The Chalice…

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.

HenryVIII-cIn the magical land of Tudor, the fictional microscope is perpetually locked on that priapic giant of 16th century majesty, Henry VIII, and his manifold happy and unhappy and/or dead women-folk.

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.

UKCoverThe ChaliceAnd this, this Tudor-totalitarian nightmare, is the world that Nancy Bilyeau conjures up in her latest novel, The Chalice.

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.

Tho. Howard, Duke of Norfolk by Holbein.  Contemporaries described him as "short and scrawny".

Tho. Howard, Duke of Norfolk by Holbein. Contemporaries described him as “short and scrawny”.

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!)

Author Nancy Bilyeau

Author Nancy Bilyeau

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~

UKCoverThe ChaliceThe Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau.  Orion Books, London.  438 pps.  28 February 2013.  £20.00/£12.99.

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The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau…

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau.  Orion Publishing Group.  London, 2012.  416 pps.  £18.99, hardcover; £12.99, paperback.

Sister Joan Stafford is a novice of the Dominican order at Dartford Priory in Kent.  And that should make an end of the matter. 

But the year is 1537.  Henry VIII is on the throne, having severed England’s ties with Rome (and Anne Boleyn’s head), and sent an army to Yorkshire to quell a pro-Catholic uprising amid the moral chaos and rampant destruction of the dissolution of the monasteries and convents. 

And this army which crushed to the Northern Rebellion was led by none other than Sister Joanna’s cousin, the Duke of Norfolk.  Worse still, among the rebels captured and condemned to be burnt for treason is another cousin, Lady Margaret Bulmer. 

(Families, eh?)

Defying her order, driven by her lifelong affection for Margaret, Sister Joanna leaves the secure confines of the Priory and makes her way to London that she may offer her devout prayers for her cousin on the scaffold.  And that’s where things go pear-shaped.

Assaulted by the drunken crowd out for a day’s entertainment, Joanna is rescued by a constable, only to meet with her disgraced father who is also there on a mission to ease Lady Bulmer’s martyrdom.  Soon all three of them are locked in the Tower, and not for safe-keeping.  There, Joanna is abused there by her violent cousin, Norfolk (the same Norfolk who destroyed her cousin’s life), and then left for months to moulder. 

Eventually, she is brought for questioning to the quasi-disgraced, oleaginous Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; and offered a choice–find a sacred relic which is believed to be hidden at Dartford Priory, a crown of antiquity and divine powers of protection, or her father–like her, still incarcerated–will be racked to death. 

(The Tudors were skilled at that sort of thing:  blackmail, torture…)

It is no choice. 

Thus, knowing next to nothing, Joanna returns to Dartford in the company of two now-homeless Dominican Friars to begin her feverish search for this sacred relic, desperate to discover its history, its powers, its hiding place.  (And she doesn’t have much time).  In so doing she uncovers more secrets than she bargained for, even as all about them, Henry’s malevolent henchmen are breaking previous royal promises of protection and destroying the nuns’ lives of prayer and sacred dedication.

Sound exciting?  Eventful?  Well, it is.  (Fasten your seatbelt.)

Written as a first-person narrative, The Crown follows in a fine tradition of historical mysteries, ably blending the tension of the thriller with the horror of historical reality in one of England’s most turbulent periods.  And after a slightly sluggish start as Bilyeau sets the scene and maps out the family geography–absolutely everyone is related to everyone else in Tudor history (a gene pool of four–explains everything, doesn’t it?)–the action takes off. 

And the pace doesn’t slacken as the mystery and confusion surrounding the crown and the Priory itself deepens, as friends and allies vanish and the political landscape grows daily more perilous. 

One of the novel’s great strengths is the unflinching depiction of the violent men who peopled Henry VIII’s court and did his bidding.  Bilyeau shines when she writes of the schemers and power-brokers like the brutal Norfolk or the manipulative Gardiner–men so consumed by greed and lust for power that nothing is sacred to them.  Anything or anyone that stands in the way of their own aggrandisement will be crushed with the utmost inhumanity and casual cruelty.  In Bilyeau’s hands, these men are truly sinister, and with Sister Joanna, one recoils at the breath of their vicious rages, their twisted amorality and sadistic destructiveness.

Bilyeau is also adept at capturing the spirit of an age still wholly in thrall to superstition–Henry’s obsession with having a male heir (was it as he believed the judgement of God upon his kingship?), the fears that gripped his courtiers about the power of holy relics and signs from heaven. 

The monasteries and convents were, of course, all dissolved and destroyed by Henry VIII and their wealth shared out by him and his minions.  This process is well underway by the novel’s close in 1538.  

Yet seen through the eyes of Sister Joanna, told in her voice, this recitation of facts has been given a human face and we feel the personal cost and private tragedy of all those quiet and unassuming lives of prayer upended by a king’s political whim.  And that’s quite an achievement–as well as being a ripping good mystery!  (Though not, thank heavens, of the bodice-variety.  The heroine’s a nun, remember?)

The Crown is on sale now from The Book Depository with free worldwide shipping.

Nancy Bilyeau talks Tudors…

I know, I know, it’s a long-standing, well-known fact that I loathe, hate and despise the Tudors.  (And all the et ceteras that includes–I won’t bore you with my grumbletonian litany…)  

Still, the truth is Nancy Bilyeau is rather smashing.  And what’s more, she writes about this period of history from an angle which few of us have honestly ever considered before, I think.  And in her book, The Crown, out now here in the UK, she does something quite unique–she puts a human face, a real face, on all those unpalatable facts of these most turbulent Tudor times. 

So here she is, talking a bit of Tudor for you.  (Hearty cheers all round!):   

‘At my very first bookstore reading came the question from a reader: “Did you know many nuns before you wrote this book?”

‘I answered her at once, with the truth: “No, none.”

‘I’ve written a historical thriller about a young Dominican novice in the reign of King Henry VIII. The entire story of The Crown is told in the first person, through the perspective of Sister Joanna Stafford.  She is someone who very much wants to be a novice and serve God as a sister in an enclosed priory.

‘And yet before I wrote this book, I had no familiarity with monastic orders.  I am not a practicing Catholic; my parents were agnostic and occasionally attended the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

‘So what drew me to Sister Joanna and the Dissolution of the Monasteries? 

‘When I set out to write my first novel, I wasn’t sure what kind of story I wanted to tell except for one thing:  It must be set in the 16th century.

‘I saw the television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R as a child and fell in love with the 16th century.  I read everything I could.  I remember when I was 12 years old, at the public library in suburban Michigan, trying to check out a book about the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and the librarian wouldn’t let me have it because it had the word “divorce” in the title and I was too young!

‘Luckily that didn’t stop me from building my own library over the years.  Every time I entered a bookstore, I’d swing by “European History—England” and “Biography.” If something tempted me, I’d walk up to the cash register with the book under my arm–say a biography about Anne Boleyn–and my husband would exclaim, “How can you buy another one?  What more can you learn?”  And I’d just put it down on the counter, saying, “There are always new interpretations.”

 ‘So I had my time period, but what sort of book would it be?

‘I’ve always adored mysteries and thrillers.  I decided to fuse my two passions, and write a historical thriller set in the 1500s. 

‘I wanted to tell a woman’s story.  It seemed the shelves were bursting with books written about medieval and Renaissance queens and princesses.  I thought a nun would be interesting, and what could yield richer drama than a nun in the midst of the Dissolution of the Monasteries?

‘I spent the next five years researching and writing.  I didn’t work on my book every day—I have two children and held fulltime editing positions at various magazines, most recently, InStyle.  To finish my manuscript, I began to get up at 5 a.m. and write my book until it was time to wake up the children at 7 a.m.  We did not travel anywhere for most vacations.  I took those precious days and spent them on research.

‘The more I learned about a nun’s life in Tudor England, the more it fascinated me.

‘It is not easy in our secular age to enter the mind and heart of a 16th century nun—or to appreciate the vital importance of faith in the lives of everyone. 

As Eamon Duffy says in his great book, The Stripping of the Altars, “Late medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination and loyalty of people up to the very moment of Reformation.” After immersing myself in this very different world for so long, I feel a great deal of admiration and sympathy for the nuns and monks and friars who struggled to cope with the Dissolution.  And I very much hope that this is what readers will come away with after finishing The Crown.’

[They’ll also, says Bennetts, have had the pleasure of a ripping great read…Go on, what are you waiting for?  Go check the thing out.  Make those slackers at Waterstone’s and Hatchards do some work for once…]

The Crown is also available from The Book Depository now.  On sale!