THE APOSTATE’S TALE by Margaret Frazer

10 08 2011

England, spring, 1452

At the stairfoot, Malde, one of the cloister servant women, was just coming with a cloth-covered tray that had to be the bread in warm milk that Dame Clare had ordered, and she paused, looking uncertain what to do, meeting them there.

‘Take it to my lady’s parlor. It’s for the boy,’ Frevisse said. Malde slightly curtsied and stood aside for them to pass. Frevisse thought she heard a small sigh of longing from Sister Cecely behind her, passing by the food, but ignored it. Sister Cecely would be going without more than warm milk in the days to come. Day-old bread and cold well-water were the best she would likely have for most of the time, with just enough of other food sometimes to keep her in health. Frevisse could only guess how long a penance a bishop would give to an apostate nun after nine years of sinning in the world, but penitential fasting would be part of it. Still, for a woman to have sworn herself to Christ for life and then to have abandoned him for an earthly passion, for bodily lust … What penance could ever be enough?

Is this going to be the last Dame Frevisse medieval mystery? It has a surprise ending that, if it does not bring the series to a close will certainly change the whole tenor of these stories from now on. But that you will discover for yourself when you read The Apostate’s Tale.

Which you surely must if you are a true lover of the authentically medieval. For here we see Frevisse being even more authentically medieval than usual.

The “apostate” of the title is not one who has given up his or her religion and become an atheist or a Satanist or a Muslim or some such thing. It is a nun who nine years earlier ran off with a man and now, after his accidental death by drowning, has returned to the priory of St Frideswide’s as a penitent. Except that she doesn’t seem very penitent. She makes no bones about the fact that had her husband not been drowned she would never have dreamt of coming back. What’s more, she has her son, Edward, with her.

Of course, in the eyes of the Prioress and the nuns (and of the Abbot, who comes to sit in judgement), the dead man was never Cecely’s husband as she was a professed nun, and the boy Edward is therefore a bastard. Frevisse agrees, even though she is at the same time (in a perfectly balanced sub-plot) illogically defending a girl whose mother wants her to marry but who herself longs to be a nun, and insisting that whether or not she becomes a nun must be the girl’s decision and represent what she herself truly wishes. There is no doubt that the apostate Sister Cecely never wanted to be a nun.

In the modern world, everyone would agree with Cecely and be on her side when she insists that she has done nothing wrong, quite the reverse; that she alone among them has known true love and fulfilment. In the medieval world, though, everyone condemns her, and the law of the Church is the law of the land. Cecely is a criminal.

What most amazes and impresses me about this book is that the author manages, despite the modern mind-set of her readers, to get away with making Cecely seem wrong and the rest seem right. Even I – even I – found myself going along with Frevisse’s medieval intolerance and bigotry. But just occasionally Margaret Frazer does let us see things from Cecely’s point of view, and then we get (for the first time in this series so far as I can remember) the other side of the always understanding and tolerant Frevisse. This is just a glimpse of how Cecely views her: Among everything Cecely had willingly forgotten about St Frideswide’s was Dame Frevisse. Always one of the older nuns, the woman had a way of never showing on her face what she was thinking. Even when the irksome rule against talking in the cloister had begun to ease while Cecely was a novice, Dame Frevisse had mostly kept a forbidding silence that always made Cecely certain that, whatever the woman was thinking, it was unkindly.

Unlike most of the other novels in the Dame Frevisse series, this is not exactly murder mystery, but strangely enough it is none the worse for that. If you are new to Margaret Frazer and Dame Frevisse, though, don’t start with this one, start with the early ones, which are all coming out now in Kindle editions. (If you haven’t got a Kindle Reader yet, get one! I love mine!)

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22 03 2012
THE STONE-WORKER’S TALE by Margaret Frazer « Kanti Burns, Book Reviews and more

[…] I read The Apostate’s Tale, I wondered whether that would be the last in this wonderful series, but now here in this short […]

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