Book Review: ‘Music and Silence,’ by Rose Tremain.

Some books are beautifully written, some are skilfully and intriguingly plotted, whilst others still possess a pace that compels the reader to turn the page and devour the book leaving them wanting more; few manage to combine all three elements. Music and Silence is one of those novels that excels in one of these categories – for its prose is undeniably alluring – and yet fails in the other two. It is written prettily enough, but it lacks pace, and the plot meanders hither and thither, the perspectives constantly toing and froing from one character to another, none of whom I found to be particularly sympathetic. 

The lutenist, Peter Claire, his fingers frozen by a Danish winter, pining for a love denied; the Danish Queen Kirsten, despising of her doting husband, scheming and prone to sadomasochistic horseplay with the German Count Otto, or having herself pleasured by black slave boys; the benevolent King Christian IV, touching his elflock for comfort, forever disappointed by all that is ‘shoddy’, including his marriage to his contemptuous and contemptible second wife, his schemes for bringing wealth and happiness to his people seemingly doomed to failure: these are three of the primary protagonists around whom the ‘plot’ revolves. There are many others, but they fail to move me to mention them.  

Before coming to this book, I had read another of Tremain’s novels – Restoration – which I found to be highly engaging and well paced, so when a friend recommended Music and Silence to me as her ‘favourite book’, I had high hopes for it. At the same time, however, I also possessed certain nagging misgivings, for when someone commends a book so highly, the fear creeps in that I will find in it some significant flaw, and so, in this case, it proved to be. Perhaps my failure to find any great satisfaction in the book derives from the fact that it is aimed, predominantly, at a female readership, or then again, perhaps not. It was its lack of pace that made the reading of it so laborious and turgid, for it lay partially read on my bedside table for some five months or so before I compelled myself to complete it, wolfing down the prose with as much pleasure as if it had been unsalted raw cabbage. Thankfully, unlike the cabbage, it did not leave me with wind afterwards, but neither did it leave me with a desire to read anything else by Tremain, which was a pity.  

The 17th century is a fascinating period in which to set a novel, as it was a time of such intellectual, political and social ferment, but, alas, Music and Silence somehow manages to render it less interesting than it was. In contrast, An Instance of the Fingerpost written by Iain Pears, set in Restoration Oxford and employing four separate perspectives in the narration of the same set of events, is utterly compelling and convincing; it is beautifully written, skilfully and intriguingly plotted, and leaves the reader wanting more at its end.

Review: ‘Poldark: Ross Poldark’, by Winston Graham.

Like many readers of this book and subsequent volumes, I first encountered Poldark on the small screen, initially as a child in the 1970s, and more recently during the BBC’s latest adaptation of the Poldark novels. I therefore came to the book with certain expectations, and found, to my delight, that they were not disappointed. In fact, as is often the case with works which are adapted for either television or the cinema, the book proved to be better still. This is not to say that the recent television series lack anything, for they do not, but out of necessity the full richness of a 450-page novel cannot be condensed into a handful of television episodes without omitting something. 

This first book, originally published in 1945, proves to be a gripping read. Although the covers of the Poldark novels have been aimed squarely at a female readership over the years, this one being no exception, what with Aidan Turner broodily peering from the front cover, this is by no means women’s fiction insofar as there is plenty within to engage readers of both sexes. There is certainly a romantic core to this book, but as to whether it should most appropriately be placed in the category of historical novel, or historical romance, I shall leave that to the reader to decide.  

The novel is well paced and comprised of many intertwining strands, with an engaging cast of characters, a sense of drama, and a liberal dose of humour, with the latter often being focused upon Ross’s idle servants Jud and Prudie Painter. Although Ross is confronted with a succession of challenges and setbacks, he somehow manages to weather the storm, and, at the end of this volume, obtain a certain solace in his marriage to Demelza. The theme of hardship, both material and emotional, runs through the book, and it is plain that the author – Winston Graham – by making Ross a champion of the poor and the powerless of Cornwall, possessed a significant social conscience. It did, perhaps, chime with the times in which it was published, emerging as the war came to an end, with rationing and austerity looming large, enabling his readers to identify readily with the plight of the common folk in this tale. Within this volume, you will find the social tensions and snobbery of late-eighteenth-century Cornwall brought vividly, and arrestingly, to life. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Watch this blog for news of the author’s forthcoming historical novel set in 17th-century Cornwall – Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return – a tale of superstition, greed, slavery, and religious fanaticism.

Review: ‘Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760’, Second Edition, 1997. J.A. Sharpe.

A wide-ranging and commendably balanced piece of historiography spanning the period 1550-1760. It aims to provide an overview of how life was lived by the people of England, from the highest to the lowest, during the period in question, although, alas, the sieve of history has captured far less relating to the lives of the meaner sort when compared to those of the middling and upper orders. This is an unavoidable consequence of differential rates of literacy, and what the literate deemed worthy of recording, or not.

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, however, the rapid growth of printed material of varying types accompanied the development of a more literate culture as the population became more educated, with the consequence that we possess a far more rounded picture of everyday life during the latter part of this period.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on popular culture and the world of work, as these helped to flesh out the daily experience of the lower strata of society, which, alas, is a theme frequently neglected or glossed over in histories that concentrate more on politics, economics and religious change. This material would prove particularly useful to any author looking to set a novel, or shorter piece of fiction, in the world of this time.

One theme that came through strongly in the book, was the fact that whereas London had already grown to be a considerable metropolis by the middle of the sixteenth century, England was still a predominantly agrarian society two centuries later, with many of its towns still being no larger than what we would term villages today. The section on the village community is therefore of particular interest.

Overall, Sharpe’s book serves as a useful complement to Keith Thomas’s three major works on early modern England; it makes for a fascinating read.