Friday 8 September 2023

The Serpent of Division - review by Mary Hoffman



You might know Christina Hardyment from her books of popular sociology (Dream Babies; The Future of the Family; From Mangle to Microwave) or literary biographies (Malory: the Life and Tmes of King Arthur's Chronicler; The World of Arthur Ransome). She has also written more generally on Literature (Writing the Thames; Novel Houses: Twenty Famous Fictional Dwellings).

Now to add to this eclectic mix, she has started a trilogy of historical novels about Alice Chaucer. Medieval mystery has a special charm for the English reader from the popular cosiness of Brother Cadfael to the willing adoption of more challenging works like The Name of the Rose.

Alice Chaucer is a good choice for main character. The granddaughter of the poet, married three times, a staunch Lancastrian trying to keep her head after her last husband's murder, she was a landowner in her own right, a falconer of repute and a passionate reader and book collector. At the beginning of The Serpent of Division, she has quit her property in Wingfield in Suffolk for the palace at Ewelme in Oxfordshire, taking with her anything portable her carts could carry, to the annoyance of her only son John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.

If the last rings a bill, I reviewed a biography of him and his father William, De la Pole Father and Son by Michèle Schindler here earlier in the year. Nothing in that suggested that mother and son were at daggers drawn but it is a reasonable interpretation for literary purposes, of which there are more to come.

Alice Chaucer's great passion was education and the building of schools and the one at Ewelme still stands:


Virtually nothing is left of the Manor or Palace but the parish church of St Mary's houses the tombs of Alice and of her parents Thomas and Maud. From the church, or God's house, a steep flight of stone steps leads down to a door to the almshouses Alice founded, still tenanted today by thirteen worthy occupants.


At the beginning of the novel, one of the bedesmen has died, unnaturally as it later tirns out, and must be replaced. As a candidate, the scheming Queen Elizabeth (Wydvile) is planning, aided by the villainous Harcourt brothers, to insert a spy into the vacancy, to bring back reports of Alice's Lancastrian sympathies and intrigues. Forewarned of the plan, the Duchess blocks the move with her own candidate, an ancient anchoress called Sibylla. She still gets Milo of Windsor foisted on her by the Harcourts and must be on her mettle to keep her secrets.

She is aided by a new maid, Tamsin, a teenage orphan from the village, who is keen to do well in her probationary month and is fiercely loyal to her new mistress. With characters called Tamsin, Denzil and Marlene, I wondered if Hardyment wasn't using too modern a nomenclature, but they are all surprisingly old, Tamsin from Thomasina, Denzil from a place name in Cornwall and Marlene a form of Magdalene long before a glamorous German actress made it popular in modern times.

Alice (Or Alyce as she is spelt in this novel) is beset on all sides: her great wealth, inherited in her own name from her three husbands, is a draw to anyone who might want to get their hands on it through marriage. Queen Elizabeth might marry her off to one of her young male relatives; she has form. That might feature in the later books as, although this one is named after the woman Hardyment sees as the real villan of the piece, Elizabeth has very few scenes in it.

If not by marriage, Alice might lose her property through being declared a traitor to the Crown; although her son John is married to the king's sister, Bess of York, the family's old sympathies are all with the previous king, Henry Vl, now languishing in the Tower of London. She has to keep on her toes and it doesn't help that she suspects members of her household of harbouring Lancastrian rebels at Ewelme while she has been away.

Alice's vison of a peaceful retirement in Oxfordshire, tending her garden, organising her library and looking after the school, the almhouses and God's house while occasionally hunting with her falcons or working at her embroidery was not to be easily won.

St Mary's "God's house" at Ewelme

While keeping various plates spinning, Alice also has a visit from a sculptor, John Massingham, to design her tomb - a practical rather than morbid pastime for wealthy people in the Middle Ages. Halfway through the book, Massingham (a real historical figure) comes to visit Alice with his drawings for her tomb. She had no intention of being buried with one of her husbands - certanly not the disgraced and murdered William, Duke of Suffolk, who was buried at Wingfield (or Hull, according to Schindler). And she had built the monument to her parents in God's house thirty years earlier.

Tomb of Thomas Chaucer and his wife Maud in Ewelme

Massingham's sketches are too flattering when it comes to Alice's effigy: "her face was perfectly proportioned, with a high forehead, a small fat pursed mouth and meekly downcast eyes. It looked nothing like her." Alice is having none of that and wants the face of her effigy to be drawn from life. It seems she got her way:

She wants a memonto mori cadaver carved underneath the tomb and gets that too:

Of course, Hardyment works back from the tomb to the conversation but it feels very authentic. These were dangerous times for those loyal to the house of Lancaster and Ewelme is beset by spies and murderers, not all successful. One death takes place in the peaceful cloister where the almshouses are; fortunately now the well has been filled in.

You might think that much-married Alice invokes her grandfather's creation of The Wife of Bath but Hardyment has invented another character to do that. Joan Moulson, a London bookseller, is as voluptuous as Alice is austere and, once they have got to know each other, they make good partners in crime.

I look forward to the next book in the trilogy. After all, Alice had nearly ten more good years to come.

[Pictures all author's own or Wikimedia Commons]

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