Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tudor Gothic Romance: The Miracle of St. Bruno's

While searching for an image of St. Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusians, I found the cover of an historical novel, The Miracle of St. Bruno's by Philippa Carr (aka Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Eleanor Hibbert, etc). This was the first novel in Carr's series Daughters of England, 20 novels published from 1972 to 1993, with historical eras from the Tudor Era to the 20th century as the backdrop.

Carr sets up a dual narrative in this Tudor Gothic novel: all the Court action of Henry VIII's six wives, wars, executions, religious changes, etc takes place off site. It's reported, not depicted. Even the dissolution of the monastery next door to the heroine's home, the Carthusian Priory of St. Bruno's, is mentioned at arm's length.

The heroine's name is Damask (named for a rose) and she and her father are fictional versions of Margaret More Roper and St. Thomas More, even down to the beheading of the fathers. Except for the historical action conducted in London and at Court, this is a typical Gothic novel, the kind Jane Austen mocked in Northanger Abbey. The ruined monastery, rumors of it being haunted, the secret love affairs, the hidden source of riches, the witch in the forest, who seems both to curse and to love the heroine, the mysterious spouse, etc: all Gothic elements.

Carr's Tudor history, especially the reportage of Anne Boleyn's rise and fall, is sometimes a little shaky. For example, Mary I was not called "Bloody Mary" during her reign--that came later. The religious changes of the Tudor monarchs create the atmosphere of danger in the family, but except for Damask's mother becoming convinced of the validity of the New Religion, there are few signs of religious fervor, apart from the dispersed monks who come back together in the monastery as it is being rebuilt. Even the father's heroism is muted by the fact that Catholic prayer and worship never seem to be part of the household or Damask's upbringing. The Carthusians next door are a source of fascination not devotion. The hero, Bruno, is a Byronic figure, thinking himself superior to all other men, capable of achieving his every goal, and impervious to danger. He disappears and then reappears, obtaining the Priory of St. Bruno's and rebuilding it.

One of the supporting characters undergoes a drastic, unexplained change from a manipulative rival to a concerned friend of Damask's. Everything happens to Damask, who takes a strangely modern view of religious toleration with a live and let live attitude foreign to the 16th century. At the end of the novel, the promise of the new reign of Elizabeth seems to suggest that all the conflicts of the past 20 years are over, which is risible.

For 99 cents on Kindle, it's a fast read, but there are long sections where nothing happens and Carr attempts to maintain some tension without great success: the reader knows what will be revealed at the end, and has as soon as the hero reappears in the story. The miracle is that you'll probably keep reading the book until Carr reveals the secret.

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