Now my next two novels are with their publishers I’ve had more time for reading, and so here are two books that are well-worth your time and money.
The Lady of the Tower by Elizabeth StJohn
I’ve a massive interest in the seventeenth century and have written nine books set in that period, so this was always going to be on my list. The novel is based on documents and diaries from Elizabeth StJohn’s family. As such, it could have been another dry memoir or lacking in drive and drama. But this is a well-structured book full of detail and interest. Each chapter begins with extracts from herbal recipes; recipes which relate to the events to follow, and set the atmosphere of the period well. Lucy Apsley was apparently a skilled herbalist who used her knowledge to treat those incarcerated in the Tower of London. Lucy is fortunate in that she moves in court circles and so those she encounters in her life inhabit the larger stage of the court. Here we see the influence of Buckingham on the King, the burgeoning unrest in Parliament, and the young men at court who see breaking hearts as a right and as a game. When Lucy’s own heart is broken, we see her as a woman who doesn’t buckle to fortune but has a certain degree of pragmatism, so that the difficulties that surround her never quite manage to sink her spirit.
My favourite parts of the book are the descriptions of life in the Tower of London. Elizabeth StJohn describes it in such vivid detail; the fact that although it is a prison, those of the upper classes still entertain in lavish style. Those living in the tower must witness the last days of those who are to be executed, and this is well-used in the novel with Walter Raleigh’s fate. All in all, this is a fabulous book, and essential for anyone interested in the Stuart period. The novel is beautifully written and produced, and those who meet Lucy will certainly want to follow her through the next tumultuous years of the Civil War.
The Greenest Branch by P K Adams
Hildegard von Bingen was a remarkable woman for her time, and although we know she was put into a convent at an early age, gifted by her parents to the Church as many daughters were, we know very little of these early years. P K Adams has brought this medieval period to vibrant life, and made a convincing case for a plausible history of Hildegard’s early years – one which explains her love of music and the fact that she became so well-known as a physician. The ascetic tradition of St Jutta, which involves severe penances such as mortification of the flesh, is what was expected of new converts to the monastery of St Disibod. Hildegard escapes this stultifying atmosphere by finding a way out into the forest. There she reconnects with nature, and meets Volmar, a young man who will become increasingly important in her life, but also provide the greatest challenge to her vows.
Hildegard is thirsty for knowledge and becomes apprenticed to Brother Wigbert in the monks’ infirmary, using herbs gathered from the forest and garden rather than the traditional invasive treatments of bloodletting and surgery. Early success with her methods leads her to gaining more responsibility, especially as her mentor ages and becomes unwell. Hildegard has both friends and enemies within the convent – Prior Helenger does not want the fame of the women’s convent to overshadow that of the men. After Jutta’s death, when Hildegard is the natural choice to lead the nuns, Helenger is determined to stop her.
You may think that life in a convent would be dull, but PK Adams reminds us that monasteries were often targets for thieves who wished to take the treasures from the churches, and that bad relationships often fester within such a small community – leading to violent antagonisms.
In the 12th Century, where a woman who wished to become educated had few options, the contradictions of monastic life were many, and these were quietly explored in this thoughtful and well-written novel. This is a lyrically-written journey into a hidden world, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.