Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

I was a little bit daunted by this week’s book when it arrived in the post. At around 900 pages, Edward Rutherford’s The Forest is a bit of a tome. However, after a few pages I was excited to find that it continued many of the historical and natural themes present in last week’s The Lives She Left Behind, by James Long, despite being set across the way in Hampshire.

As you might have guessed given this information, the eponymous forest is the New Forest, on the south coast of England, a mere hop skip and a jump away from the Isle of Wight across the Solent. Rutherford tasks himself with recounting the forest’s vast history – or, rather, the history of humankind’s special interaction with it. The novel spans the forest’s initial protection as royal hunting grounds by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of 1066, until the year 2000 when its many more visitors are made up of the tourist-and-television-film-crew variety. He follows strands of the same families over these generations: the forest mutates, evolves and adapts to their usage, just as the families themselves develop varying opinions, loyalties, characteristics, statuses and livelihoods in its shadows.

The first Part of the book, for example, takes place in 1099 by telling the story of the Norman infiltration into southern Britain. Against the backdrop of a royal hunt, young Adela (of Norman origins) not only faces becoming embroiled in an assassination attempt on King Rufus, but also falls in love with courtly, Saxon Edgar, whose family has lived in the New Forest for centuries. In short, Adela and Edgar become the ancestors of several other characters in the later story, as do the mysterious, goblin-like, forest-dwelling Puckle and his wife (who are rumoured to be able to wield dangerous magic) and Godwin Pride, a cheeky peasant farmer who constantly tries to extend the boundaries of his smallholding – inch by careful inch, so as to go unnoticed – in order to defy the Norman forest laws.

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

Jumping to 1204 in the next Part, the reader learns that the ‘new’ Beaulieu monastery has become of prominent importance in the Forest environs. The Pride family still features, this time in the form of Luke Pride. Luke is a trainee monk in the monastery, who accidentally hits another monk and then flees to his sister Mary’s secret protection, believing he has killed the man. Meanwhile, Mary’s other brother, John Pride, gets into a huge disagreement with Mary’s husband, Tom Furzey (watch out for that family name later too) over who has true ownership of a beloved New Forest pony. With all this drama stressing Mary out completely, when another monk Adam shows her sympathy, it ends in them beginning an affair, and therefore procreating another line of characters that feature in various ways in the rest of the novel.

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

It would take me a heck of a long time to summarise each of the very detailed Parts of this novel, but suffice it to say that stories of these family lines continue, through thick and thin and highs and lows, through the Spanish Armada of Elizabeth I’s reign, through the chaos of Cromwell’s uprising, through the rise of south-coast smuggling and the Industrial Revolution. The only constant is the forest; it remains “huge, magnificent, mysterious” (2), never far from people’s minds or sight. Essentially, no matter how much the characters move up or down in the world, no matter how popular or unpopular/fashionable or unfashionable Nature is within English society at certain points in history, the characters are always drawn back in the end, instinctively, to their forest allegiance and ancestral origins.

To be honest, I suppose I shouldn’t really ask for more from a novel for this challenge: Rutherford provides not only a developing picture of the politics, geography and society of the “island of Britain” (5) as a whole, but also concerns himself with the particular and peculiar spread of New Forest towns and hamlets – demonstrating how opinions and industries differ from the rest of “the island Kingdom of England” (267) due specifically to the greater proximity to European and English royal courts, as well as the significant part the region played in naval growth (shipbuilding) and farming practices. All very factual and correct.

But not very engaging.

Toing and froing from a cast of varied characters in the manner of a series of short stories is one thing I found particularly unfulfilling. Characters were not very well developed or relatable. I am inclined to believe this is an intentional styling on Rutherford’s part – he tends to pride his historical elements over the fictional – but it is simply not to my taste. The reading experience was less like diving into a brilliantly-planned Middle Earth-esque world, as I sort of hoped, and more like poring over a historical textbook on Common Law with a few made-up scenarios thrown in. Sure, I found the thing vaguely interesting and admirably researched, but I only consider it bearable since I was skimming every pagevery selectively I might add. I think this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing. Sadly, I’m probably of the latter inclination. 2/5 stars for me, even when I consider the amazing amount of effort that has surely gone into it.

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

Next week I’m sort of glad to be reading the much more light-hearted Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. More your thing? Then read along, I tell you!

 

RUTHERFORD, Edward. The Forest. London: Arrow Books, 2001.

Featured Image: The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588, by unknown painter (English School, 16th century)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada

 

Taken to Court

Victoria Lamb's "The Queen's Secret"

Victoria Lamb’s “The Queen’s Secret”

I suppose I should say first off, with my apologies, that historical fiction is not my favourite genre. The problem I find is that it’s just so unreliable, so hard to get right. Even the best-known examples can leave me feeling irritated and dissatisfied.

There can be too much history and not enough fiction, the product being as unfulfilling and detached as a textbook; or, even worse, there can be too much fiction which stretches and distorts the history until the story just seems absurd. Unfortunately, Victoria Lamb’s The Queen’s Secret suffers, in my opinion, from the latter.

It is set in the court of Elizabeth I during the summer of 1575, when she and her entourage visit Robert Dudley’s home, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Robert Dudley, believed to have been Elizabeth’s favourite, and perhaps even her secret lover, puts on a lavish spectacle designed to win the Queen’s heart and his monarchical seat. As you might expect, however, several things get in the way.

Firstly, Elizabeth’s determination to ignore her desires, remain unmarried, and retain sole power over the throne. She depends upon her status as a ‘virgin queen’ (however mythical or untrue) to make herself –and England – an icon of strength and independence across Europe. Secondly, Robert’s illicit affair with Lettice, Elizabeth’s cousin, lookalike and lady’s maid. She cannot offer him the status he wants, but at least she is easier to bed than the monarch. And thirdly, the threats against Elizabeth’s life; there’s one at Kenilworth, and it’s about to play itself out.

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

Already, Lamb is on murky historical ground – her novel is not so much based on fact as gossip, as she admits in her Author’s Note, her own ‘dreams’. She alters facts to suit her own ends. But it gets worse when she designs, as her narrator, Lucy Morgan, a rare black servant to Her Majesty, whose crime-fighting, queen-saving sidekick is William Shakespeare as a child.

I mean…what? Talk about name-dropping.

In terms of the theme of place and space that I’m looking for in all these novels, I found relatively few quotes that were of interest. There was the usual city vs. country juxtaposition, with the countryside painted as “clean” (112) but “dull” (278) compared with the city, and with woods that are mysterious and “dangerous” (112). A similar ambivalence is shown in the attitude to Elizabeth’s court: life is both exceedingly grand and wholly “corrupted by […] dazzle” (186). As for nature, it is seen as a hassle – the sun causing skin to become “freckled” (120) in a way that subverts Elizabethan standards of beauty – and simultaneously essential for use as monarchical propaganda; Elizabeth’s PR chiefs “use [nature] to her advantage where possible; so here it would be said that her arrival drove out darkness and brought light back to Warwickshire” (43) simply because the clouds happen to clear as her carriage approaches Kenilworth’s walls.

In my opinion, it would have been better not to have bothered with the pretence of historical fiction at all – why didn’t Lamb just create her own fictional monarch and fictional court and fictional castle? Why not have made the whole thing a work of fantasy? It might have been a good story if it had been allowed to stand on its own two feet. As it is, it doesn’t work for me I’m afraid. 1 star.

Next week I’ll be reading Pollard, by Laura Beatty for Northamptonshire, which will, believe it or not, see us halfway through this Placing Myself challenge…

LAMB, Victoria. The Queen’s Secret. London: Corgi, 2012.

Featured Image: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

http://edwud.com/ed-okeeffe-photography/2012/03/01/kenilworth-castle-from-the-west