pufkin’, ‘yarely’, ‘taradiddle’, ‘tergiversations’ and ‘weazand’. But exuberant language isn’t enough to save a book when it is, at root, so stilted and its characters never really progress beyond the broad strokes of pantomime. There were points when I could glimpse a much more poignant and exciting novel through the cracks, a novel in which Katherine was an intriguing complex character, but unfortunately it never succeeded in breaking loose.

If you’re happy with over-seasoned, old-fashioned historical romances, you may well enjoy this more than I did. For my own part, however, I think I need a bit more meat to savour.

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

5 thoughts on “A Princely Knave: Philip Lindsay

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    While on the hand it is very commendable that so many out-of-prints books are brought back as e-books by publishers like Endeavour, one does wish they’d take a bit more trouble to separate the wheat from the chaff and not just re-publish indiscriminately everything that used to sell well a couple of decades ago…

    This one at least did sound intriguing at first, the concept of a throne pretender who does not even know himself whether he is the real thing or an impostor could have made for an exciting story full of moral ambiguity, especially if the author had gone all the way and made Henry Tudor if not likable, at least competent, thus leaving his protagonist not only with the question of whether he really is the king or not but also with possible doubts whether he should be usurping the throne in the first place. Really a pity, especially as I do have a soft spot for authors who dig out rare words (I think I actually may have come across “tergiversant” before, though).

    • The Idle Woman says:

      The crazy thing is that there is quality in Lindsay’s book, but it’s just outdated. I’d have liked it more if he’d reined himself in a little better (and I have a senseless prejudice against writers who use ‘certes’ and ‘mayhap’ in an effort to show how authentically olde worlde they’re being). But you’re absolutely right: some of the power and interest of the story is taken away by Henry being so obvious a villain. Initially I was interested to see so different a point of view from the popular notion of the king, but I grew very tired very quickly. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, or maybe I chose a duff one, as Helen has been rather more forgiving in her reviews of Lindsay’s other novels…

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        I’ll go and check out Helen’s reviews then. While your review certainly did not make me inclined to like the author, I also cannot quite bring myself to dislike someone who uses words like ‘tirliry-pufkin.’

  2. Helen says:

    Sorry to hear this was disappointing. My own sympathies tend to lie more with Richard III than Henry Tudor, but I do think some authors go much too far in the other direction in their defence of Richard. I’ve read about Perkin Warbeck before and his story is interesting, so it sounds as though there were some missed opportunities here.

    Based on the two books I’ve read by Lindsay, I don’t really have a problem with his writing but his portrayal of female characters does leave a lot to be desired, especially in the book about King John. I could still be tempted to read this as I love this period of history, but I’m not in any hurry while there are so many other books to be read!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I certainly feel that Richard must have been a far more complex character than Shakespeare has him, but my issue wasn’t so much the anti-Tudor message as its lack of subtlety. If I were to read a novel from the 20th century in which Richard was a lecherous, evil, conniving hunchback, I’d probably find it unsatisfactory too. After all, if studying history taught me anything it’s that there’s no such thing as an unbiased source and every writer is driven by their own interest. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. I think perhaps I was a little hard on Lindsay, because as I keep saying I liked swathes of his writing, but in the end this was just too old-school historical fiction for me. As you say, there are so many books and so little time!

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