Historical fiction being de rigeur right now – a review of two plaudit-laden historical novels, The Essex Serpent and The Girl in the Glass Tower, both published recently and both by women writers.
First, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (Serpents Tale 2016). If you haven’t read this excellent novel, short listed for the Costa Prize, long listed for the Baileys Prize and Waterstones Book of the Year, I do recommend it. It was highly acclaimed critically and this seems, if you look at Amazon reviews, to have prompted something of an undeserved backlash.
The characters in the novel, set in 1893 in London and Essex, inhabit an exciting, changing world, in which science and socialism are on the march. There are no stuffy Victorians here, just enlightened seekers of truth in ever-expanding fields of knowledge. In this I was reminded of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, also set in 1893 and with a female at the centre of a wide cast of characters, based in London and Kent, near another marsh at Romney (and which, as a fan of Byatt, I heartily recommend).
Perry is not yet as fine-honed and complex a writer as Byatt, though her exquisite descriptions of the estuarine landscape of the Blackwater and the Thames marshes are one of the remarkable pleasures of the book. It is a place with a literary lineage – where Magwitch first frightened Pip¹ – something of which Perry is aware. She even has a rotting ‘hulk’, nicknamed Leviathan, which plays its part in the tale.
The story is cleverly woven via a number of different perspectives and voices, often using letters from one character to another, which reveal as much between the lines as within them. Part of the problem for those negative reviewers on Amazon was, I suspect that they were expecting a different type of book, an altogether easier mystery or thriller. While there is a mysterious aspect to Perry’s book, it is more about the mysteries of the human heart and the human mind than anything super or preter-natural.
The same eternal mysteries also figure in Tudor times in Elizabeth Fremantle’s The Girl in a Glass Tower ( Penguin 2017 ), a Times Book of the Year. The book’s publicity concentrated on the story of Arbella Stuart, putative heiress to Elizabeth I and the English throne and she is the main character. But this is really the story of two women, both real, but ‘lost’ to history and both, in their own ways, kickers over of the traces. The other protagonist is Aemilia Lanyer, an Elizabethan poet published in her own lifetime and young mistress to Henry, Lord Hunsdon, first cousin to Elizabeth I.
The two women were contemporaries at the court of Queen Anna, wife to James I and Lanyer dedicated a poem to Arbella, but what their relationship was is unknown. The mechanism which allows their tales to be told simultaneously is a ‘found manuscript’, discovered by Aemilia after Arbella’s death. In the novel they are soul friends and the poet helps Arbella in a very practical, if ultimately fruitless, way (no spoilers here).
The book is written in the first person as Arbella and, from Aemilia’s point of view, in the third person, though the former’s story takes up more space. We enter the mind of someone whose circumstances are constricting and highly unusual and whose response to them is to tyrannize her own body, what would, these days, be called an ‘eating disorder’. That she is immediately real, unique, believable and human is a triumph for the writer.
Court life is portrayed with skill and flourish, its gossipy bantam-cock strutters and intriguers for place, as well as the high stakes which people play for, are often drawn obliquely, sidelong from Arbella’s particular, outsider’s perspective. More direct are the mundane threats, no less frightening, to Aemilia. These are the threats which a good-looking widow with education and independence of mind faces in Tudor London.
Fremantle is interested in these women, their restricted lives and how they responded to those restrictions. Both women triumph in a way, though Aemilia’s is the triumph which we applaud, Arbella’s is sadder. The reader cares about both.
¹Great Expectations, Charles Dickens