Tuesday 29th May 2018 – Tombs & Tomes Book Club meeting
The second meeting of the Bridge Cottage historical fiction book club was a lively discussion on our May book, ‘Fools and Mortals’ by Bernard Cornwell.
Set in Elizabethan England Cornwall tells a tale of William Shakespeare and his brother Richard who plays the female parts in his brother’s plays but has his sights set on some male lead roles.
Tombs & Tomes Book Club members enjoyed the way Cornwell so eloquently describes the inner workings of a London playhouse and felt they could really get in touch with the intricacies of staging a play during Elizabethan times. But it was felt the tale lacked focus and did not develop a central plot in which you could engage and develop an attachment to the characters. This lack of focus made it very difficult for the majority of our readers to enjoy the book.
We discussed Cornwall’s usual publication genre and how this novel was a departure from his normal setting of war and conflict. Cornwall himself is personally involved with a theatre group within his home town and enjoys acting in am-dram, therefore this novel may be an experiment to combine his passion with his trade. Unfortunately for us we felt this new marriage is not one that would endure the test of time.
Rivalry is the theme we felt is explored throughout this novel; between the relationship of William and his brother and that in the wider context of the question of religion. During Elizabeth I’s reign there were several Catholic plots to overthrow her in favour of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots and restore England to the Catholic Church. In this atmosphere of religious tension, it was made High Treason for a Catholic priest to even enter England and anyone found aiding and abetting a priest would be punished severely. So ‘priest hunters’ or Pursuivants (Percies), as they were known, were tasked to collect information and locate any such priests. Within the novel Cornwell uses this theme to build the tension within the narrative to reflect the tensions between the Shakespeare siblings.
The power of women was discussed within the group and it was felt that Cornwall’s female characters all displayed similar character traits such as strength and confidence in their own roles. Jean, the company seamstress was pivitol in her role making the costumes for the actors, in effect ‘stitching’ together the company, literally and metaphorically. Sylvia, as eventual wife of Richard, plays a quietly confident role within the novel. Cornwall’s depiction of women in the narrative gives us a balanced view of gender during the period reflecting on the strength of the female monarch in a male dominated era.
TOMBS & TOMES rating:
JUNE Tombs & Tomes Book Club pick is ‘The Alice Network’ by Kate Quinn. Join us on Tuesday 26th June 2018, doors open at 6.30pm for refreshements. Discussion 7-8pm. All welcome!