Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Spurious Brood by Phil Revell – review

Set in the opening decades of the 17th century, A Spurious Brood is a fictionalised account of the real lives of two Shropshire families. It tells the story of Jacob Blakeway, an attractive, mysterious man and his two loves; childhood sweetheart Katherine More, with whom he fathers the brood of the novel's title, and the lady Rosalind, a noblewoman whose path he crosses when she and her husband are attacked by bandits in The Marches. Jacob is summoned to court for his account of the ambush, where Katherine spies on him comforting Rosalind and rejects him. There follow years of betrayals, betrothals and bitterness as Jacob is torn between his family and his work as a messenger for the merchant Matthew, and Katherine is forced into a marriage that eventually causes her downfall.

The spurious brood of the title do not appear until the final third of the book, and even then they do not develop as characters in their own right. They are simply the subject of their mother Katherine's deep affections and ultimately the cause of her great despair. The title of this engaging first novel by the Shropshire writer Phil Revell can of course be read as “illegitimate offspring”, but there is another interpretation; the falsity of affections that trips up the principle characters and the melancholy of Katherine, who at the end of the novel is left bereft by the cruel machinations of a Jacobean society in which a largely uneducated woman of limited resources is made to suffer by the actions of her father-in-law. Revell depicts Katherine's sadness with great sensitivity. The claustrophobia and danger of marital life for women is a recurrent theme in the book, as Katherine tries to negotiate her way out of an arranged marriage and Rosalind attempts to secure her rightful inheritance and escape the oppressive attentions of her brother-in-law.

But there is a deeper, societal brooding casting its shadow in this novel, as the aristocratic classes of hereditary landowners find their wealth and authority rivalled and threatened by the intelligent, increasingly wealthy mercantile classes. In Jacob and his master, the kind, witty Matthew who is also Katherine's uncle, this novel concerns itself with a nascent middle class, who travel, trade and explore the world beyond the Shropshire countryside in which they were born. In chapter eight Jacob and Matthew take a grand tour to the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, providing a vignette of a changing society. I would have welcomed a deeper exploration of the themes touched upon in this episode – the dissemination of literacy, religious conflict, the discovery of the New World. Jacob himself regrets the omission of Rome from the tour:

“[Jacob] was disappointed that the itinerary did not include a side visit to Rome. Under Eleanor's tuition as a child, he had read translations of Suetonius and Tacitus. He would have loved the chance to walk where Roman Emperors had ruled.

'The Roman buildings are ruins covered with weeds,' said Rowland when Jacob revealed this secret ambition. 'The buildings to see in Rome are the new cathedral of St Peter and the chapel ceiling by Michelangelo – they are beautiful to any man's eye.' He lowered his voice. 'They are also evidence of the waste and stupidity of the church of Rome, spending a mountain of gold on images and icons.'”

The European travels of Jacob and Matthew depict the eyes of Englishmen opening to the wider world in the 17th century after the colonial discoveries of Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s, and they set the scene for the book's finale in which the brood are destined to set sail on the Mayflower. That the grand tour is rather glossed over is a shame, because elsewhere the the descriptions of place in the novel are rich and evocative: in Shropshire “the land was changing; enclosures were being made all over the dale … A quarter turn brought Ludlow into view, and the triple mound of the Malverns. To the northeast Jasper could just see the dark smear that was Cannock Chase”; in London “drovers on their way to Smithfield marshalled sheep and cattle … beggars appealed for alms and hawkers took advantage of the crowds to sell posies, sweetmeats and cures … his eye was drawn to the grisly display that decorated the upper stories of the gatehouse. A naked corpse in an iron cage looked to be a recent addition to a collection of severed heads and body parts.”

There are some delightful scenes in this novel, from the depiction of a nervous Katherine preparing for her wedding 400 years before hair straighteners, or sleeping with her hair in towels in an attempt to make it controllable, or slipping on a new gold petticoat, to the drama of Jacob's clandestine meeting with Rosalind on London Bridge. Revell uses enough antiquated terms and language to offer a sense of the time and historicity – whippersnappers, farthingale, quarterstaffs – but not so much that you are obliged to read the novel with a dictionary of early modern English by your side. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this novel is that, in something of a break from the norm, it is almost entirely unconcerned with the machinations of court life. Royalty does make a fleeting and essential intervention into Jacob's affairs, but even then it is a royal bureaucrat and not King James himself who appears. While not exactly a departure from the genre made so popular by the likes of Margaret George, Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory, it is a brave example of popular historical fiction which is not enthralled by the sex lives of courtiers and their monarchs.

Read it if you liked Sarah Dunant's Birth of Venus; The Wilding by Maria McCann; The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.


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