Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lady Sybil's Choice by Emily Sarah Holt

Recently I got the chance to read another one of ES Holt's fascinating and painstakingly-researched historical novels. Lady Sybil's Choice, set in twelfth century France and Jerusalem, follows the early fortunes of Guy of Lusignan through the eyes of a young fictional sister, Elaine of Lusignan.

Elaine of Lusignan is precocious, fiercely intelligent, and passionately attached to her elder brother Guy. When he travels to the Holy Land to fight the Saracens and make a name for himself, Elaine comforts herself with the promise that she will one day go to join him, at the same time that she tries to quiet the appetite in her soul for something more than this life can give. When she finally arrives in Jerusalem with her foppish brother Amaury, Elaine finds that she has already been supplanted in Guy's affections by the lovely Sybil, sister of the leper king of Jerusalem. She learns to love Sybil, but how will her frail peace of mind, which depends on earthly things, cope with the looming storms on the horizon?

I was interested in reading this book because the history of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, also known as Outremer, is one of the most romantic and hopeless last stands in history. While a lot of attention is given to the Third Crusade, dominated as it was by those larger-than-life, legendary personalities of Richard Coeur-de-lion and Saladin, hardly any attention is paid to the hundred-year reign of the kings of Jerusalem over a feudal colony of men who, at vast expense and for the purpose of freeing the once-Christian lands of the Near and Middle East from the oppression of Islam, travelled far from their homes and native climates to settle and raise families on the frontlines of East and West. The conquest of the Christian East by Islam in the 600s was tragic, but so was the fall of Outremer in 1187.

Lady Sybil's Choice is set in the years leading up to Queen Sybilla's accession to the throne of Jerusalem in 1186, and the political intrigue surrounding that event which threatened her marriage to Guy of Lusignan, who she devotedly loved. It's a fascinating snapshot of many of the attitudes of the times, and the narrator--clever, iconoclastic, and questioning Elaine--is engaging to read about. However the book is not primarily about the history of the period, which I found a little disappointing. It's primarily about the spiritual journey of Elaine--hampered by the idiosyncracies of the church of the day--to repentance and saving faith. To this all the other personages and events of the story take second place. For example, why was ES Holt (a formidable and discerning historian in her own right) such a fan of Guy of Lusignan (whom most historians credit with weakness, indecision, and a hand in the bad tactical decisions which lead to the defeat at Hattin), and so antagonistic to Raymond of Tripoli? I most eagerly read the Historical Appendix at the end of the book to glean the few clues she left.

In the end, I felt that the story of Elaine's spiritual journey in pre-Reformation Christendom had been told against a too brilliant and tantalising backdrop. Although the book wraps up well with a fascinating and (surprisingly) historically factual climax, which ties the story and backdrop together neatly, I was left with more questions than answers about this historical period.

This said, the treatment of pre-Reformation Christendom by a well and truly Protestant novelist is very interesting in this book. While I'd be surprised if true belief was as difficult to find in those days as ES Holt suggests in the novel, I generally found the novel even-handed and historically well-founded. One of the things I most appreciated about this was that although the medieval Church is depicted with all its faults (and perhaps with too few of its virtues to outweigh them) the characters who are really Christians remain part of the Church of the day; they are not time travellers from the 1500s.

ES Holt also does a good job of evoking the piquant and distinctive way the medievals viewed history:
There was the legend of Monseigneur Saint Gideon, who drove the heathen Saracens out of his country with a mere handful of foot-soldiers; and that of Monseigneur Saint David, who, when he was but a youth, fought with the Saracen giant, Count Goliath, who was forty feet high.... The story that Amaury liked best of all was about Madame Esther, the Queen of Persia; and how she intreated her royal lord for the lives of certain knights that had been taken prisoners....
This is, of course, not the way that we have been brought up to read Scripture, and while ES Holt intended to point out that the stories had passed into oral tradition by this time, becoming distorted, I still can't help wondering if ready access to Scripture would have made the medievals more prosaic about their Bible heroes. I doubt it! "Certain knights that had been taken prisoners" does seem roughly analogous to "the enslaved Jewish nation"!

In the end, there was a lot to like about Lady Sybil's Choice. But I'm still looking around for a good history or novel on Outremer.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ebook: The Epic of Reformation, by me

It's my very great pleasure to launch an ebook, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to The Faerie Queene, which is a slightly updated and revised edition of the Faerie Queene Feature Week I ran here in January.

"The Faerie Queene is English Lit’s best-kept secret. Not only is it a series of epic quest stories sprinkled liberally with battles, gore, monsters, and romance; it’s also a series of profound meditations on the Christian life and virtues, and on top of that, the whole thing symbolises Reformation theology and politics.

"The epic comes in six and a half books each depicting a private Christian virtue as embodied in a knight who has been sent on some terrible quest by the Faerie Queene of the title, Gloriana. The Faerie Queene mixes great storytelling with great doctrines, physicality with spirituality, song with theology, allegory with politics. The result is fiercely meek, graciously sensuous, lyrically grotesque, and boisterously orthodox—just like the Puritans themselves. Within its pages there are doctrines and insights the world has forgotten or only half-remembers—just like the Reformation itself. And it is not just a guide to the political and theological landscape of Reformation England; it’s a map to future reformation.

"Dim the lights. Pass the popcorn, the opera-glasses, and the power-ballad cigarette lighter—we’ll need them all. Let the fierce wars and faithful loves begin."

Now you can get my guide to The Faerie Queene in handy ebook form!  

Get it on Kindle for just $2.99.

Or, even if you've only read the original blog series, feel free to leave a review on Amazon.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Twenty-Fourth of June by Grace S Richmond

Well, I'm back from a busy fortnight helping out a friend, but thanks to her, I have a whole new author to review.

Grace S Richmond's 1914 novel The Twenty-Fourth of June is a cozy vintage romance. A wealthy and unattached young idler, Richard Kendrick, runs an errand for the even wealthier uncle whose heir he is--and finds himself in the warm, lively, and industrious Gray home, seeing family life for the very first time, and equally fascinated by this experience as by the charming Roberta Gray. Before long, Richard finds a way to install himself in the Gray home as a secretary to Miss Gray's uncle. But although the family at large takes Richard to their heart, he finds Roberta prickly and often even forbidding. Soon, it becomes clear that she looks down on him as a good-for-nothing socialite. Will Richard rise to the challenge and find a useful occupation? Can he really be as useless as Roberta thinks? Will Richard finally be able to set up the home he's come to dream of? Well--the answers shouldn't be too difficult to guess.

This was a most enjoyable novel, of course. It had all the best strengths of a vintage novel, and few of the weaknesses. Oh yes, it was a little bit sentimental about the home, and you could easily play Vintage Romance Novel Bingo with its plot (Outwardly unlikeable hero with hidden depths, tick--heroine partly changes her mind about him after seeing his house, tick). But on the other hand, it skirted a few of the pitfalls: the home was not seen as a place of idleness, but of industry; women are not the only righteous characters in the book; and so on.

There is not a whole lot I can say about this book in a review, except that I enjoyed it and you might too. This is partly because of the genre of the book itself--while Mrs Richmond gets up to some interesting writerly tricks, such as the almost impressionistic portrait of the Gray's home in the first chapter, the themes of the book are quite simple, and all lying around on the surface where it's easy to see them.

This is not necessarily, of course, a bad thing. I have myself enjoyed homes very much like the one described in the novel, and the more books in which idle young men find a purpose the better! It's a good, wholesome, inoffensive book that also happens to be well-written and satisfying, if not on the same level as Mansfield Park. Recommended, and I'll certainly be interested in reading some more Grace S Richmond in future.


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