This is the debut novel written by Tracy Borman, who is a popular historian and Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. The research is therefore impeccable, the feeling for the age genuine and ought to be experienced, and the writing is extremely engaging. As a first published foray into fiction, this novel is a tremendous success in my view, with a firm grasp of character development, narrative progress, and some interesting twists which took me by surprise. The ingredients of a good historical novel are all there; the clothes, the settings, the politics of people interacting, even the smells and textures of a complete world. There is also the political and social setting which has not previously been greatly exposed in historical fiction, being the early part of the reign of James I in an English Court more used to the stability and emotional intelligence of Elizabeth I. This is a book which does not presume detailed knowledge on the part of the reader, but a well known event means that there is a realisation of how certain characters will fare. This serves to draw the reader in, appreciating the dangers that many significant characters face.
The novel is centred on Frances Gorges, the daughter of two important courtiers of the dying Queen Elizabeth. She emerges as the central character of the novel as she is shown using her knowledge of healing, by the combined means of sensible treatment of the patient and her extensive knowledge of herbs. As she returns to her family home and finds peace in life in the country, there are signs of her competence as a healer relied on by the community. Even this idyllic existence is threatened however, as a new cleric in the village shows open hostility. Moreover, the arrival of Frances’ intensely ambitious and deeply unpleasant uncle heralds her return to the dangerous court where nobody is truly as they seem. Apart from a continuous threat of an arranged marriage or worse from her uncle, the threat of a bitter and jealous Cecil whose power means that she is in daily danger. While she becomes a devoted carer of the young and precocious Princess Elizabeth, the instability of a King whose personal judgement is easily swayed mean that she is subjected to brutal suspicion and treatment. Love and devotion run throughout this novel, but also fulsome descriptions of betrayal and physical danger.
This is a novel to be read and savoured for so many elements. The theme of the dangers of personal rule by an unstable monarch, the powerlessness of even rich women in society, the power of love and hope permeate this novel, so that there are positives which emerge. The central character of Frances is sometimes a little overwhelming, with her obsession for healing, but this does make it feel like a personal account with everything being seen and experienced by her, even if this is a third person narrative. I enjoyed this novel even though there is no concealment of the brutal realities of the time, and the claustrophobia of suspicion is all pervasive. Despite the ominous tone of much of the book, there is enough richness of surroundings, detail of experience and pace to make this a thoroughly engaging read. I am greatly looking forward to more from this author.
This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books – and I decided to dig it out because yesterday Northernvicar and I went to the Stratford Literary Festival (that is Stratford upon Avon) to hear Tracy Borman talk about this novel, the basis of research which lies behind it, and mention of the sequel to come in June. I’m really excited about that, as although she is a superb historian and writes wonderful non fiction books, this novel is excellent, and now available in paperback! My advice is, read it and get hold of the sequel!!!