Leon Roch – Benito Pérez Galdós

Last year, I read a novel by 19th century Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós. Fortunata and Jacinta was one of my favourite books of 2015 so I was pleased when another of his novels was proposed for my 19th century bookgroup. Leon Roch was written much earlier in the author’s career & it’s very different from Fortunata. One of the members of the bookgroup memorably described it as more like an opera than a novel & I would have to agree. It’s dramatic, overwrought & passionate & not always easy to read but I did enjoy it. It features two strong female characters, as the later novel does, & their stories were fascinating.

Our hero, Leon, is a wealthy young man, interested in science & literature. He’s also an atheist. He has been in love with a childhood friend, Pepa de Fúcar, daughter of the immensely rich Don Pedro, Marquis de Casa-Fúcar, a self-made man. Leon has fallen suddenly in love with Mária de Tellería, the beautiful daughter of another Marquis, but an impoverished one. His reasons for marriage set out all the problems that will plague him in the future,

Mária’s goodness, her sense, her modesty, the submissiveness of her intelligence, her exquisite of life added to the seriousness of her tastes and instincts – all made me feel that she was the wife for me – I will be perfectly frank with you: her family are not at all to my liking. But what does that matter? I can separate from my relations. I only marry my wife and she is delightful … Her education has been neglected and she is as ignorant as can be; but on the other hand, she is free from all false ideas and frivolous accomplishments, and from those mischievous habits of mind which corrupt the judgement and nature of the girls of our day.

Rumours of Leon’s engagement enrage Pepa &, in a fit of pique, she marries Federico Cimarra, a worthless man with nothing to recommend him.

Leon & Mária are very happy at first, although his atheism upsets her as she’s a conventionally religious young woman. Her rapacious family – parents & two brothers – are constantly in debt & Leon constantly & good-humouredly bails them out. Mária’s other brother, her twin, Luis Gonzaga, is a monk &, when he is dying of consumption, he comes to stay with the Rochs. Luis’ influence on his sister is immense as he’s considered a saintly young man. He reproaches her for marrying an atheist & then for doing nothing to convert him. Mária becomes more overtly religious, dressing simply & attending Mass several times a day. She becomes estranged from Leon as he resists her emotional blackmail in her attempts to convert him & she resists his egotistical plans to educate her. Both realise painfully that they cannot change the other.

Nay,” cried Mária with the air of a martyr, “abuse and insult me as much as you will, but do not attack my faith; that is blasphemy.”
“It is not blasphemy; I only tell you that you, and you alone, have made our marriage tie a chain of bondage. … When we married you had your beliefs and I had mine, and my respect for every man’s conscience is so great that I never thought of trying to eradicate your faith; I gave you complete liberty; I never interfered with your devotions, even when they were so excessive as to mar the happiness of our home. Then there cam a day when you went mad – I can find no other word to describe the terrific exaggeration of your bigotry since, six months ago, here in my garden, your hapless brother died in your arms. Since then you have not been a woman but a monster of bitterness and vexatiousness …”

Pepa’s marriage has been as unhappy as could have been predicted from its beginning. Her only joy is her daughter, Ramona, known as Monina. Leon & Pepa meet again for the first time in some years. Leon realises that he has always loved Pepa & her love for him has never wavered. She admits that she married Cimarra in her despair at Leon’s engagement to Mária.

“... And bitter pique rankled in my heart and made me resolve that I would give to the least worthy suitor what I had intended for the most worthy. If I could not have the best I would take the worst. Do you remember my throwing out my jewels on the dust-heap? I wanted to do the same with myself. Of what use was I if no one loved me?

Then, Federico is reported lost at sea on a journey to America. Leon has separated from Mária & moved to a house near Pepa’s home at Suertebella, where she lives with her daughter & her father. Pepa & Leon grow closer through their love for her daughter & ugly rumours, mostly spread by Mária’s ungrateful family, accuse them of adultery. Mária, encouraged by her false friend, bored, gossipy Pilar de San Salomó, decides to confront Leon with his crimes & collapses. She is taken to Suertebella where her family & her spiritual advisor, Padre Paoletti, alternately accuse Leon & try to comfort Mária, while Leon & Pepa must confront the realities of their relationship & any future they might have.

The operatic part of this novel is in the telling. I can’t remember when I last read a novel where characters have conversations that go on for pages & pages at such a pitch of emotion & especially when they’re at death’s door. Luis Gonzaga takes chapters & chapters to die & all the time he’s haranguing Leon or Mária at great length. Mária herself, when she’s gravely ill, never stops talking, working herself up to hysteria, encouraged by the priest & her family.

There are some fantastic descriptions & set-pieces. This is Luis Gonzaga, the monk whose zeal cannot be dimmed, even when he’s dying,

The lean, angular figure, wrapped in a black gown, with a cord round the slender waist, – bare-headed, feeble and drooping, with eyes always fixed on the ground, with a dull, clammy skin and weak swaying neck that could hardly support the head above it, with broad, yellow, transparent hands like little faggots of thin sticks, too weak for anything but to be folded in prayer – wandered like an ominous shadow through the drawing rooms hung with gaudy papers or tawdry tapestry.

Galdós is funny & satirical about society & about the Church. At a bullfight, the rich find a sudden rainstorm a delightful occurrence while the poor in their open seats have to run for shelter. “After all, the rain is not a serious evil to people who keep a carriage.” His opinions of rich women with no real religious feeling, making a great show of their attendance at church & their charity work is scathing & he doesn’t hold back in his satire. Mária’s family are consummate hypocrites, expecting Leon to rescue them from their creditors while they despise his atheism & believe every scandalous story about his relationship with Pepa. Leon may be our hero but he’s shown as just as deluded as Mária; smug in his certainties & dismissive of Mária’s feelings. Emotions are always at the highest pitch & drawn out to a much greater length than necessary most of the time. I wondered if Galdos had to fill a certain number of pages for serialization as some scenes are stretched so far that I lost patience. I kept reading for the sharp satire & for the characters of Mária & Pepa, two more of Galdós’ strong, feisty women who dominate the story from the beginning.

Joan of Arc – a history – Helen Castor

Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc. The peasant girl from Domrémy who heard voices as she tended her father’s fields. Voices that she believed came from Heaven. These voices told her to go to the Dauphin Charles, fighting a crippling civil war against the English & Burgundians, lead his army, push the enemy out of France & crown him King. We know that Joan did all this but, when the victories stopped, she was captured by the Burgundians, put on trial by the Church as a heretic, handed over to the English & burned at the stake. Fifty years later, in a different political climate, Joan was rehabilitated by the Church & in 1920, she was made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. I read this story, with illustrations I still remember, in my Children’s Encyclopedia over 40 years ago.

Helen Castor has taken this story & retold it in a fascinating way. Most accounts of Joan’s story begin in Domrémy, in Joan’s childhood, then take us on that journey to the Dauphin so that we’re already convinced of her mission before she arrives at Chinon. In this book, Joan doesn’t even appear until a third of the way through. Castor describes the political situation in France in the early 15th century. She begins with the battle of Azincourt (the English Agincourt) in 1415, describes the split between the victorious English & Burgundian faction, who had the support of the mentally afflicted King Charles VI & the Armagnac faction, supporting the heir to the throne, Dauphin Charles. The reader becomes aware of Joan as the Dauphin does, without knowing any of the traditional backstory. Her deeds seem even more amazing in this context. The desperation of the Armagnacs to believe her story, the decision to give her troops & let her try her luck as they were in such desperate straits, the raising of the siege of Orléans & the triumphant journey to Reims Cathedral to see the Dauphin crowned King. This was the high point in Joan’s story.

Once the Dauphin was crowned, however, no one seemed to know what to do with Joan. She was single-minded in her desire to drive the English out of France & frustrated that Charles wouldn’t give her the troops she wanted to carry out her plan, that plan that she said had been communicated to her by her voices. Eventually, she was captured by the Burgundians as she tried to relieve Compiègne, just outside Paris. Handed over to the Church as a heretic, she was interrogated, put on trial & declared a heretic. Her voices came from the Devil & her determination to wear male clothing was against the teaching of the Church. Joan briefly recanted when she was confronted with the scaffold & sentenced to life imprisonment. However, she soon restated her belief in her voices & returned to her male clothing. The Church then handed her over to the secular authorities for sentencing & she was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the age of nineteen.

Joan is one of the few medieval women whose life was so completely documented. The transcripts of her trial & then of the rehabilitation are full of eyewitness accounts of her childhood & her career, the kind of detail that is vital to any biographer. Helen Castor does a wonderful job of explaining just how unusual Joan’s journey was. For a teenage girl to get as far as she did with such self-belief & determination was extraordinary. Castor doesn’t try to explain Joan’s voices. There have been theories that she had epilepsy or was mentally ill. There have been theories that she was an illegitimate member of the royal family. It’s like the theories about Shakespeare’s plays. Some people can’t believe that William Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays. Some people can’t believe that a peasant girl from Domrémy could have accomplished what she did. Joan’s story has all the elements of fairytale or myth but, by going back to the sources & writing without the benefit of hindsight, we can see why the Dauphin wanted to believe in Joan. Her initial success had more to do with politics than piety but, no matter the machinations at Court, Joan’s own belief never wavered.

The detailed account of her trial shows Joan, a young woman, ill, in prison & alone, interrogated & questioned by large groups of men – Churchmen, lawyers, doctors – & confidently giving her answers as they circled around her story, moving backwards & forwards in time, trying to trip her up on detail, trying to get the admission they needed about the heretical nature of her experiences & beliefs. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt but the lengths that these men went to, either to save her soul for God by her recantation or make her an outcast from the Church if she stuck to her story, was remarkable. This is a fascinating story, so well told. Even if you think you know the story of Joan of Arc, Helen Castor’s book is comprehensive, sympathetic & full of telling detail. This is not a book about a saint; it’s the story of a young woman who took the medieval world by surprise & achieved more than anyone could have imagined.

The Woman in Blue – Elly Griffiths

Cathbad is house sitting for a friend, Justin, who lives in a house next to St Simeon’s in Walsingham. As well as the house, Cathbad is also looking after Justin’s cat, a defiant black tom called Chesterton. When Chesterton escapes one night, Cathbad follows him through the churchyard & sees a woman, dressed in white & wearing a blue cloak, standing next to a tombstone. As Walsingham has been a site of pilgrimage for worshippers of the Virgin Mary for centuries, & Cathbad is a druid, unfazed by spiritual experiences of any kind, Cathbad is not afraid but interested. Next morning, though, the body of a young woman, Chloe Jenkins, dressed in a white nightdress & blue dressing gown, is found carefully laid out in a nearby ditch with a rosary on her chest. Cathbad’s vision was all too real.

Chloe was a patient at The Sanctuary, a clinic for people with addictions. She was a beautiful, blonde young woman, a model who had become involved with drugs & spent several periods in clinics trying to overcome her problem. DCI Harry Nelson & his team soon discover that security at The Sanctuary wasn’t particularly rigorous & Chloe wasn’t the only patient who had slipped out that night. Harry is also disconcerted by the resemblance of Chloe to his wife, Michelle, & their daughters. Harry’s marriage had been shaky for a while when Michelle discovered that Harry had had a brief affair with archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway & that he was the father of her daughter, Kate. Harry wants to be part of Kate’s life & Michelle agrees that he should but her own unhappiness has become more apparent, especially as she has become emotionally involved with Tim Heathfield, one of Harry’s team.

Ruth is surprised to be contacted by Hilary Smithson, who she knew when they were both post-graduate archaeology students at Southampton. Hilary’s career has changed course & she is now a priest. She’s going to be in Walsingham at a course for women priests with ambitions to become bishops. Hilary has been receiving disturbing anonymous letters, addressing her as Jezebel & abusing her & all women priests as unnatural. Ruth convinces Hilary to show the letters to Nelson & soon there appears to be a link with the murder of Chloe Jenkins when one of the women on the course, Paula Moncrieff, is also murdered. Both Chloe & Paula were blonde & attractive, both killed in Walsingham. Could there be more of a connection? Could the same killer be responsible? There seems to be a religious theme – the rosary left on Chloe’s body & the fact that Paula was a priest. Nelson & his team find clues in the past & in the connection of both women to Walsingham. The action spans the weeks from early spring, when the snowdrops cover the ground in the ruins of Walsingham Abbey to the performance of the Passion Play on Good Friday when everything becomes clear.

I love this series. The relationship between Ruth & Nelson is just wonderful. Ruth has had several inconclusive relationships since Kate was born but she really seems to be in limbo, unable to forget Nelson, despite the tenuousness of their relationship. Nelson is also torn between Michelle & Ruth, wanting to do the right thing & not hurt anyone but continually wrong footed & mostly making himself miserable. Nelson discovers that Michelle has been seeing Tim in a very dramatic scene that results in a reconciliation of sorts with Michelle. Ruth’s life as a working mother isn’t easy. Her boss, Phil, is still irritating & she feels inadequate as a mother, although Kate is happy, healthy & has lots of friends. Cathbad & his partner, Judy, now have two children & are very content, although Judy is anxious to get back to work in Nelson’s team as soon as her maternity leave is over.

It’s so lovely to find out what’s been happening with Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad & their families. Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, is as enthusiastic & as clumsy as ever & there’s a new member of the team, Tanya Fuller, who tries a bit too hard & gets on Nelson’s nerves because she isn’t as empathetic as Judy. The suspects are a reliably creepy lot with potential motives all over the place. As in the best mysteries, hardly anyone is quite what they seem & everyone has secrets. The religious & historical themes are also fascinating & there’s even an archaeological angle as Ruth investigates the results & the finds from a couple of digs that took place at the abbey in the past, looking for the site of the holy house where pilgrims came to worship a phial containing the Virgin’s breast milk.

My only problem with this series is that I read them so fast (less than two days for this one) & then have to wait a year for the next book. I couldn’t even wait for my library copies to arrive & bought the eBook on the day it was published. It’s the mark of a great mystery if I read it that fast so I’ll just have to sit tight & wait for the next instalment.

God’s Traitors : terror and faith in Elizabethan England – Jessie Childs

It was a dangerous thing to be a Catholic in Elizabeth I’s England. After all the religious upheavals of the 16th century, Elizabeth had devised a religious settlement that allowed most of her subjects to worship in their own way as long as they went through the forms of obedience to the State Church. However, that changed when Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull, Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated Elizabeth & exhorted her Catholic subjects to obey the Pope rather than their Queen. Catholics were now in an impossible position. If they obeyed the laws of their country, attended Church & bowed to the Anglican settlement, they were putting their souls in danger. If they refused to attend church, they would be fined heavily, suspected as traitors & potentially executed.

Jessie Childs’ new book, God’s Traitors, tells this fascinating story through the lives of the Vaux family. William, Baron Vaux of Harrowden, his son, Henry, daughters, Eleanor & Anne & daughter-in-law Eliza, were committed Catholics who put their lives & livelihoods in peril to practice their faith. The Vaux family were connected by blood & marriage to many other Catholic families, some of whom would become notorious through the many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth & then her successor, James I – Tresham, Babington, Catesby, Wintour.

They also sheltered & supported many of the priests who were smuggled into England to minister to the faithful. They were particularly connected to the Jesuits Edmund Campion, Henry Garnet & John Gerard. The women of the family, especially Eleanor & Anne (known as the widow & the virgin in the correspondence of the Jesuit priests they helped), were vital in this Catholic underground movement. Lord Vaux was imprisoned in the Fleet & endured years of prison & house arrest over the years. He had manged to stay under the radar for some years. As a peer of the realm, he had certain advantages. He declared his house as a parish so that he could avoid attending church & was able to hear Mass in his private chapel. He got on well with his neighbours, both Catholic & Protestant. It was only when the laws tightened in the 1570s that his recusancy became a serious issue for the government.

Lord Vaux’s daughter, Eleanor, was a widow with young children. Her sister, Anne, never married & both were devoted to the Catholic cause. They went to extraordinary lengths to support the priests who were coming to England from seminaries on the Continent. They needed the priests to say Mass, & guide their religious life so that they could be good Catholics. To that end, they were part of a network of safe houses with ingenious hidden rooms & priest’s holes (mostly designed by Nicholas Owen. Some of his hidden rooms have only been rediscovered in the last century) so that the priests could perform their religious duties & hide during the inevitable raids by persuivants hunting for traitors.

The constant need to be careful, on the watch for anyone who might betray a secret, must have taken quite a toll. One of the priests, Robert Persons, describes the constant state of tension,

Sometimes, when we are sitting merrily at table, conversing familiarly on matters of faith and devotion (for our talk is generally of such things), there comes a hurried knock at the door like that of a persuivant. All start up and listen – like deer when they hear the huntsman. We leave our food and commend ourselves to God in a brief ejaculation, nor is word or sound heard till the servants come to say what the matter is. If it is nothing, we laugh at our fright.

However, it wasn’t always nothing. The Jesuit, John Gerard, here describes a raid that took place on Easter Monday, 1594. Luckily he had a priest’s hole to hide in.

I was hardly tucked away when the persuivants broke down the door and burst in. They fanned out through the house, making a great racket. The first thing they did was to shut up the mistress of the house in her own room with her daughters, then they locked up the Catholic servants in different places in the same part of the house. This done, they took possession of then place… and began to search everywhere, even lifting up the tiles of the roof to examine underneath them and using candles in the dark corners. When  they found nothing, they started knocking down suspicious-looking places. They measured the walls with long rods and if the measurements did not tally, they pulled down the sections that they could not account for. They tapped every wall and floor for hollow spots, and on sounding anything hollow, they smashed it in.

Gerard hid for four days with only a few biscuits & some quince jam for sustenance. He wasn’t discovered that time but was captured three weeks later. The stakes were high. Once arrested, the priests were questioned, tortured, tried & executed as traitors. Those who hid them were in as much danger of imprisonment. When a plot to overthrow or assassinate Elizabeth was discovered – the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 or the Babington Plot in 1586 which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – Catholics & especially Catholic priests were automatically suspected. When Elizabeth died in 1603, there was hope that her successor, James I, as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, would be more tolerant. However, the disappointment of those hopes led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The discovery of the plot, the capture & execution of the conspirators led to the demonization of Catholics in England for centuries.

Jessie Childs has told this story so well. Her narrative is full of tension & excitement. Centering the story on one family is also an inspired way to describe such a complicated period of history. Eleanor, Anne & Eliza Vaux were central to the success of the Catholic mission in England. They were brave, resourceful but also incredibly stubborn. They exploited their position as women, bamboozling raiding persuivants & government agents, while single-mindedly pursuing their goal of living a good Catholic life. If that meant breaking mere temporal laws, they were not deterred. I love reading about familiar periods of history from a new angle & this book does that.