Monday, April 29, 2013

"Treason" Historical Fiction Plus Tension

I requested and received a review copy of Dena Hunt's historical novel published by Sophia Institute Press; the book arrived Friday in the mail and I finished it Saturday. Except for one issue of historical accuracy, I found the book to be an exciting and effective story about recusant Catholics and missionary priests in Elizabethan England.

Matching the achievement of Robert Hugh Benson in depicting the religious conflict and crisis of Reformation England, Dena Hunt adds the element of suspense in Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabeth England. With omniscient narration weaving several different story lines in several different locations to a seven day plot, Hunt depicts the underground lives of a missionary priest, the recusant Catholics who shelter him, an unhappily wed wife, an Anglican minister who secretly reads Catholic texts from the Fathers of the Church, and a wealthy family whose home hides many secrets. The various plot lines all come together on the seventh day, and the epilogue depicts the Eighth Day, when two vocations are fulfilled.

Readers of Benson will recognize one of the supporting characters in Hunt's ensemble: Patricia, the Reverend Andrew Wilson's wife resembles Lady Torridon of The King's Achievement in her cold demeanor and dark black eyes and Marion Dent, the Rector's wife in By What Authority in her effect on the recusant Catholics in her village--but without the ducking! But where Benson builds up the tension year after year from 1570 to 1581 and beyond, Hunt presents all that action rapidly, as the main characters meet along the way until they gather at the Anders' home in Somerset and the chaotic climax of the story.

While Hunt keeps up the pace and the novel reads swiftly and easily, she does pause for passages of beautiful description--like this, when Caroline, one of the main characters, explores the grounds of a destroyed convent years after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries:

The emptiness of it all was so strangely full--like its silence, so deep that it was full of sound. Everything, every place in this ruin, was full of its own contradiction, like two worlds existing together, in the same place, at the same time. How could that be? It was as though there had been a sketch over which a contradictory overlay had been placed in an attempt to eradicate it. But that hadn't happened. Instead, the two realities existed together, and instead of the intended contradiction, the overlay had made something else altogether. Destruction had  been transformed into creation--its intention notwithstanding--and it was a creation greater, more beautiful, than the reality it meant to destroy. Destruction had succeeded only in making it eternal.

There are other passages of similar depth as the characters try to reconcile how much they have to hide with how much they want to share their faith and love. Each of them struggles with what they must do to remain true to that faith and love while striving to survive. As Father Stephen tells Caroline when she confesses deceit, "Everyone has to be deceptive now."

The only quarrel I have with the book is the year in which Hunt sets it: 1581. It was not an act of treason to be a Catholic priest in England in 1581; that law was not passed until 1585. The great litany of martyred priests had not yet begun in 1581 as the English mission was redeveloping slowly after the execution of Cuthbert Mayne in 1577; Saints Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin, and Alexander Briant would suffer on December 1, 1581. If Father Stephen Long or the two other priests mentioned in the story were to be sentenced to death for treason in the May of 1581, it would not have been for their priesthood and presence in England per se; it would have been for their efforts to convert Anglicans (1581 law), for defending papal supremacy in the Church (1563 law), or for calling Elizabeth a heretic or a schismatic (1571). After 1585, it would be treason for a Jesuit or seminary priest to enter the country (27 Eliz., c. 2)--and I think that Hunt would have done well to set her Catholic novel of Elizabethan England after 1585.


Introduction by Joseph Pearce
Preface by Dena Hunt

1. The twenty-first of May, in 1581 (in Devonshire)
2. The same day, in Somerset
3. The next morning, May 22, in Blexton
4. The following day, May 23, on the road to Bath
5. The morning of May 24, at The Rose and Thorn
6. The evening of the same day, May 24
7. The morning of May 25
8. The morning of May 26
9. The afternoon of the same day, the twenty-sixth of May
10. The twenty-seventh of May

Epilogue: The fifteenth day of August 1581

It's a very effective historical novel; well-paced and plotted: highly recommended.

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