Friday, June 06, 2014

Richard II: Two Works of Historical Fiction Set During His Reign

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

John Ball's couplet, June 6, 1381, spoken to the assembled crowd of peasants at Blackheath as they marched on London to meet the 14 year-old King Richard II.

 "The GoldenHand," by Edith Simon was first published in 1952. My vintage copy is some years newer than that, but the cover price of 95 cents gives some idea of its age. "The Golden Hand" is a book I've read and reread many times, and it still grabs my imagination. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but succeeds at world building as well as in creation of interesting, rounded characters that develop and grow as they struggle to cope with events such as the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt.

It is one of those sweeping epics, following characters high born and low, from one generation through maturity of the next. The changing lives of individuals mirror the larger changes in society brought about by mass death followed by a severe labor shortage and upheavals in leadership – and the eventual dawn of a merchant middle class.

The building of a cathedral, to honor an unearthed relic, lies at the center of book. The monumental task serves throughout as a source of employment, an outlet for artistic expression of the talented, and a source of spiritual wonder.

"The Golden Hand" is somewhat reminiscent of Ken Follett's more recent books: "The Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End." Ken Follett's books are set in an earlier time -- the wars that will eventually put the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, on England's throne. While I enjoyed those books too, I think "The Golden Hand" is actually a better read. Maybe it's because I first read it as a teen, and retain a romantic, "first love" attachment. Or maybe it's because the characters are better drawn and more believable.


"A Burnable Book" by Bruce W. Holsinger came out in early 2014, and is also set during the reign of Richard II. Stylistically more sophisticated than the basic historical epic, it involves a number of historical figures as well as fictional characters in the mysteries surrounding a brutal murder and a possible assassination plot against the king.

The story is told (mostly) from the point of view of poet John Gower, a less well-known contemporary and friend of Geoffry Chaucer. We meet Chaucer, as well as John of Gaunt, Katheryn Swinford, Joan of Kent (widow of The Black Prince and mother of King Richard), and John Hawkwood of The White Company. Major parts are also played by a group of desperate and frightened prostitutes, as they struggle to survive – and do the right thing – knowing that society considers them completely disposable.

The author is a medieval scholar, and a good writer who knows how to use just the right details to make his world and characters come alive. My only criticism would be that tying up the plot required some contriving that I just didn't quite buy. Still, I hope Mr. Holsinger will write more fiction, and I will be keeping an eye out for it.


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