It may seem a little strange to start with an historical novel set at the time of the Wars of the Roses and call it a love story. But Toby Clements novel, his first, is a love story about two young, not quite ordinary, people who get caught up in the wrecked world that was England in 1460 and onwards. Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims is the beginning of a trilogy, the next in the series in called Kingmaker: Betrayal.
I imagine that we are all pretty familiar with the history: Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou are on the throne, but Henry VI can be a bit vague at times, therefore Richard, Duke of York decides that he has an equal claim to the throne and decides to take it – which looking at the family tree is more or less right, but there is an obstacle – Henry is the King.
There are various skirmishes, at one of which Richard of York is killed, his youngest son Earl of Rutland is brutally murdered, leaving three other sons – Edward, George and Richard.
There have only been three times since the Norman Conquest when England was riven by civil war. First when Stephen and Mathilda were fighting about the crown, a time that contemporary chroniclers called a “time when Christ and His Saints slept”; then the fight between the York and the Lancaster families also for the crown known as The Wars of the Roses; and finally an interregnum The Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell was fighting to free England from the crown.
Novels about these times, and Shakespeare’s plays, tend to dwell much more on the knights and kings. Toby Clements (who is also spent time during research for this book at a re-enactment, where he learned the skills a foot-soldier would be required to know to survive) has decided to centre his novel on the ground. His two protagonists – Thomas and Katherine – find themselves thrown together for protection, and one way and another they are both drawn into the ambit of William Hastings and the Earl of Warwick and therefore inevitably, into the fighting on the side of the House of York.
The descriptions of life at this level, down in the mud and blood, as opposed to the relatively comfortable life of the nobles is graphic, detailed and fascinating. And the love story that develops around this relationship, both between Thomas and Katherine but also between Thomas and his allegiance to William Hastings is slow, wonderful and complicated.
I cannot wait! Volume Two is published in July.
The second book is Hannah Rothschild‘s charming love story called The Improbability of Love. This story centres around a 300 year old painting by Antoine Watteau. There are a great many strands to this book, as one would expect, the human love story between Annie and Jesse is just one strand.
There is a more interesting love story that centres around a painting – the eponymous painting of the title – picked up, dirty and neglected in a London junk shop – the painting has its own story of love, power, ownership and provenance since it has passed through the courts of France, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire, each time being handed over as a love token, and somehow it reaches the family Winkleman, at the beginning of the story they happen to have lost track of it…
An important strand in this novel is also about value, or worth. This newly discovered work, which is attributed by the authorities as a lost painting by Antoine Watteau is valuable for every sort of historical and aesthetic reason, but the people that want it – like the previous owners – want it for reasons that have little or nothing to do with its intrinsic beauty – this valuation, the least avaricious, is left to Annie and Jesse. They only vaguely recognise the painting for its beauty because they have seen something like it in the Wallace Collection, they have no idea that they are handling a valuable painting and quite a lot of the time it spends precious hours wrapped in a plastic bag, bouncing along in a bicycle basket.
This is a joyous book to read, there is so much to think about and absorb. It is both very serious about the art market; very tender and gentle about love; a great deal less gentle about power, greed and the less salubrious aspects of the ‘art market’ and wonderfully interesting about painting technique, restoration and provenance. While it is provocative as well as exciting, the author is saying something very important about the state of art today. The painting, which has a part in the narrative, also has its own views on ownership and value, the value of itself – moi.
Finally a wonderful novella from the pen of Graham Swift. It is quite a relief occasionally to read a book of only 132 pages, and while I simply adore books that are fabulously long, I do realise that busy people and slow readers might appreciate the shorter novel.
Mothering Sunday is a jewel of a book. Set on a single day, March 30th, between the wars when even modest families had several servants: cooks, housekeepers and maids who were set free to return to their families on one special Sunday of each year. This novel follows an unlikely dalliance between a scion of one house and the servant girl of another. But the beauty of the story will have to be left to the reader, anything that I say about it would be a spoiler.
That said, the story is pitch perfect, tender and exquisite. There is neither a word too many nor too few. The settings are tactile and delicious in the detail of the writing, everything – scents, sights and locale – is where it should be on the page, we are given a surprising, poignant, sensual picture of that most magical of times when England seemed to glow in spring sunshine…