One of great shifts in historical perspective that has occurred over the past couple of decades has been in the manner in which we examine the past. Or put another way, how our historical focus has moved away from a recitation of names and dates and kings and instead (or as well) sought to examine the lives of the greater population during a given period, learning what they ate, how they lived, about their businesses and trades and what those once-important dates meant to them.
But this trend of spreading our historical net out to encompass more than just the names and brief biographies of court celebrities isn’t one which seems to have penetrated the land of historical fiction–at least not when we’re confronted with the perennial publishing about that epoch of Dynasty in doublets, aka Tudor-ville. If anything, it’s quite the opposite there.
I mean it’s great stuff, isn’t it–this linenfold court where we wallow in wimples and Pantene tresses clad in jewel-encrusted velvet? Never has falling in love been so fatal! Nor being a noblewoman so unhealthy.
(And I’m not talking about the diet–though as anyone who has toured the kitchens at Hampton Court will tell you, that too presented its challenges).
And if there is anyone else visible in this overflowing Tudor petri dish, it’s someone or other from a half a dozen or so noble families–Howard or Boleyn or Seymour–all of whom were related to each other it seems (gene pool of four, I’m telling you! It explains SO MUCH…) even as they did their level best to eliminate each other…
Yes, absolutely, Hilary Mantel has expanded our Tudor brief to include Thomas Cromwell and his ginormous land-grab, aka the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and perhaps through her work, the general public has seen beneath the facade of religious fervour to recognise that for Tudor princes and pawns, religion was just another name for a kind of savage political power-playing such as the world had scarcely known.
But still, the focus remains squarely on Henry and his swaggering and sly-eyed henchmen and no one seems to ever see beyond the walls of Richmond Palace or Whitehall with their perpetual cast of about fifty courtiers, schemers and consorts.
Yet here’s the thing. In 1540, the population of England stood roughly at three million. So what about the other 2,999,950 people in the realm at the time? What did they make of it all? What happened to them?
The Dissolution of the Monasteries, the King’s divorce, his engagement with Reformist ideology, all of these things made the gravest impact on the lives of those 2,999,950. The rulebook for life as they’d known it for a millennium had been torn up and thrown in the fire.
And then consider that in most places, the convents or monasteries were responsible were some 75% of the local economy. So while the Dissolution may have been dandy for the King’s coffers, for the local populations…well, not so much.
But it’s not just a period of economic hardship and a loss of religious identity and purpose (plus all the pillage and burning of libraries and destruction of holy art), because for far too many thousands of English men and women, Henry put a wrecking ball through their hopes of a better life in the next world too, their hope of heaven–Hell on earth followed by an eternity of Hellfire. It’s no wonder that far from the jewel-encrusted court with its marzipan monstrosities, people believed the days of the Apocalypse were surely upon them, and in many places a micro-industry of occult seers, prophets and mystic quacks grew up.
Continuing with her story of Sister Joanna Stafford, once novice of the Dominican Order at the Dartford Priory, now just plain Joanna Stafford, The Chalice opens with Joanna now living modestly in Dartford, attempting to raise a young male relative, bent on starting her own tapestry business. The Dissolution of the Monasteries had seen the destruction of her world and all that she held dear and she must needs start again–wonderfully, this might be a portrait of any of the thousands of dislodged and emotionally dislocated clergy trying to start life again in an increasingly hostile and riven world.
But Joanna’s familial relationship to many of those noble and ambitious clans (like the Howards) draws her back into the paths of royal plot and counter-plot with conspiracy lurking in every London corner and corridor. Though she longs to return to the quiet-ish backwater of provincial Kent, she is caught up in a riptide of deceit, heresy, blackmail, and, ultimately, treason. Eventually travelling to the Low Countries, Joanna encounters a maelstrom of political upheaval and bloody retribution which will forever mark her.
As ever, Bilyeau excels at drawing the characters of doubtful morals and duplicitous nature: the self-serving, self-aggrandising Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the perfidious and avaricious Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, the conniving Austrian diplomat Chapuys and his cutthroat underlings, even the townsfolk of Dartford who see their embrace of the Reformed religion as an opportunity for political and financial advancement…
The Tudor world as depicted by Bilyeau is nothing less than a seething viper’s nest of skin-crawling greed and corruption and a lust for power that borders on madness.
The narrator, Joanna Stafford, has deepened and matured too. And although the challenges and emotional conflicts she faces are ever more severe, she brings to them a temperence of character–as in the tempering of steel.
Still narrated in first person, as in Bilyeau’s earlier novel, The Crown (which was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Dagger Award), the writing is more confident and secure, the historical detail better, while the occasional drop-ins of description add deliciously to the novel’s lowering, tense atmosphere: “Her skin was alabaster white; gleaming, yes, but devoid of any depth or subtlety to its glow, like an egg kept overlong in the cupboard.”
Or “…a barren forest, the snow clinging to naked branches like bandage strips on withered limbs.” (Nice!)
A first novel is hard to write. A second novel is infinitely harder–probably because one is meant to substantially improve on the first, in plot, in style and content and character. Bilyeau passes these tests with her colours aloft, even as she weaves a vivid tapestry of those caught up in the ruptures and repercussions of Tudor England, explaining the era’s complex international relations with ease.
Her Chalice offers us skullduggery with depth, a tale tinged with a impermeable sadness over the lost lives of devotion, and a riveting read of a historical thriller.