STAGE FRIGHT by Gillian Linscott

18 10 2014

Stage Fright coverBack with Nell Bray, the suffragette who continues to be one of my favourite sleuths.

It is 1909 still (as it was during Sister Beneath the Sheet – see also Dead Man Riding) and Nell is in London, having recently completed her second prison term that year for “suffragetting” – taking Direct Action against the all-male government elected by the all-male voters.

At a meeting of the “suffrage prisoners support committee” she is collared by Bernard Shaw and talked into sticking close to, and doing her best to protect, Isabella Flanagan, Lady Penwarden, whom he believes to be in danger from her husband, Lord Penwarden.

What is Shaw’s interest? Bella – Isabella Flanagan, her own name, the name she performs under – is the leading lady in Shaw’s new play, Cinderella, which takes up the tale of Cinderella five years after her marriage to prince Charming, by which time she has had more than enough of him and is desperate for a dovorce. It was written specially for her, because she is in that same position, desperate for a divorce from Lord Penwarden, but owing to the archaic divorce laws quite unable to obtain one. This is airing the aristicracy’s dirty linen in public, which is just up Shaw’s street; it also brings him once again into a head-on collision with the Lord Chamberlain and the theatrical performace licensing laws, something Shaw always enjoys.

Lord Penwarden is, predictably, not amused.

I am not going to spoil it by telling you what happens, but I must say that having Shaw as a character in a story was an ambitious undertaking, and a less gifted author might have put words in his mouth that would have him rising up out of his grave and coming to haunt her. However, Gillian Linscott does him – and us – proud. He could – he would, I am sure – have said almost exactly what she has him say were he to find himself in the situations she places him in. (Ah, the god-like power an author has!)

I love all these books, but for a Shaw fan (and sometime Shaw-scholar) like myself this was a special treat.





CHAINS OF FOLLY by Roberta Gellis

4 10 2014

Chains of FollyBack in the days when King Stephen still ruled a troubled and divided kingdom, and Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine were still buried deep in the tarot pack, one small part of London had its own queen, the beautiful  Magdalene la Bâtarde. She was all that Eleanor was to be, and more so, but the paths of their lives were utterly different and Magdalene ended up as a whore, a madam with her own up-market whorehouse, and the proud mistress of William of Ypres, King Stephen’s right-hand man. She also often acted as Lord William’s agent, for she was well placed to hear of men’s doings and learn their secrets. As she observes somewhere in this book, much is revealed in pillow-talk.

Chains of Folly is the fourth in the Magdalene la Bâtarde series … I remember reading of Magdalene for the first time in Chapter One of A Mortal Bane:

Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress, she who had been Arabel de St. Foi until her husband died of a knife in the heart and she had fled before she could be accused of his murder …

I was hooked. I read Bone of Contention and A Personal Devil  – then waited – and waited – for the paperback edition of Chains of Folly. I don’t think there ever was one. I now have in my hand an ex-library hardback I came across in a charity shop.

I think I understand the problem. For Magdalene addicts like me it is essential reading, and I loved it. But I have to say that it is a bit slow compared with the others, a bit of a filler in the ongoing story of Magdalene and her circle; I wouldn’t recommend it unless, as I say, you are already hooked. (And after a filler, Roberta, should come another great story. We are waiting!)

A dead prostitute is found in the Bishop of Winchester’s bed-chamber. We know already, from the Prologue, that she was already dead when she was placed there to embarrass him and be a source of scandal about him and that the Bishop knows nothing of her. Telling the reader this is probably a mistake. If we hadn’t been sure, and Magdalene and her friend, the Bishop’s Knight, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, hadn’t been sure, that might have added to the mystery.

It turns out that the woman was also a thief, and concealed on her body is a treasonous letter from the King’s enemy, Gloucester, to the Bishop, obviously intended to incriminate him. How did she come by this letter? Who killed her and put her in the Bishop’s room? And more to the point, will Magdalene and Bell (Sir Bellamy) who have quarrelled (he adores her, but can’t cope with her being a whore and Lord William’s mistress) ever get together again? Not just working together to solve the mystery, but in bed together.

As I say, I wouldn’t have missed it. If you are already a Magdalene la Bâtarde fan, try to get hold of a copy. If not, yet, go for A Mortal Bane – that and the second in the series, Bone of Contention, are now available as Kindle downloads, and are as good as it gets in the Medieval Mystery genre.





SISTER BENEATH THE SHEET by Gillian Linscott

20 09 2014

Sister Beneath the SheetI have a second-hand copy of the hardback first edition here (published in 1991) and on the back of the dustcover are the usual adulatory snippets from The Guardian, The TLS, etc. One from the Daily Express caught my eye before I ever bought the book.

Excellent … a witty and original story set in the fashionable London of 1874.

Now I had already read and reviewed Dead Man Riding which is chronologically the first Nell Bray story and is set in the year 1900, so while reading I kept an eye open for internal evidence, and in fact it is set in 1909, not 1874. And in Biarritz, not London.

However, to give the Daily Express critic his due, the story is “excellent … witty and original.”

When it opens, Nell, a suffragette, has just been released from Holloway (a notorious prison for women in central London) after serving three months for hurling a brick through a window at Number Ten. (The Prime Minister’s residence. These days the whole of Downing Street is sealed off!) But there is no peace for the wicked. Emmeline Pankhurst, the grande dame of the wonderful suffragette movement, informs Nell that a prostitute (whisper the word!) has left the suffragettes £50,000 in her will. Should they refuse it on principle? Of course not! is Nell’s response. So because she doesn’t find it shocking, and because she speaks French, Nell is the one chosen to go off to Biarritz, where the “highly successful prostitute” Topaz Brown lived, worked and finally committed suicide, and organise everything.

Only it soon becomes evident that Topaz would never have committed suicide, she enjoyed life too much. That in fact she was murdered.

And so begins what was, at least until Dead Man Riding was written, Nell’s first investigation, and our introduction to one of my favourite characters from crime fiction.





MURDERERS PREFER BLONDES by Amanda Matetsky

20 08 2014

Murderers Prefer BlondesIn the 1950s, when Tiffany Cage (see my review of Diamonds are Forever) was working in New York, you weren’t a woman, you were a “broad”, a “doll”, a “skirt” – or if your father or your husband was rich, a “lady”. Life for the single working girl and widows (lots of those after WW2 and Korea) and unmarried mums (but were they allowed to keep the kid?) was no fun at all unless you were some kind of blonde bombshell, and even then the party was soon over.

This though? “How could one nice, single, pretty, polite, young blonde have had so many male acquaintances with so many possible motives to murder her?

Murderers Prefer Blondes is the story of an overworked and underpaid Girl Friday in an office full of underworked, overpaid and arrogant men. The office of Daring Detective magazine. Paige Turner – yes, that’s her name, and she wants to be a writer, and in fact this is it, her first book …It’s well written, you enjoy it and you can’t help loving her. She’s twenty-seven, a widow whose husband was killed in the war in Korea, and she’s busy looking for the right crime for her story. The crime she comes across? The rape and murder of a blonde waitress and part-time photographic model and call-girl whom she met when she came to Daring Detective once about being the model for a front cover.

Paige is clever, sexy and streetwise. She is also sensitive and kind. Most of the “dolls” seem to have been sensitive and kind in those days. Perhaps it came from the way they were treated: the “Cinderella syndrome”. Anyway, she needs all these different qualities and more as she meets and mixes with the bar owners and waitresses, pimps and photographers, models and prostitutes that the victim herself used to mix with, and who, Paige hopes, will have information leading to the murderer. Then the murderer (another very arrogant and very spoilt man) decides he wants her dead, too, before her investigation goes any further …





PETER ABELARD by Helen Waddell

15 08 2014

Peter Abelard coverThis is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra)  and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it. 

But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.

“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -

‘He [Heloise's uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.

Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’ 

- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:

She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair. 

Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.

Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris  and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.

He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. [...] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.

They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?

The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.

The end of the story, in a sense.

Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).

However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:

‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’

Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’

‘And is it heretical?’

‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’ 

But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.

This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.

Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.

H and A LettersBut for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.

“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride  I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh  There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’ 

Heloise on Abelard





THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert

26 07 2014

Third Witch coverThis is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – who are, it turns out, Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower. Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.

‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years ago when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her father killed by Macbeth. Now, “grown up” at fourteen, and, though dressed in rags and living in a hovel, remembering still what her life had once been like (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), she seeks to avenge her father and herself: this book is the tale of that revenge.

This is Gilly, the narrator, talking to Mad Helga:

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’

Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.

‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’

Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’

‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’

Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.

‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’

I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’

Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his  castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘

I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’

For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.

Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’        

When you have read it you will know all three of the witches as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

And not only that. It also achieves the rare combination of being both beautifully written, and frequently un-put-downable.

Rebecca Reisert published The Third Witch in 2003, then in 2004 a novel which let us in on the hitherto secret backstory of another mysterious Shakespeare character, Ophelia (Ophelia’s Revenge: I’ll post my review of that tomorrow); then, apparently, nothing. And I can discover no news or bio of her on the internet. I do hope she is well, and still writing, and that we shall have the pleasure of reading her third novel very soon.





WE SPEAK NO TREASON by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

6 07 2014

Treason cover

Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason is a romantic novel based on the life of Richard III and his relationship with the original Nut-Brown Maiden, the girl who becomes the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet. I read it long ago, and now I have come across it again, republished as two books: The Flowering Of The Rose, and its sequel White Rose Turned To Blood.

Like Anya Seton’s John of Gaunt, the Richard of Gloucester we meet here is a man of honour. Like John, he is afflicted with an exaggerated sense of loyalty that makes it imposssible for him to seize the throne and order the murder of his dead brother’s child(ren).

Treason1 coverIn The Flowering Of The Rose, we see him first through through the eyes of our heroine who, though the daughter of a knight, is, at twelve, a skivvy at the beck and call of both the nurse and the cook in the household of Lady Elizabeth Grey. [The nurse's] wrinkled eye was upon me and I searched my mind for a task left undone, a duty neglected. I had been beaten once already that day; thus was I standing to watch Dick and Thomas Grey from the window. I could not sit down easily. But a beautiful skivvy, for on May Day in the local village, all men gaze at her, the King’s jester, Patch, just passing through (his master visiting her mistress) falls in love with her, and a wandering minstrel dedicates the ballad he has been working on for months to her: The Nut-Brown Maid. It becomes famous.

She is a Cinderella figure. Her mistress marries King Edward (there is witchcraft involved) and four years later, when she is sixteen, the Maid follows her to London where she meets the King’s young brother, Richard of Gloucester.

I heard Patch’s light step behind me in the passage, and without taking my joyful gaze from the scene below, stretched out my hand, crying:

‘Ah, my friend, remember you this day! When all men called me fair, and the old ballad-maker said I would be a true maid, and fashioned this song for me ere he died! Take my hand and say you have not forgotten!’

And I felt his hand in mine, and we stood together listening to the music until it ended, and I turned with shining face to give him one kiss out of my true pleasure, for after all he was my friend and had shared this moment with me. And the hand which held mine did not belong to a fool, but to the King’s youngest brother, who stood looking down at me with, God be praised, the same look I had seen in the eyes of men that May Day long ago.

For a long time their love affair consumes them both, then they are separated by events of state. And she later bears him a daughter of whom he knows nothing.

In Part Two, the Jester (“Piers, the man, Patch, the fool) continues the story. He has, he tells us, “loved two women in my life”. These two are our Nut-Brown Maiden and Lady Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the King-maker and, when her father is killed, heir to enormous wealth and lands. Richard wants to marry her, but his brother George of Clarence is against this as the marriage will make Richard much too powerful. Then the girl disappears.

Richard searches for her, apparently heart-broken, but Patch believes him to be interested only in her money, and when by chance he comes across her he does not at first inform Richard.

Now we have a reversal of the Cinderella story, for Anne, the princess, is concealed as a kitchen-maid among folk who have no idea who she is. And Richard, who truly loves her – she was his childhood sweetheart – is still desperately searching for her (the Nut-Brown Maid apparently quite forgotten!)

Eventually, of course, Patch tells him, the girl is saved, they marry, and Richard and Anne live in the north – with Patch, who becomes Richard’s jester. They have a son, Richard’s heir.

Then King Edward dies.

And that is the end of this book (i.e. the first two Parts of We Speak No Treason).

You will want to read on, that is for sure.

And here is a glimpse Rosemary gives us in advance of Henry Tudor, the bad guy of the next book, the contender for the throne whom no one took seriously until it was too late. After all, he had no claim to the throne whatsoever …

His Majesty keeps mastiffs. They lie outside his chamber of a night. Soon after his coronation we had a big baiting at Smithfield: in its way an innovation because instead of a bull, he commanded that a lion should be tried against three of his dogs. When the great tawny beast lay dead, and the curs, all gaping gory wounds, stood panting froth, King Henry ordered a strange conclusion to the sport.

‘Hang them,’ he said in his high Welsh voice. ‘Traitorous dogs shall not rise against a king.’ It took long moments for the big animals to choke on the end of a felon’s halter.

Lovely man.

Treason2 coverLike the first book, White Rose Turned to Blood is divided into two parts (Parts 3 and 4 in the original one-volume novel). The narrator in the first is the Man of Keen Sight, a landless knight and one of Richard’s company, whom we have already met, and in the second we are back with the Nut-Brown Maiden, the twelve-year old we started with at the beginning of the first book, now Richard’s ex-mistress and mother of his bastard daughter, living in a nunnery.

When this volume opens, Richard is dead, and the narrator and his companions are in a cell awaiting execution for “treason” – ie fighting on behalf of the King against the usurper Henry.

I am thirty-three years old, and I have served three reigns and seen the separate and singular manner of their ending. A fourth reign I shall not see, nor would I wish it. There is no King, save the King of Heaven, other than the third Richard. [...] I will close my ears to the hammerings that build my doom and, in love, remember Richard. Then he was Duke of Gloucester, and seventeen. Now he is but ‘the traitor Plantagenet’ and he is dead.

I shall think on the day when, for the first time, he asked: ‘Will you ride with me?’

And so we go back to 1469, when the young knight first met Richard and entered his service, and we follow Richard’s career through again from a quite different perspective.

I love this. It reminds me of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its four-dimensional approach, the three different spatial views followed by a view from further on in time. And the way she links the different perspectives is masterly: here, for instance, the narrator tells how he met the Nut-Brown Maiden:

It was at Fotheringhay, and I had gone down into the camp, late, with some message. Everything was steaming with damp summer heat and in the musky darkness i discovered him with a young maid whom he bade me guard through the ranks and deliver to the Duchess of Bedford’s apartments.
Kneeling beside him, I remembered more. I had thought it prudent to offer the damsel my arm, as she struggled through the trailing briars. Her hand on mine was like a small smooth flame. She stopped suddenly when we had gone a few steps and turned to look back.
‘Ah Jesu!’ she whispered. ‘How he shines!’
I fixed my sight upon the pale Duke, bringing him near in the lanternlight. A moth flew round his face and he lifted his hand to brush it away. The maiden smiled, in tears.
‘There is a light … a light,’ she sighed.
‘What then, mistress?’
She had looked up at me from the cavern of her hood.
‘A light about him not of this world,’ she said.
I could see nought but the fen-fires, burning malefically.

What can I say? Read those books. They leave 99% of fiction set in the medieval period quite in the shade.








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