Earlier in the year, I wrote about how much I was looking forward to reading The Scarlet Lion, but although I read it not long afterwards, I felt it deserved more than the typical bland endorsement I sometimes do for books I enjoy. I’ve always loved her books, and as I’ve noted before, Elizabeth Chadwick is a friend, but that said, I also want to note that, here, I’m not writing about a friend’s book; I’m writing about a FINE book.
I could do a whole post filled with clichés – well drawn characters, terrific story, excellent research, ad nauseum. All those elements are there, and done as well as they’ll ever be done by anyone. However, the reason I wanted this post to transcend a friendly review is because The Scarlet Lion transcends genre fiction by a mile.
Historical fiction purists often focus on research and historical accuracy, and while E. Chadwick can rarely be faulted there, that narrow focus tends to overlook something more important in the wider world of literature: the writing itself. The Scarlet Lion is a terrific book for those looking for a “rousing story” or “historical accuracy” – the characters of William Marshall and his wife Isabelle “come alive” – there is Romance! Danger! Drama!
But, the thing that strikes me as being so much more important about this book is that it is just so beautifully written. For example:
William stood in silence for a while, watching Woodstock come to life. Old King Henry had housed his mistress Rosamund de Clifford here. There were extensive pleasure gardens that in summer drugged the air with the sensuous perfumes of lily, honeysuckle and gillyflower. The three-tiered pond was threaded by a silver cascade of water from the spring, and at the heart of the garden, amid trellises of dog roses, stood an elaborate fountain of pink-flecked marble quarried from the Purbeck hills. A beautiful, tainted paradise, dormant now in the late autumn chill. Those for whose joy it had been built were dead.
On the surface, that is a pretty scene, but it is also highly evocative of the characters’ own haunting sense of fleeting time. And even more haunting are the passages following the death of Alais:
Striguil’s small chapel was ablaze with expensive wax candles, their light clear and hot, redolent with the scent of clover and honey. Incense too filled the spaces and haltered his breath. Before the cross on the altar stood a bier covered in silk cloths of scarlet and gold, fringed with tassels, and upon that bier, in cold state, lay Alais, hands clasped together in prayer, eyes closed as if she slept.
Even in the battle scenes, the imagery is extraordinary:
The fighting bubbled through the streets of Lincoln like yeast frothing on top of new ale, churning up afresh as pockets of English and French met and clashed.
And while Chadwick’s language is often lyrical, she doesn’t pull her punches when harshness is required:
The ground was bloody underfoot. Men fell and were trampled. Horses screamed as they were slashed.
She leaves no illusion that war was a rougher version of a tournament:
… a knight thrust his sword through the eye slit of Perche’s helm, then wrenched it free, blood damascening the steel. Perche’s arm continued in motion for a second blow and then a third. On the downstroke, his fingers lost their grip and the sword fell from his hand. He slumped sideways from the horse and hit the ground with a thud like a sack of wet flour, and didn’t move again.
Much has been written about William Marshall in the 800-odd years since l'Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, and this period being my primary historical interest, I’ve read most of it. For anyone wanting to read about William and his era, The Scarlet Lion is the best of the lot – but really, the book is so well written, it hardly matters who it’s about.
It’s the sort of book that, in a few years, is likely to be classed as “literature” rather than “fiction.”
Funny, how that works…