From a master historian -- a brilliantly original historical novel set in late-14th century London."I am sister to the day and night. I am sister to the woods." Sister Clarisse, a nun in the House of St. Mary at Clerkenwell, experiences visions. She dreams of the English King. Are her prophesies the babblings of the crazed Or can she "see" a future in which Henry Bolingbroke overthrows Richard II
Ackroyd (The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde; Hawksmoor; etc.) brings late medieval London to life in this latest of his fascinating historical novels. Working with a cast of characters drawn from The Canterbury Tales, Ackroyd deploys his usual meticulous research to reconstruct the background of Chaucer's England in a prose idiom congenial to modern readers. The thriller plot concerns a visionary nun, a sect of violent religious heretics and a shadowy group of power brokers trying to orchestrate the ouster of King Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke. But the rather creaky conspiracy narrative, supposedly based in fact, is just a peg on which to hang a panorama of 14th-century life that takes in the cathedrals, cloisters, brothels, taverns and law courts while instructing readers on all things medieval, from medicine (dove droppings applied to the feet is the recommended cure for insomnia) to fast food (at street stands, roast finches can be had two for a penny). It's a society where elaborate courtesy balances gross indecency, pious ritual shades into sadomasochistic fetish, reflexive orthodoxy is troubled by new philosophies from the universities, corrupt and worldly churchmen contend with anti-clerical revolutionaries and science struggles to be born from a morass of superstition, alchemy and astrology. The characters seem both secure within and frustrated by the confines and mysteries of their narrow worldview and are badly in need of a renaissance. Ackroyd's brilliant evocation of their ideology and psychology lets us recognize the traces of our own time in this archaic past. Agent, Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown Group Ltd. (Sept.) Forecast: Readers of history as well as fiction will be drawn to this city portrait by the bestselling author of London: The Biography. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 20, 2004
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Excerpt from The Clerkenwell Tales by Peter Ackroyd
The Prioress's Tale
Dame Agnes de Mordaunt was sitting in the window of her chamber, looking out over the garden of the House of Mary at Clerkenwell. Her aunt had been prioress before her, and she assumed familial responsibility for the acres as well as the souls under her care. The garden was called "Forparadis," "Out of Paradise," but on this mild February morning it seemed blessed with the air of Eden itself. It was triangular in shape, in commemoration of the Blessed Trinity, and there was a triangular bed on each side. The three paths connecting them had been constructed with thirty-three flagstones; the three walls around the garden, each one of thirty-three feet, were built out of three layers of stone ?pebble stone, flint and rag stone. Some lilies had been planted round a cherry tree in token of the Resurrection, and in the language of flowers might spell the words she knew by heart, "The just man will grow like the lily, and he will flourish in the sight of God." But then Dame Agnes sighed. Who could bring more unhappiness upon this house? Who can give more heat to the fire, or joy to heaven, or pain to hell?
In the open fields beyond the walled garden, stretching down to the river, she could see the malt-house with its dovecote, the familiar cart-house, and the turf-house beside the stables. On the western bank of the Fleet river stood the mill-house and, on the other side, a cottage of whitewashed walls and thatched roof which belonged to the bailiff of the convent. The miller and the bailiff were engaged in a protracted lawsuit over their rights to the river which flowed between them. They had often taken one of the Thames barges from the mouth of the Fleet to Westminster in order to press their cases with a judge or a sergeant-at-law, but nothing had been resolved; the boat costs twopence, the bailiff had said to Agnes, but the law costs a man everything. The prioress had tried to intercede but had been told by her cellaress, among others, that she might as well spread honey among thorns.
She could smell the steam coming from the kitchen across the cloister, and could hear the clatter of brass plates being washed for bread and beef after prime. Would the world always run in this way until the day of doom? We are like drops of rain, falling slantwise to the earth. Her monkey, sensing her melancholy, clambered upon her shoulders and began to play with the gold ring suspended on a silken thread between her breasts. She sang to it a new French song, "Jay tout perdu mon temps et mon labour," and then played handy-dandy with a hazelnut.