Let me not, to the craft of historical fiction, reflect imperfection


AS YOU OPEN the first page of A Several Plot, and step into the whirligig of 16th century European society, with all its costumes and class structure, its hierarchies and ravaging illnesses, so may you be forgiven for feeling as though you’re no longer of the 21st century. This is the context of Eugenie Freed’s fictional biography of the first woman writing in English, Emilia Lanyer (1569-1645), a novel which brings an ancient era to pulsating relevant life.

It’s the tale of Emilia Bassano, a little girl – the younger daughter of a musician – from a working class English/Italian background who is earmarked because of her musical talent, to be a performer in the queen’s court. A tale of opportunity and punishment, betrayal and love, passion and exploitation unfolds, bringing a young William Shakespeare, in a complicated marriage, into the mix. Freed magicks together grammar, archaic objects and social values from the period, making this novel something of a master class in how spelling and expression has evolved. It’s the kind of work for which you may remember historical novelists Evelyn Anthony or Pierre La Mure for bringing so many historical figures to life. In certain respects, it even evokes Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which casts itself in a 14th century monastery.

Honed with a tender yet robust touch, Freed’s text luridly brings not only the growing Emilia to three dimensional life which is fraught with challenges and difficult choices, heartbreak and succour, but it also paints an evocative understanding of the plague and childbirth, of poverty and loss in a world dominated by royalty. It is here that we read of medical ignorance and arranged marriages and the kind of proto-feminism that may have served as a complicated and daring undercurrent to the turning of the society’s cogs.

Freed’s constructions of characters and their contexts is alive with freshness, but authentic to the nth degree – you learn of the meaning of 16th century household object names by the context in which they’re presented, and find yourself completely immersed in the ruffed collars and deep-necked velvet dresses of the era. Filling the tradition of the historical novel, the work is deeply informed and an engaging and exhaustive source of historical facts, and with all of that it is genuinely unput-downable.

The only pity with this publication is the design-related pitfalls into which it stumbles. The layout of the text reflects the hand of an amateur typesetter, and chapter headings and section breaks are bruising to the eye, which hurts the work’s credibility from a superficial perspective. Conquer this and you will learn more about 15th century feminism than you thought existed. And you will never forget the brilliance and struggle of Emilia Lanyer.

  • A Several Plot by Eugenie Freed is published by Eugenie R. Freed, Johannesburg (2018).

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