Queen of Heaven by Catherine Clover
This historical novel can be described as intense and action packed, despite or perhaps because of its spiritual theme. The main character is a young woman with unusual gifts, as well as immense courage and fortitude. It is actually the second book in the Maid of Gascony Trilogy, but such is the skillful nature of the writing that it is possible to read this novel first with great enjoyment. It is transformed and strengthened by its spiritual content; fittingly the main protagonist, Lady Isabelle, is a mystic who rejoices in studying theology, even though women in society and with rank were not encouraged in this field in the fifteenth century in which this novel is set. As with the first novel, “The Templar’s Garden”, music forms an important background to this novel; indeed there is an album of sacred music which accompanies the novel made in collaboration with New College choir in Oxford. This is particularly relevant as Isabelle spends time at the college in a necessary disguise as a scholar. This is a book of the complex politics of the period which was dominated by the struggling King Henry and other claimants to the throne. The reach of the politics was not confined to English shores; the effects of the conflict stretched to France and beyond, as the power of the established church vied with the rulers of states and countries. This brilliant historical novel is well written and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The fact that the author is a scholar of the period is obvious from the first pages. Isabelle has a vision of a terrible fate for her family, and it shows the fate of people of various ages suffering for their family’s allegiances. Isabelle has just bid goodbye to Richard who is many things to her, including mentor and beloved betrothed. He has entrusted her to the care of Father James, and a rapid decision is made that Isabelle must hide from her enemies disguised as a young male scholar in Oxford. Thus she not only studies the writings of those who also had visions, such as Julian of Norwich, a female religious who chose an isolated life in the midst of a city. There is also the music, the choral scholars whose voices join in praise of God, which Isabelle joins, a theme which runs throughout the book. Within a short time it becomes imperative for Isabelle and Father James to tackle an audacious journey through Europe. With not much more than a change of clothes and a precious satchel of books, they tackle a channel crossing with Isabelle’s loyal and precious horse Peyriac. Although still in her male disguise, Isabelle knows that she is pregnant as the result of a vicious attack; she is conflicted by the problems of following her love and the practical dangers of childbirth. There are dangers for anyone on this pilgrimage route, and she is especially vulnerable as the result of past associations and present issues.
This is a memorable book which subtly looks at the sometimes harsh realities of life in the fifteenth century for women and many men.It is obviously the result of immense research which the author has skillfully woven into the narrative. The character of Isabelle is a complex one and is placed in many desperate circumstances during the novel which provides the gripping structure of this strongly written book. I recommend this book as a unique read of a woman seeking to survive in a challenging world by faith, love and hope, a fulfilling read of another age.