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.