Monday, 31 August 2015
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
[1171: Adelia is a doctor from Salerno, visiting England and investigating a series of crimes]
It was the custom in Cambridge for those who had been on pilgrimage to hold a feast after their return… it was the turn of the Prioress of St Radegund to host the feast… It was not until the morning of the day itself that a Grantchester servant arrived with an invitation for the three foreigners in Jesus Lane.
Left to herself, Adelia would have put on her grey overdress in order to tone down the brightness of her best saffron silk underdress, which would then only have shown at bosom and sleeves. ‘I don’t want to attract attention.’
The [maids] however, plumped for the only other item of note in her wardrobe, a brocade with the colours of an autumn tapestry, and Gyltha, after a short waver, agreed with them. It was slid carefully over Adelia’s coiffure. The pointed slippers Margaret had embroidered with silver thread went on with new white stockings.
The three arbiters stood back to consider the result.
observations: Historical fiction is a funny thing: I don’t like much of it, but the authors I do like, I really love. Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, and CJ Sansom are my favourites. I remember picking up the The Other Boleyn Girl, by Gregory, and being jolted by its unusual take on women, its frankness and straightforwardness, its wonderful female characters. For me, she changed the face of historical fiction.
I have tried many pre-20th -century historical crime series in my day, and only Sansom has really kept me reading with his Shardlake books. After finishing some of the try-out volumes, I thought ‘well that was OK, but I don’t need to read any more.’ Others of them I flung across the room. These days it takes quite a lot to make me try a new one, but a passing mention by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (a reviewer I revere) made me think I should try this one. And although it contained many features that I would expect to dislike, I enjoyed the book hugely: full marks Bernadette.
Ariana Franklin (1st strike: I get confused between the author name and the heroine) says that Adelia Aguilar could have existed and been trained as an anatomist and medical doctor in Salerno in Italy in the 12th century. I bow to her knowledge, though it seems unlikely Adelia would have been quite as modern as she is portrayed. The two things I hate in low-grade historical fiction are 1) people with progressive, pleasantly right-on attitudes that they surely would not have had back then and 2) adoring, deeply loyal retainers with a twinkle in their eyes. Franklin is guilty of both these things, but somehow gets away with it: her heroine is funny, and would be totally believable as a 20th/21st century woman, and I decided just to enjoy it and go along for the ride.
She has been sent to Cambridge to try to look at the murder of some children (don’t even bother asking why – the author has to get her heroine a medical education AND into a local setting, so she was forced to make something up.) The local Jews have been blamed, and are suffering persecution as a result. Naturally Adelia isn’t bigoted at all, and has Jewish friends, so can start off with the assumption that they are not guilty. So – she solves the crime, and it is an exciting and tense investigation, with a lot of detail of 12th century life, and great characters. King Henry II makes a cameo appearance, and there is mention of the whole Thomas Becket affair – there were a couple of blog entries in 2013 on Becket and on TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
Ariana Franklin was the pen-name of Diana Norman, who was married to Barry Norman, probably the UK’s most famous film critic in his day. She died in 2011.
I didn’t read Bernadette’s actual review of the book till after I’d finished it: it is here.
Bernadette mentions that the author also wrote a non-fiction book called Terrible Beauty: Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927. Happily I can inform her that Terrible Beauty is a quote from WB Yeats (on the aftermath of the Irish 1916 uprising, not on any woman) and that Con Markievicz was an extraordinary and fascinating woman: a revolutionary, and the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament (though she never took her seat). In fact I visited her childhood home while on holiday in Ireland a couple of weeks ago – blog post here, and more on Markievicz and her sister in this entry.
The picture is ‘12th century woman’, from a 1906 book of theatrical costumes.