Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A man of science in Elizabethan England: Jane Borodale's The Knot

It feels like I haven't been reviewing as many books here this summer as usual.  This isn't because I haven't been reading and writing, though; quite the opposite!  In the past couple of months I've turned in five reviews for Booklist and seven for the Historical Novels Review, and I'll republish most of them once they've appeared in the magazines.

After those deadlines had passed, I had a chance to pick up a novel that's been sitting on my shelves way too long.  I first wrote about Jane Borodale's The Knot in a preview post back in January 2012.  For those who love the Tudor era but seek out characters beyond the usual range of court personalities, this contemplative novel will be a refreshing change.

It's based on the known facts about Henry Lyte, a prosperous landowner living at Lytes Cary in Somerset in the 1560s and 1570s.  A painstaking observer of the natural world, Lyte takes it upon himself to translate a Dutch herbal into English.  His purpose is noble: he wants to make the material available more widely, to those who can't afford physicians' fees, and so "that they can fetch this knowledge out of strange tongues," as the epigraph states.

It's also the story of the elaborate herb garden he designs and creates – regretfully, there's no trace left of it today – and of his second wife Frances and their growing family, his servants, and his professional acquaintances, who interact with him, support him, and serve as unwelcome distractions from his book, which has become an obsession.

Borodale brings readers deep into Henry's mind as he wanders around his estate, ponders the English equivalents for plants described in the Dutch herbal, tries to oversee the smooth running of his estate, and deals with his fault-finding stepmother, whom he detests.  

His marriage to Frances is contented enough, so he believes, although her behavior frequently bemuses him. Frances comes from London, and Henry fails to understand her lack of interest in the minutiae of gardening or her fear that the region will flood.  "It's like walking on bodies," Frances says about the moist, uneven ground of the Somerset Levels.  Plus, there are occasional murmurings and questions around the countryside about the death of Henry's first wife, Anys, or so he thinks – he hasn't heard them firsthand.  I detected a sense of guilt at play here, and wondered about what really happened.

Lyte is the head of his household, and everyone knows it and respects it, in keeping with the times.  Still, I enjoyed seeing the moments of spirited defiance against his wishes, like when his longtime gardener, Tobias Mote, dares to express his own opinions (because he is always right), or when Frances finds an expensive new hobby.  Although everything is seen through Henry's eyes, the story is written so that readers can see others' viewpoints even if Henry's too oblivious to notice them.  This would be a very different book if told from Frances' perspective!

The Knot can be read as a well-wrought biographical novel, a vibrant portrait of an upper-class Elizabethan household and the science of its age, and as a morality tale of sorts.  While few readers will likely be as entranced by the plethora of botanical detail as Henry is, it's all presented beautifully.

The Knot was published in the UK by HarperPress in 2012; this was a personal purchase. 

10 comments:

  1. I'm one of those readers that has had enough of the Tudor court for the time being, though I still like to read novels set in that era. I'd not heard of this botanist before so had a quick look on Wikipedia. Not only did he have a good collection of plants, he also had 13 children from his three marriages. I'm putting this one on my wish list as well as Jane Borodale's previous novel.

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    1. The image at the top right of his Wikipedia page was also placed as a frontispiece in the novel, and that told me in advance that he would be married three times - so I kept wondering if something would happen to Frances in the novel, too. But aside from a wrap-up chapter, the novel concentrates on the period of their marriage.

      I forgot to list that I'd reviewed her earlier novel, The Book of Fires, previously. Here's the link for anyone interested.

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    2. Thanks for the link. Now I've read the review, I'm eager to read this one first.

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  2. Henry Lyte sounds like someone I'd like: wandering, picking herbs, translating, contemplating, though I guess there's that issue of the first wife to worry about. I liked the science in Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, and think I'd like this. Thank you for the review!

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    1. I thought of Elizabeth Gilbert's novel while I was reading, actually! It was a favorite read of mine from a couple of years ago. I liked Henry, although there were times when his behavior frustrated me. His tendency to get distracted by his studies has consequences.

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  3. Thank you for reviewing this. It sounds like a great read for fans of Tudor fiction.

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  4. I wish there were more Tudor novels that take place elsewhere in England (not in London). This is a very good example of one.

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  5. Yes, I get a bit tired of all the books with famous heroes. If you like children's books, there are Barbara Willard's Mantlemass novels. Admittedly, Medley Plashett is RELATED to someone famous, but he's a fictional character and isn't in the Tudor court. There are quite a few crime novels set in the era, though that may not be what you had in mind.

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    1. I've come across Barbara Willard's name before but haven't read any of her novels - I appreciate the heads up! Crime novels would be of interest as well. Although it seems like many revolve around court intrigue (someone sent on a mission by Henry VIII) even if their protagonists are fictional characters.

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