Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Feasting & Civil War

Spiced wine & war in the West Country
Glastonbury Tor at dawn, by oldbilluk

Over the Easter weekend, I finished the second of two historical novels which I’ve recently read set in seventeenth-century England. If Jeanette Winterson’s Daylight Gate offered us 17C Lancashire as horror, with talking corpses, torture chambers and witches, Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast gives us 17C Somerset as fairy tale. It traces the story of John Saturnall, from his childhood as the son of a rumoured village witch, to chief cook at Buckland Manor, where he develops a relationship with the Lady Lucretia, and tries to keep the household fed through the chaos of the English Civil War. Norfolk gives us religious radicals terrorising the Somerset Levels, boys plucking game birds in the cellars of an early modern house, a mother and son roaming abandoned orchards foraging for food. At the heart of the novel, however, is a local legend – or folk memory - about the coming of Christianity to the West Country, about the great Feast served by a sorceress or queen called Bellua, and its destruction by priests.

This is a colourful book, punctuated with outlandish recipes devised by John Saturnall, written in a 17C voice so arresting and original, that you wonder why Norfolk didn’t incorporate it more centrally into the work. The John Saturnall of the novel’s dialogue doesn’t sound nearly as mordant as John Saturnall the cookery writer. The book has a fairy-tale quality - beautiful aristocratic girls, lost magic books, ancient secrets - which works well enough for the 1630s, but by the time we reach the Civil War and interregnum, it arguably starts to sit uncomfortably with the subject matter. There are one or two scenes which perhaps capture the danger of the home front, in a way slightly reminiscent of the magnificent US Civil War novel & film Cold Mountain. Tim Willocks, in his novel about the 16C siege of Malta, The Religion, carried off the improbable feat of marrying a Hollywood-esque love story fairy tale, with a grittily realist account of military conflict. Norfolk’s English Civil War, however, is neither terrifying nor brutal, not the breakdown of the early modern English state that we know it to have been. John Saturnall’s Feast is a historically thoughtful book, with its early medieval stories echoed poignantly in 17C events, in a cycle of feast and destruction. However, as a novel it handles spiced wines and date trees far more surefootedly than it handles war on English soil.

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