Friday, 29 September 2017

Book Review: Fools and Mortals

I got sent a copy of Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell's latest, by HarperCollins through NetGalley. If you're not a member of NetGalley already, I recommend that you sign up.

I was interested in reviewing this book, set in the world of Elizabethan theatre, because I'm a big Bernard Cornwell fan and reading Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows has given me a taste for fiction set in the 16th century. Perhaps this meant that I came to it with too many preconceptions. In the end, though it is a pleasant enough read, I was disappointed.

Fools and Mortals is the story of Richard Shakespeare, William's younger brother. There was a real Richard Shakespeare, but given how little is known of William's early life it seems that Richard’s is likely to be even more conjectural. Although Cornwell provides a long and fascinating historical note, he doesn't say anything about the real Richard. The fictional Richard runs away from Stratford, where he has beaten and robbed the man he was apprenticed to, and throws himself on the mercy of William in London. William, in this account, is not a particularly nice person and seems to harbour a peculiar antipathy to his younger sibling. Perhaps there was some clue I missed, but I have no idea of why. Neither character seems that well-developed because this is, in the end, not a book about people but a book about theatre.

Bernard Cornwell is an enthusiastic member of an amateur theatre group and his love for theatre in general and Shakespeare's works in particular shines through this book. There is an awful lot of detail of what it would have been like performing in the Theatre (where Shakespeare's troupe performed before moving to the Globe), the Curtain, the Swan, or any of the other playhouses that were growing up on the outskirts of London. The political background is also well described.

There is a plot, centring on a stolen script, but that is really a vehicle to carry a story which is far more interested in the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The account of how Dream was written, and what the first performance (at the Lord Chancellor's mansion, rather than in a theatre) would have been like, is fascinating stuff, but it highlights the weakness, as well as the strength, of the book. In order for us to follow what the actors are trying to achieve and what is going on on stage, Cornwell provides a potted summary of the plot. As Cornwell himself admits (and as all the players in the tale know) the story of Dream makes no sense at all. When condensed to a plot summary it is even more ludicrous. So why bother with the plot at all? Clearly Cornwell is concerned that he needs to carry with him readers who have never met Titania or Oberon and never seen Bottom with his ass’s head. But if you are so totally ignorant of the play, why would you be interested in reading a book which is, essentially, about Shakespeare's life? And if you read it anyway, can you honestly have any idea of what is going on based on this sort of super-condensed Cliffs notes? It just doesn't make sense.

By Charles Buchel (

Once you start asking yourself who the book is supposed to appeal to, a lot of other issues arise. For example, Cornwell clearly explains that Elizabethan audiences were rowdy and boisterous and the plays were seen in a completely different atmosphere to that in which they are watched nowadays. But is there anybody interested enough to read this book who didn't already know that?

Cornwell's focus is very tightly maintained on the theatre. There is a lot about costume, the layout of the buildings, and the mechanics of a production. But this hardly extends beyond the stage. For example, we are frequently told that there is an orchestra and what instruments are in it, because this might well interest an actor and obviously interests Cornwell. But we aren't told anything about how the instruments are played. By contrast, when a character uses an old wheel lock pistol Cornwell, the writer of military history, gives an enormous amount of detail about how exactly it fires. The arbitrary concentration on those aspects of Elizabethan life that appeal and the disregard of everything else left me feeling that the story lacked the texture that I have come to expect from the Cornwell I met describing Sharpe’s life in the Napoleonic wars.

Perhaps I would be less critical if I hadn't just come from Carol McGrath's tale, set slightly earlier in the 16th century. What so impressed me about that book, which also uses quite a thin storyline to carry a lot of period detail, was just how much I found myself inhabiting the period. In McGrath's book I am with Elizabeth Cromwell as she lives her day-to-day life, while in Cornwell's I am detached, watching Richard Shakespeare moving across an imaginatively realised, but never fully three-dimensional, Elizabethan background.

This is not to say that this is a bad book – just a rather disappointing one. Anyone looking for an easy introduction to the world of Shakespeare's theatres will probably enjoy it and anybody who knows that world already will find fascinating insights. For example, I knew that Shakespeare's troupe was called ‘The Lord Chamberlain's Men’, but I never understood that this was because they were the Lord Chamberlain's men. Perhaps I'm almost alone in my ignorance, but the role of the aristocracy in offering patronage and political protection to theatre groups was something I never understood before.

If you're not looking for a primer on Elizabethan theatre, this is a story with some evil villains, a cunning plan, occasional violence, a love interest and a happy ending. What's not to like? One of the messages of the book is that not everything that Shakespeare wrote was great art and that sometimes writers pad out their oeuvre with lesser works. We shouldn't hold it against Bernard Cornwell that he has written better stuff elsewhere.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Grumpy old writer

I was talking to somebody the other day who was telling me that they thought that the Internet had radically changed the way that books are sold. That's hardly a new thought, but the changes that the Internet has wrought on publishing are much greater than that. The Internet has dramatically changed the way that books are written.

Just lately I've been reading a bit more fiction than usual – some of it traditionally published and some of it from independent or small presses which publish only as e-books. What has struck me is the way that books seem to have changed from when I was younger.

Books have changed since the days when this was a furniture norm

Note that I'm talking about changes in books generally. I'm not picking on any particular author and these changes will have affected my work as well as those of people I know. My whole point is that the technology has changed the way that books are written, rather than that individual authors are writing better or worse books than they used to.

As is traditional when grumpy old people write about how things are changing, I don't think that many of the changes mark an improvement. Books I pick up nowadays are riddled with proofing errors, repetition, mixed metaphors and just passages of really rather awful prose. There's lots of really good stuff too and many more writers out there producing more books than ever before and that is a good thing. But there is an astonishing amount of rubbish and that is not.

Why is quality on the slide?

You know that old saying: you can have a quick, you can have it cheap, or you can have a good, but not all three? Well the way that books are sold nowadays means that, with rare exceptions, they have to be written quickly and sold cheaply. Inevitably, they aren't as well written as they might be.

If you look at fiction bestseller lists, you will see that they are dominated by books by well-known authors who write to a formula that has worked for them in the past – often as part of a series. With so many books around, people naturally turn to novels by authors they have read before. This is even more the case further down the charts. If you are waiting with bated breath (and I hope you are) for Endeavour to publish the fourth of my books about James Burke (provisionally titled Burke in the Peninsula) then you’ve probably already read at least one of the others. The best way to sell an existing book (unless you are famous or have an unrealistically generous marketing budget) is to produce a new one. Interest in a new novel should always raise sales of existing books by the same writer.

The demand for new books means that all writers find themselves under pressure to produce at speed. I produce, more or less, one book a year. (There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment because I've just changed publisher.) This is partly because I'm fundamentally lazy, but also because historical novels genuinely do take longer to write – there are so many details that you have to check if they are not be riddled with errors. A book a year, though, is now regarded as quite pathetic. Fortunately, I don't care that I don't make any money from writing (although if you all proved me wrong by buying my books, I would be quite grateful). If I did intend to generate even the minimum wage from my writing, I would really need to write a lot more quickly.

The economic imperative to put words down on paper ever faster is translating into a new approach to writing which is spawning its own self-help books and online support groups. The idea here is to simply pour words on paper ever so quickly. Don't worry about editing – just get the words down. Tidying up can come later.

There is a lot to be said for this approach. It certainly doesn't allow for precious nonsense about writers block. In fact, it puts writing on a par with any other artisanal craft. After all, if you throw pots for a living, you are expected to produce a fair number of pots. You can't – unless you are the very top of your game – say that you are only going to produce one pot this week, but it will be very, very good.

This approach can lead to great storytelling. When we are telling a story to our friends they want us to get on with the tale. There is nothing worse than the storyteller who keeps stopping and going back and changing some detail here or there. "It happened in Birmingham – no, Leeds. It was on a Tuesday – no a Wednesday." People just want the story and writing very fast can produce very good stories which can be improved by the paciness of the prose which is, in part, a product of the writing process.

What is lost, of course, is the quality of the actual writing itself. In theory, this might not even be a problem for the author. That, some will say, is what editors are for. Editors should notice the repetitions, infelicitous word choices, mixed metaphors, and all the rest of it. But, if you recall, we don't just want a quick, but we want it cheap.

Proper editing costs money and there just isn't enough of that around. Many self-published authors who do pay editors not only don't make any money out of their efforts but actually end up out of pocket. Of course, you can buy the services of a very cheap editor, but then it's unlikely they will be very good.

You'd think that editing issues would not be a problem for major publishing houses, but it seems that they are. I am generally avoiding pointing the finger at particular books but E L James has sold so many copies of 50 Shades… that I think she can cope with some criticism of her prose. This is from early in the book.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I'm in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I'm confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me
"Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?" She points to a seating area of white leather chairs.

Leaving aside the fact that "terminal velocity" is not a synonym for "really quite fast" (and the speed is implicit in "whisks" anyway), note the overuse of "black", "white", and "sandstone". I’ve just quoted two and a half paragraphs. If I had quoted more, the same words would have come up over and over again (along with "glass" and "steel”). Ms James may have lively imagination when it comes to sexual behaviour, but her notion of what constitutes an exciting modern office building is depressingly limited. Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn't – and her sales figures would tend to support this. People are reading the book for its kinky sex not its architectural descriptions. A decent editor should have tidied this up. But in the end, it seems likely that Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House, no less) took the view that the book would sell for the smutty bits whether or not it was well written and economised on editorial input.

My limited contact with the publishing world suggests that more editorial work is now being contracted out to freelancers, who are unlikely to build up the relationships with writers that characterised great editor/author collaborations in the past. It's certainly cheaper, though.

Proofing has gone the way of editing. There will always be proofing errors that slip through, of course, but serious novels published by serious publishers seem increasingly to have spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. It's not fair to blame the authors. Everybody makes mistakes. That's why books used to go through several rounds of corrections with editors and proof-readers casting their eyes over the work independently to minimise errors. But every extra pair of eyes costs, and keeping the cost down is, for most publishers with most books, what it's all about.

An author writing for peanuts

The bottom line is that books are now absurdly cheap. Most writers want to write – nay, they have a pathological need to write. You can squeeze the amount you pay your writers until only the old and the rich can afford to write any more. But still there is pressure to get those prices down lower. The last book I bought on Amazon cost me 99p. If it has spelling mistakes and mistypes and the odd sentence that really shouldn't have got through, what did I expect?

There will always be books because there will always be stories. The need to tell stories is hardwired into the human brain. But if those stories are to be told with subtlety and wit and a nice way with words, we're going to have to accept that we will have to start paying for them. Sadly I see no evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Guest post: Jennifer Macaire

Frustratingly, I am in that gap between leaving Accent Press and having my books published by Endeavour. If you live in North America you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster – and I'd really appreciate it if you did. If you are in the rest of the world, though, you're probably going to have to wait another month or two yet. This makes the business of producing a weekly blog a bit strange, but I know that hundreds of you do read it every week (thank you!) and I don't want to disappoint. So right now I'm throwing my blog open to some other writers who I think have interesting things to say.

This week it's Jennifer Macaire. I hope you enjoy her post and that, at least until you can buy my books again, you go out and get her Time for Alexander series. It really is good.

Researching Alexander

Hi Tom, and thank you for inviting me back to your blog! As you know, I wrote a book on Alexander the Great. Well, it was a fiction book, and he was one of the main characters. I thought (smugly) that I knew a lot about him, because I'd read some biographies, a few of Aristotle's quotes, skimmed over The Anabasis of Alexander[1] by Arrian, and read several fiction books about him including the fantastic Mary Renault series.  Plutarch wrote the most fascinating biography[2] nearly four hundred years after the conqueror’s death, and his research seems to have been meticulous. But Plutarch was Greek, and for the Greeks, Alexander would forever be an upstart barbarian.

With that in mind, I started a short story. But I was not happy with the idea I had of Alexander. For one thing, there were many discrepancies in his biographies, and the biggest problem, for me, was that most accounts were written centuries after Alexander's death! I put aside my short story and started researching in earnest. Who was this person? Why did he go so far into India when he'd already captured the crown of Persia? Why go against his generals' wishes and drag (well, lead) his army across Persia to the Caspian Sea, into Iran and Bactria, into India as far as the Ganges, then down to the Indus Delta, along the barren coast and desert to Persepolis? It was as if he never really wanted to go home and rule, but go back home he did, where he died soon after. His character came to me by reading between the lines. A warrior, yes, but a dreamer as well. An eternal student and tourist at heart, charismatic but short tempered. A brilliant tactician and energetic, but prone to ill health. His friends loved him, his enemies hated him, but no one was indifferent. He was superstitious and religious, yet he defied the gods. He was a conundrum, and he made a wonderful fictional character.

The character I needed was larger than life, (even Alexander's enemies admitted he was amazing). It wasn't hard, therefor, to create a sort of demigod. But Alexander's faults were important too. He was, according to Plutarch, 'choleric' and would drink excessively. The more I studied him, the more the idea occurred to me that if time travel existed, he would be one of the people time-travelers would be most eager to meet. And so the idea was born - a time traveler would go back and interview him, and then he'd do something that would inadvertently change time. Fun! I started writing but within a few pages I realized that my first idea of a male journalist would not work. For one thing, a man would not fall under Alexander's spell as easily as a woman would. Men, I discovered as I researched, were, well, a tiny bit jealous. It crept into Plutarch's work, it seeped out of Arrian's book - the only one who wasn't in awe of Alexander was Aristotle. Therefore, I needed a woman time traveler. And I needed someone who wouldn't be cowed by him and someone who would fascinate him. It wasn't hard to create the woman - what surprised me was how fast she fell into his arms. Well, it would be a romance book, then. But love isn't easy to write about, so they fell in lust first (that's more understandable). Love came slowly to this mismatched pair; the man from the past  and the woman from the future had a lot to overcome before their relationship could be based on mutual trust and understanding. And for that, she has to tell him who she truly is - not Persephone, goddess of the dead, but a woman from another time.

He's impressed - of course, and all the more so because he realizes that what he's doing will be in songs through the ages. Heady stuff, for a young man. So the book advanced, and as I wrote, I researched. The army, their route, their food, their weapons, his friends, his enemies, the weather, the horses...and toothpaste. I spent an entire day researching toothpaste. Did you know that people brushed their teeth very carefully back then? Clean teeth and sweetness of breath was considered essential. They used soft twigs, chewed until they frayed, or little brushes, and they had homemade toothpaste. So, herewith for your tooth brushing pleasure is the recipe for toothpaste circa 500 BC (it didn't change much for a thousand years...): Heat snail shells in the fire until they are white and grind them very fine. Add gypsum and honey, and grind into a paste. Add essential oils of mint or other herbs for taste. Other recipes included chalk mixed with wood ash and fresh urine (as opposed to pee that's been sitting around all day...) and sea salt mixed with pepper and powdered cloves – guaranteed white teeth, fresh breath, and bloody gums!

Research was important to me because I wanted the reader to feel as if they were immersed in another time and culture. Ashley feels disconnected from reality but it's the small details of everyday life: how bread was baked, how prayers were said, how the soldiers bathed (her favorite part of the day) - that anchors her to her new surroundings.  Hopefully, the reader will feel the same, not looking back across a chasm made of thousands of years but actually living, walking, and riding at Alexander's side.

Jennifer Macaire lives in France with her husband, three children, & various dogs & horses. She loves cooking, eating French chocolate, growing herbs and flowering plants on her balcony, and playing golf. She grew up in upstate New York, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated from St. Peter and Paul high school in St. Thomas and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she mostly likes to make up stories.

Can you face the consequences of cheating the Fates?
Alexander the Great journeys to India, where he and Ashley are welcomed with feasts and treachery.
With their son, Paul, being worshiped as the Son of the Moon, and Alexander’s looming death, Ashley considers the unthinkable: how to save them and whether she dares to cheat Fate?

The first two books in the series are The Road to Alexander and Legends of Persia.

[1]          The Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian
[2]           Plutarch's Alexander

Friday, 8 September 2017

Life and death (mainly death) in China

Marie Gameson has posted here before and I'm very happy to welcome her back with a piece about Chinese attitudes to death. I've visited China a couple of times and found their temples fascinating, but I did struggle with the layers upon layers of different belief systems that you could find embodied in one temple. And the elaborate paper objects that people buy to burn so that the dead will have them in the afterlife were quite amazing. I've just wasted a lot of time trying to find any photos I might have from all those years ago, but they pre-date digital cameras and if I ever took pictures I've lost them. Fortunately, Marie Gameson still has hers.

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) – Marie Gameson

The main theme of The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) is grief, but not so much grief for the dead as for the living. The main character, Winnie Rigby, is exasperated that her conversion to Buddhism and attachment to the Orient is strongly resisted by her Catholic family, who make persistent attempts to drag her back to the person she used to be.

A subplot of the book is a quest to find out if ancestor worship is still prevalent in China: a practice that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) would love to eliminate. As this is mainly a 'History' blog, it gives me a chance to offer an amateur view on the changes to Chinese funeral culture and ancestor worship over the last century.

Traditional Chinese funerals reflect a range of beliefs, with elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Ancestor reverence, Feng Shui, and more. Even within one temple there could be a mixture of Buddhist, Daoist and ‘folk’ religious figures, with visitors to the temple calling on different figures depending on what intercession is required.  

As in China, there is evidence of ancestor worship in Britain from Neolithic times. Quite why it faded in Britain is lost in the misty past (but we’ll come back to that later). Whereas with the traditional Chinese attachment to kinship, (strengthened by Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety as a pillar of social organisation), of the range of beliefs mentioned above, ancestor worship appears to be the dominant spiritual influence. The relationship between ancestors and descendants is obligatory, reciprocal, and very much about the male lineage: the character for filial piety ( pronounced xiào )  represents a son beneath an elder.

So the belief is that ancestors can intervene in the affairs of the living – but whether that intervention is positive or negative is dependent upon the correct performance of rituals, which is primarily ritual offerings of food, but can – more colourfully – involve the burning of paper representations of objects which ancestors can use in the afterlife. Apart from at funerals, these ritual offerings are most prevalent during the annual Tomb-sweeping Day (Qingming Festival ) when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay respects. While this tradition goes back 2,500 years, today’s offerings mirror modern luxuries: in addition to the burning of ‘Hell money’, ancestors can now receive paper laptops, mobile phones, houses with swimming pools (complete with paper servants), cars, even helicopters:

Unsurprisingly, the CCP takes quite a dim view of these ostentatious displays, and would prefer people’s loyalty to be to the State rather than to family. They banned the Qingming festival in 1949, to discourage the very visible manifestations of kinship. (Though they reinstated it in 2008, re-packaging it as a day for celebrating revolutionary heroes, for example, encouraging visits by schoolchildren to certain graves).  More recently, the government has encouraged the phenomenon of online Qingming, and it is possible to ‘burn’ virtual incense and ‘sweep’ virtual graves – perfect for the time-strapped modern worker who is based some distance from the ancestral graves.

But people’s strong preference for burial over cremation is a continuing issue – cremation being viewed as highly disrespectful to forebears, and leading to unsettled spirits.  Burial directives by the government to force people to cremate their deceased (in some cases even disinterring illegally buried corpses and burning them) has led to strong resistance, with people being buried in secret, and
elderly people committing suicide so that they could be buried ahead of the ban; in 2014 there were even cases of grave robbing so that officials could meet their local cremation targets.

It is hard to disagree with the government’s perspective that coffins waste wood, and burials waste good arable land (see the photograph below), but the presence of a corpse and a grave to visit also keeps the focus on the family rather than the State.

Shanxi province: graves use up arable land

Since 1949, the CCP have taken increasingly radical measures to disempower families from giving their relatives a traditional send-off. Urban funerals now usually involve conveyance of the body from hospital to funeral parlour, where either there will be a simple memorial ceremony at which a relative or friend might speak, or — if the person’s status at work warrants it — a more elaborate memorial service at which members of the deceased’s work unit would speak, the family’s role having diminished to a peripheral position – and with little chance of getting hold of the body. Mourners wear normal clothes — though armbands are permitted. Following cremation, the family can opt to deposit the ashes at the crematorium or take them home. There are some cemeteries for burials of the ashes, but this edict is typical of Chinese cemeteries: [my translation]: “In the area of the grave it is strictly forbidden to let off firecrackers and indulge in feudal superstitious practices (…) it is strictly forbidden to burn paper and other sacrificial offerings”.

Although China aims to have a near 100% cremation rate by 2020, policies that counter tradition are always harder to enforce in rural areas. Just think of the resistance to the One Birth Policy established in 1979; it has been impossible to completely erase the Chinese concept of zhong nan, qing nu (literally: of heavy importance is the male, of light importance is the female).

So if you want to see a traditional Chinese funeral in an urban setting, you would have more luck in Taiwan, where there has been little attempt to reform traditional practices. A recent attempt to encourage temples to allow less incense-burning (which was met with howls of protest) was a genuine attempt to protect the environment, rather than a wish to interfere with traditional Daoist practices. However some temples do now play recordings of firecrackers (to scare away bad spirits) rather than allowing the real polluting articles to be set off.

Funeral procession in Taiwan

The musicians seated on the first vehicle play traditional instruments; behind them is a marching band, dressed in near-military uniforms. The family walk behind the coffin: the women wearing triangular hoods, the men wearing pointed white hats or white headbands. The clothing is black, white or blue, depending on familial proximity to the deceased

And finally, back to ancestor worship in the UK. Maybe the nearest we get to it in the UK is the relatively modern (well, medieval!) laws on primogeniture. The idea that our forebears still have a presence amongst us might have a certain attraction, but the concept of reciprocity across the living/dead divide is - I think - quite alien to us. Having said that, if you're a Duke and a proponent (or product) of primogeniture, and live in a long established country home, with portraits of your ancestors staring at you as you climb the stairs, I would love to know if you sense the wrath of your ancestors when having to sell the family home.

Marie Gameson

Marie is half of the mother and daughter writing team who published The Turtle Run as 'Marie Evelyn'. Her latest book, The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) was published this summer and is available on Amazon. You can find out more about her and her books at her website,

Friday, 1 September 2017

Book Review: The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

Carol McGrath has left the 11th century to add yet another book to the already crowded shelves of Tudor novels.

As somebody who writes about the 19th-century, I have always struggled with the wild enthusiasm that people seem to feel for books about the Tudors, but The Woman in the Shadows has brought the period alive for me in a way that many others do not.

Hilary Mantel has recently criticised writers who empower female characters in periods like the 16th century when, she claims, women were more likely to be "the victims of history". In her own hugely successful Wolf Hall, Mantel concentrates on the men in the story and Thomas Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth, seems to exist mainly so that she can die tragically halfway through. McGrath's approach is almost exactly the opposite of Mantel’s. In The Woman in the Shadows, Cromwell is the almost marginal figure that Elizabeth is in Wolf Hall. This is a story not just of a woman but of women.

Elizabeth Cromwell's world is dominated by females. She herself is a successful businesswoman. As the widow of a draper, it is credible to suppose that she might have taken over her dead husband's business and become successful in her own right. She is not, though, ever totally accepted or trusted by the men who dominate the Guild, so she comes to rely on the network of women around her: her mother, her sister, her sister-in-law and her servants. The book shows the power that women could wield in this almost parallel feminine society, but it does not romanticise their position in the wider world. Women are physically weaker and always at risk of assault from men. Elizabeth is initially forced by her father into a marriage she does not want, to a man who can never love her. She almost loses her business when her store of cloth is burned down by men, and she has to stand helplessly by while her own male servants try to deal with the damage. When she is attacked and robbed she relies on men to drive off her assailants. When she marries Cromwell (a true love match) it is to the man in her life that she turns when she is threatened with legal action by another draper. When she finds herself crossed by an old suitor, it is her husband who deals with the matter.

McGrath strikes a fine balance between Elizabeth Cromwell the successful independent businesswoman and Elizabeth Cromwell the victim of a potentially violent and sexist society. We understand her reliance on men and, at the same time, her fierce independence. It's significant, though, that in the end she gives up her job and her independence to take on the role of professional wife, entertaining Cromwell's friends as his political star rises.

McGrath’s book brings Elizabeth Cromwell out of the shadows but Cromwell himself becomes a very shadowy figure in his turn. We have glimpses of a man who is secretive and ruthless. When the ex-suitor suddenly vanishes, Thomas Cromwell tells Elizabeth only that he has been "lost at sea". She feels it wiser to ask no further questions. Her world is defined by her business, her religion (she is a good Catholic) and her family. She does not know exactly what Thomas is up to as he goes about England closing monasteries and, to the extent that she must have a fair idea of what is going on, she takes care not to understand. She worries about his heretical “humanist” views, but she does not really understand or challenge them. She suspects him of having had an affair, but when he does the Tudor equivalent of telling her not to worry her pretty little head about it, she agrees to ask no more questions. Yet it is Elizabeth who holds the Cromwell household together, raising the children, entertaining friends and associates, arranging marriages, concealing awkward pregnancies in the household and providing the base from which Cromwell can sally forth to battle in the masculine world and to which he returns to find the love and security that he clearly needs.

McGrath brings the world of the Tudor woman, from the dangers of childbirth to the daily business of running a home, to vivid life. There are fascinating details, such as the care taken in choosing fabrics so as not to break the laws governing what class can wear what trims on their dresses. Sometimes, inevitably, there can be a bit of a history lesson dropped in, but (especially as the book gets into its stride) most of the detail slips unobtrusively onto the page. McGrath has obviously done a great deal of research into her period, but she wears her learning lightly.

The story moves back and forth in time. I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer books that start at the beginning and finish at the end, but the characters are real enough and the descriptions so clear that the non-linear plot is unlikely to confuse the reader. The prose flows nicely and the story has enough incident to carry the reader along without becoming overly dramatic. (One exception is where Elizabeth is robbed. If I were in a strange city carrying a lot of cash, I wouldn't take a shortcut down a dark alley in the 21st-century, so I struggled with the idea that she would have done it in the 16th.) As in real life, some of the most dramatic things are never quite explained. Far from being a weakness, I think this is a strength. Exactly who was Sir Antony and who was the man whose dogs so conveniently arrived to stop him doing murder? In real life every villain is not tracked down, every crime is not neatly solved and many mysteries remain just that. Like Elizabeth Cromwell, we find ourselves in a Tudor world which can move from calm and beauty to sudden apparently irrational violence and we can only retreat into her home, bar the gate and hope that it will not bring us down.

McGrath has put a sympathetic woman into a beautifully realised world and told her story in lucid prose. It’s a lovely book and a refreshing counterpoint to some other recent Tudor bestsellers.