05 March, 2014
Sphere, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7515-3901-1. 518 pages.
Set in England and Normandy between 1130 and 1153, A Place Beyond Courage tells the story of John FitzGilbert or John Marshal, his first wife Aline Pipard and his second wife Sybilla of Salisbury. Empress Matilda, King Stephen, Henry FitzEmpress (the future Henry II) and various members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy appear as important secondary characters. And John and Sybilla’s son William Marshal, whose story was told in the author’s previous novels The Greatest Knight (reviewed here earlier) and The Scarlet Lion, makes a memorable appearance as a young child.
John FitzGilbert holds the important official post of Marshal at the court of King Henry I, responsible for the complex logistics of supply and transport required to keep the court functioning and to move it from place to place on its frequent travels. John obtained the post partly through inheritance from his father, partly through martial prowess (he and his father once fought a duel to retain it against a challenger), and partly through his own formidable competence. A minor lord, he has no great lands of his own, and his power and wealth depend largely on his role as the royal Marshal. When Henry I dies suddenly, leaving a daughter and a nephew as rivals for the throne of England, the aristocracy divides into factions and England descends into a brutal civil war. This was a cruel period of English history, ‘when Christ and his saints slept’ according to a contemporary chronicler, when arbitrary violence ruled and there was little to check the excesses of local tyrants. For the ambitious and able John Marshal, the chaos presents both opportunity and danger. If he judges every situation accurately, he stands not only to survive but to gain lands and influence. But a single wrong step could cost him – and his family – everything.
In common with the other novels by Elizabeth Chadwick that I’ve read, such as The Time of Singing, The Greatest Knight and To Defy a King, A Place Beyond Courage concentrates on the characters and the relationships between them. The political and military events of the day form a context that shapes the relationships and a background against which they develop. So the conflict between Stephen and Matilda provides an opportunity for John Marshal’s ambition, military skill, ruthlessness and calculating brinkmanship to come to the fore. It also puts an intolerable strain on the meek and timid Aline Pipard, who is utterly unsuited to life in high politics and on the front line of a war. John’s opportunism brings him into conflict with his powerful neighbour Patrick of Salisbury, and this conflict in turn provides the context for his second marriage to Patrick’s sister Sybilla. And the ongoing war, combined with John’s ambition and refusal to back down, puts not only John and Sybilla at risk but also their young son William.
The novel focuses mainly on John Marshal, Aline and Sybilla – although five-year-old William Marshal comes close to stealing the show when he makes his appearance. John Marshal is the central figure, shaping events in war and politics as well as in his personal and domestic life. Able, charismatic, resourceful and pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, he is a hard man living in hard times. To survive, he has to be able to assess any situation and face it without flinching, from his desperate last stand at Wherwell Abbey and subsequent escape by walking miles across hostile country with a terrible face wound, to calling King Stephen’s bluff at the siege of Newbury.
Sybilla is the more obviously appealing of the two lead female characters. Forthright and confident, she is described as having a natural warmth that charms many of the other characters – even including the stern Empress Matilda – and will probably charm most readers as well. She makes good company for her share of the novel. Aline is less obviously attractive, although I have a good deal of sympathy for her. Having lived a sheltered life with her widowed mother in a quiet backwater, it should be no surprise to find that she is completely unprepared when marriage to John pitches her into politics and war. I can see why the decisive and fearless John Marshal is irritated by Aline’s timidity and passivity – she is the kind of woman who would have been called a ‘drip’ when I was at school – but his disappointment is largely his own fault, since he married Aline for her lands on the grounds that she was the best bargain available to him at the time (I told you he was pragmatic). Poor Aline had no choice in the matter.
The secondary characters are also boldly drawn, even if they make only a brief appearance, from King Stephen as a tired man finding that the crown he grabbed so eagerly is rather more than he can handle, to the thuggish mercenary with a vulgar predilection for purple silk underpants (!), to the kindly Flemish washerwoman and her soldier husband. Pride of place among the secondary characters goes to young William Marshal, who runs away with the novel towards the end. The famous ‘hammers and anvils’ scene at King Stephen’s siege camp at Newbury* is recounted mainly from William’s point of view, and is beautifully done.
An Author’s Note at the end of the book outlines the historical background and there is a list of further reading for those who want to explore further. Maps at the front are useful for following the campaigns for readers who may be unfamiliar with the geography of Wiltshire and Berkshire, where much of the action occurs.
Colourful portrayal of the ambitious and resourceful John Marshal, and his rise to power during the wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in turbulent twelfth-century England.
*If you found your way here, you probably know all about that, but if not I won’t spoil the suspense of the novel by describing what happens.
28 February, 2014
|Apple lattice tart|
Apples are generally associated with late summer and autumn, and indeed the peak of the English apple season is in September and October. However, many apple varieties, especially cooking apples, store for several months, and so some apple varieties are effectively in season all winter.
This pretty apple tart can be made with any variety of cooking apples, so it can be enjoyed right through the autumn and winter. Here’s the recipe.
Apple lattice tart
4 oz (approx 125 g) strong plain flour
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) icing sugar
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
1.5 oz (approx 35 g) lard
1 lb (approx 450 g) cooking apples
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) golden syrup
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
Grease a shallow flan dish about 7 to 8 inches (about 18 to 20 cm) in diameter.
Peel and core the cooking apples. Chop into chunks about half an inch (approx 1-1.5 cm) cubed.
Put the apple chunks, lemon juice, golden syrup and cinnamon in a saucepan. Cover and cook gently for about 15 minutes (the time will vary according to the apple variety) until the apples are soft.
Rub the butter and lard into the flour and icing sugar until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add about a tablespoon (about 15 ml) of cold water and mix with a knife. The mixture will start to stick together. Squash it into a ball of dough.
Cut off about a quarter of the dough and set aside. Roll out the other three-quarters into a circle and line the flan dish.
Spread the cooked apples in the pastry case.
Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into strips. Lay the strips crosswise on top of the apple filling to form a lattice.
Bake in a hot oven at about 190 C for about 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden.
Serve hot or cold, with natural yoghurt, cream or ice cream.
I normally expect to get 6 slices out of this quantity, but it depends how big a slice you like.
Note that the pastry is quite firm when cold, but when hot the pastry is very crumbly and will tend to fall apart. If you’re serving the tart in a situation where you need it to stay in neat slices when cut, I recommend serving it cold!
If there is any left over the tart will keep for several days at room temperature. I’ve never tried freezing it.
18 February, 2014
|Snowdrops at Flatford Wildlife Garden|
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a wildlife garden on the banks of the River Stour at Flatford. It aims to show how gardens can benefit wildlife and look beautiful at the same time. Details on the RSPB site here.
Map link: Flatford
|Drift of snowdrops by the entrance gate|
Snowdrops blossom in late February, a welcome sign of spring to come, and Flatford Wildlife Garden is holding a Snowdrop Weekend on 22-23 February 2014. As well as access to the garden, there will be plants for sale and activities such as seed planting. Details on the Events page at the website.
|Snowdrops in a hazel coppice|
Snowdrops flower early so that they can make full use of the sunlight shining on the woodland floor, before the leaves on shrubs and trees develop later in the season and cast shade.
|Close-up of snowdrops|
The snowdrops are not alone; other flowers such as violets are also starting to blossom for spring.
|Sweet violets by the entrance gate|
05 February, 2014
Quercus, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84724-067-5. 450 pages.
The Tenderness of Wolves is set in Canada in 1867, against a background of farming, trapping and fur trading in an isolated frontier settlement. All the main characters are fictional.
When French trapper Laurent Jammet is found brutally murdered in his cabin in the isolated frontier settlement of Dove River on Georgian Bay, suspicion falls on seventeen-year-old Francis Ross, adopted son of a local farming couple, who disappeared on the same day. Anxious to find out the truth and to clear her son’s name, Mrs Ross (her first name is never given, but can be deduced) sets out to follow his tracks north into the wilderness. She has the help of a stranger to the settlement, Parker, a trapper who was acquainted with Jammet and who has his own reasons for seeking the killer. Also on the trail are three investigators from the Hudson Bay Company, and a Toronto scholar searching for a mysterious bone tablet that was owned by Jammet and vanished at his death. Soon the empty forest and tundra are criss-crossed by various search parties, seeking to find – or conceal – the truth about the murder. Not everyone will return.
The Tenderness of Wolves is part literary novel, part mystery, part (mild) adventure quest, and part understated and bitter-sweet love story. The novel has an unusual structure, with short chapters alternating between a first-person narrative by Mrs Ross and third-person narratives from the viewpoint of various other characters. This can be confusing, as everyone seems to have a similar narrative style, and I quite often found myself having to backtrack to remind myself of the narrator, especially if I had put the book aside for a while. Provided you concentrate, though, the structure has the benefit of showing people and events from more than one perspective. The novel is written throughout in present tense, a technique that I don’t generally care for. I think it may be intended to create an impression of immediacy, like a screenplay, but for me it always has the effect of distancing me from the characters and putting everything into slow motion.
Fortunately, the beauty of the landscape descriptions are worth lingering over, so the slow pace does not matter. This was the outstanding feature of the book for me. Forest and bog and bony upland, all under ever-deepening snow as winter tightens its grip, the bone-aching cold and the loneliness of an empty landscape where one settlement may be several days’ arduous travel from the next, are described in lyrical prose. The lovely scene in which Mrs Ross and Parker watch a wolf on the edge of their camp is especially memorable.
The vast landscape dwarfs the humans living in it, and many of the characters seem to be oppressed by it in different ways, perhaps feeling that it magnifies their sense of their own inadequacies. Early in the novel Mrs Ross, who came to Canada from the Scottish Highlands – itself a sparsely populated environment, especially after the Clearances had got going – tells us that when she first arrived she was so overwhelmed by the emptiness that she broke down in tears. Donald Moody, a likeable and introspective young man who works for the Hudson Bay Company, is unsure of himself, doubting his ability to manage in such a place. Another company man is apparently in the process of drowning his fears in laudanum. By contrast, some of the Native American trappers such as Parker seem completely at home in the wilderness.
In a cleverly constructed plot, the murder mystery turns out to be connected to a web of theft, mutiny and trade monopolies, gradually revealed by the various searchers. All the threads of the murder – who did it and why – are neatly drawn together and resolved at the end. Many other threads are left hanging, though (I was especially disappointed about the bone tablet). I suppose this reflects real life, which tends to be full of unresolved mysteries and unanswered questions.
There’s no map and no historical note, so readers interested in aspects of the background, such as the history of pioneer settlement in Canada, or the workings of the fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company, will have to research it on their own.
Beautifully written tale of a pioneer community in nineteenth-century Canada, part mystery and part bitter-sweet love story.
31 January, 2014
Grey squirrels have become very successful in most of Britain since they were introduced from North America in the nineteenth century. Agile and ingenious, the local squirrels rarely take long to spot that a bird feeding station is a handy source of free food. Or, for that matter, to figure out how to defeat, circumvent or otherwise overcome attempts to keep them away from the food. Here’s one grey squirrel at a wildlife site that has figured out how to outwit the (supposedly) squirrel-proof feeders:
The white plastic skirt and cage around the trunk of the tree holding the feeders is a baffle, designed to stop squirrels climbing up from the ground. It may well be very effective at that – but this squirrel ran up a nearby tree, leaped across the gap, and ran down the tree holding the feeders
While hanging on to the tree with its back legs, the squirrel can stretch across to the feeder...
...and tuck in
Even when the feeder is too far from the tree to stretch across from the trunk, the squirrel is not deterred. Just run back up the pole, out along the branch, and swarm down to hang on to the feeder itself.