|'The Fool's Girl' by Celia Rees|
‘Have you seen a country under sack? Have you seen what happens there? Have you seen the blood, heard the screaming, smelt the smoke on the wind?... I saw the red flash of the guns, the white smoke, felt walls shudder. I saw tall galleys spew fire that spread over the decks in a blazing carpet, turning men into torches…’
From ‘The Fool’s Girl’ by Celia Rees
Celia Rees, has long had a reputation for writing the best ‘girls’ own adventure stories’ around. I highly recommend her ‘Witch Child,’ and its sequel, ‘Sorceress’; her exciting ‘Pirates!’ and ‘Sovay’.
When I heard that her latest, ‘The Fool’s Girl’, was set during Elizabeth I’s reign, I was keen to read it. That’s the opening passage above. I was under its spell from the first line.
Like ‘Pirates’, like ‘Sovay’, and her other books, it’s an exciting adventure – such a page-turner that you hardly notice how firmly it’s based on solid research, and how deftly that research is used in creating a sense of place and atmosphere without ever distracting you from the story. I much admired, for instance, the way journey the players make from London to Stratford was handled – the villages passed through that are now merely names of stations on the tube, the sights mentioned – the ford, the old bridge. But, while this reminds us how much our country has changed, and makes us see the countryside of the 16th century, it’s also entirely natural that the characters would notice these things. They’re making their way without road-signs or maps or sat-navs – they have to find their way by travelling from landmark to landmark.
And the book has writing like this:
‘I would see the great ship founder… I saw bodies floating, arms outstretched, hands and faces livid in the blackness. My mother was among them… her dress billowing, her hair flowing about her, moving like the weed in the harbour. She hung there, suspended between brightness and darkness… Then she pushed upwards, making for the shifting glimmer above her, her head breaking the surface like a sleek seal…
She rose from the water… coming out of the waves like some mysterious mer-creature… Behind her, day had become night. The storm raged and between sky and water there was no margin, only inky blackness. Then a single flash of lightening forked from the firmament, stitching heaven and earth together, and she stood illuminated by the sudden violent brightness…’
This beautiful image of floating between brightness and darkness, of rising from the depths, reoccurs through the book, like the lapping of waves on a shore. There are other echoes too, from many of Shakespeare’s plays: from The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Henry IV, and doubtless many I didn’t spot.
But what particularly charmed me about this book is that it isn’t, I don’t think, the historical novel I supposed it to be. Or, not simply an historical novel. It’s alternative history. Or, perhaps, fantasy history.
The heroine, Violetta, is the daughter of Viola, of Twelfth Night: the duchess of that land which, famously, didn’t have a sea-coast for her mother to be shipwrecked on. Yet, in The Fool’s Girl, it does, and Viola existed outside the play. As did Orsino, Malvolio, Feste and all the rest.
The book is a lovely conceit, wherein witches are matter-of-factly known to light fires and celebrate pagan festivals on the Warwickshire hills, and Shakespeare can ensure Violetta’s safety by handing her over to his own village’s black and midnight hags, with whom he’s on first-name terms.
Not content with that, Celia Rees’ imagination takes another, bolder leap – the witches hide Violetta by taking her to a place that all lovers of folk-lore will recognise as Elf-Land, or Tir-nan-Og.
In fact, it’s just possible that the whole book takes place in Shakespeare’s head: diving in and out of the seething muddle of images, plots, snatches of dialogue and half-dreams that exist in many writers’ heads.
I was also quite delighted to find a swashbuckling character named after my grandfather – George Price – though Granddad never buckled a swash in his life. But even without Granddad, this would still be a gripping, romantic (in all senses) and beautifully written book.