Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: THE TUDOR SECRET by C.W. Gortner

Novelists necessarily begin with the question "What if...?" C. W. Gornter's THE TUDOR SECRET, the first of his Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles, poses a major "What if?" question about Tudor genealogy and develops it into a riveting tale of intrigue and passion. Readers willing to stretch the bounds of possibility cannot fail to be swept up into the story of the fictitious Brendan Prescott, a foundling who rises from anonymity to become Elizabeth I's devoted courtier and trusted spy.

It's 1553 and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, is king in all but name. He has sequestered King Edward, ailing to the point of death; Princess Elizabeth, Edward's sister, is determined to see her brother, despite the danger the visit poses to herself. She arrives in London on the same day as Brendan Prescott, a foundling raised by the Dudleys at their country estate. Brendan has been summoned to court to serve Robert, Northumberland's arrogant and ambitious son. In love with Elizabeth, Robert hopes to marry her and uses Brendan to carry his clandestine messages. But Brendan, mesmerized by Elizabeth and sympathizing with her orphaned state, warns her of Robert's machinations and quickly finds himself engaged by Elizabeth's protector, William Cecil, as a spy on her behalf. As Brendan works to keep Elizabeth free of the Dudleys' grasp, he unearths unsettling facts about his own history, facts someone at court has determined shall never come to light. By the time Brendan learns his true identity, he has gained the trust of both Elizabeth and her sister Mary; now he must decide what to do with a discovery that threatens the princesses' claims to the throne.

One of the strengths of the THE TUDOR SECRET is its male protagonist. It is refreshing to read the adventures of a main character who is free to come and go as he pleases and does not have to resort to elaborate subterfuges to escape the ever-watchful eyes of chaperones and parents. Brendan is a likeable and articulate character who has gone to great lengths to educate himself. He loves deeply and loyally and, determined to make his own way in the world, readily adapts to his changing circumstances. The infectious enthusiasm that infuses his voice makes his first-person narrative enjoyable to read.

Memorable characters are a hallmark of Gornter's fiction, and the novel's other characters are equally well-drawn. His young Elizabeth, fragile yet iron-willed, exudes an unrealized potential that captivates anyone in her orbit. She and Brendan share an immediate sympathy that blossoms into an unshakeable trust. Elizabeth's older sister, Mary, a tiny woman distrustful by nature and circumstance, nevertheless commands respect and exhibits a healthy regality. Peregrine, the quick-witted stable boy who becomes Brendan's sidekick, provides both humor and the street smarts necessary to rescue Brendan from his numerous scrapes. William Cecil straddles the moral spectrum; closed-mouthed and enigmatic, he tends his own interests as much as Elizabeth's. The villains, who will remain unnamed so as not to spoil the plot, tend toward the extreme but are given justifiable reasons for their wickedness.

The evocation of sixteenth century England resonates with well-chosen details, from the "tar-boiled heads" mounted on poles at the city gate to Mistress Alice, Brendan's surrogate mother, smoothing animal fat into leather shoes with a wooden spoon. Gortner always lavishes attention on his characters' dress, revealing personality traits through their clothing. Mary Tudor, for example, wears a "gable headdress that look[s] too heavy for her thin shoulders." Smells bring scenes to life, and the omnipresent scents of urine, vomit, and blood, as well as the sweeter odors of flowers, salve and ale, immerse the reader in the robust world of the sixteenth century.

The plot hangs together well, although the reader must pay attention to the details to understand Brendan's complicated origins and the Dudleys' convoluted schemes. It is important to remember that this novel is a mystery rather than straight historical fiction; the events depicted serve Brendan's story first and foremost. Given the power struggles surrounding the succession of Henry VIII's children to the throne, however, Gortner's imagined events are not implausible. As he explains in the interview that follows the story, "While nothing in THE TUDOR SECRET contradicts the known facts of what happened in the summer of 1553, I do mix things up and seek to reveal what might have been transpiring behind the scenes."

I thoroughly enjoyed THE TUDOR SECRET and look forward to the series' next installment. As SECRET closes, Brendan decides to keep mum about his identity for the time being. It will be interesting to see with whom he shares his discovery and how it affects his relationship with those who wield power. Add this uncertainty to the political intrigue he'll encounter as Elizabeth's spymaster and we have all we need for an engrossing and exciting series.

Learn more about C.W. Gortner and his books at his newly redesigned website.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Greetings

Happy Easter!

Pierre II Veyrier, 1560
Enamel and gold on copper

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Film: The Princess of Montpensier

The Princess of Montpensier, Bertrand Tavernier's gorgeous historical drama set in sixteenth century France and based on the eponymous novel by Madame de Lafayette, opens this Friday in US theaters. When the film opened in Europe last May, I longed for an American showing. Now I'm hoping to be lucky enough to find it in a nearby theater. If not, I'll have to wait for the DVD, but at least a DVD is assured now that the film is showing in the States. You can view the English trailer here. Film Journal International ran a wonderful interview with Tavernier here. The reviews are uniformly exceptional. If anyone is lucky enough to view the film, please come back and share your impressions! I'm off to see if I can find it in an area theater.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage."

"Happy he, who like Ulysses, has made a glorious voyage."

Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560), French poet
Les Regrets (1559), Sonnet 31

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Forget Me Not

We're nearing the end of the school year and soon students, especially graduating high school seniors, will be begging their friends to "sign my yearbook." Little do the students know that the pithy observations, endearing epithets and codified farewells that they scrawl across endpapers and over and around photos partake in a tradition that dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century.

In medieval and Renaissance times, going to university was a peripatetic affair. Students would travel to various university towns--Paris, Louvain, Oxford, Bologna, among others--to listen to the lectures of the renowned scholars who taught there. Scholars themselves would travel to consult with and debate those at other universities. To record his meetings with academic celebrities as well as the new friendships he forged with fellow students, a student would bring a bound book of blank pages with him on his travels. In this book, the student's new acquaintances would inscribe their names along with mottos and maxims, tributes (often in verse form), and sketches of their heraldic crests or even illustrations of scenes or places to jog memories of shared experiences. The "album amicorum," or "friendship book," became a record of the student's intellectual as well as physical journey and, for modern historians, fascinating record of early modern European university life.

The use of alba amicorum was particularly widespread in Germany and the Low Countries and continued well into the eighteenth century. Literary salons kept albums of the luminaries who participated in the circle's discussions. Women created alba to mark special occasions such as weddings and baptismal celebrations. As pleasure travel became more widespread, travelers filled alba with mementos of the places they visited and inscriptions by their fellow sojourners and those they frequented in various locales. In upperclass and merchant households, visitors inscribed friendship books in tribute to the hospitality they received.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheka, the National Library of the Netherlands located in Den Haag, has a collection of 470 alba amicorum dated from 1556 onwards. It includes eleven alba from the Van Harinxma thoe Slooten family of Friesland. Click on the link at the very bottom of the page to view the collection. Although the descriptions 0f the alba are in Dutch, you can click on any of the covers to view sample pages from the album. This entry, known as "La Dame aux Plumes" ("Woman with Feathers") bears the inscription: "Bon vin, belles Dames et bonne viande / Pendu soyt il qui plus demande" ("Good wine, beautiful women and great food; / Hang him who asks for more").

An infinitely more colorful motto than the ubiquitous "HAGS" (short for "Have a great summer") that fills today's yearbooks!

Sources and further reading:
"Early European Notice of Marbling, and the Album Amicorum," in Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns by Richard J. Wolfe (1990)
"The 'Stammbuch' or 'Album amicorum'" by Martin Hardie in The Connoisseur, Vol. 19: 1907.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"The readers and the hearers
like my books,
But yet some writers cannot them digest;
But what care I? for when I make a feast
I would my guests should praise it,
not the cooks."

Sir John Harington (1561-1612)
English courtier, author and inventor of
the flush toilet
Epigrams. Of Writers Who Carp at Other Men's Books