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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Happy Birthday Richard III!

Here are some famous folk born on October 2: Mahatma Gandhi, comedian Bud Abbott, Avery Brooks( that velvet-voiced actor who played as the commander of Deep Space 9), Sting, Groucho Marx... All have helped, in their own ways, to make the word a better or at least nicer place, even if only to make us laugh or sing along.

But today's post is about King Richard III, the subject of a lot of books and at least one play, who was born on this day in 1452 and died long before he could get to my age. I used to be in the Richard III Society, though I dropped out when it got too hard to pay my membership to England and some friends who went with me to local meetings had other commitments. But I never lost interest in the subject.

 So, why join a fan club for a man who has been dead for over five hundred years?
It was because of this book:

When I was in Year 11 at school, I had a wonderful English teacher. We were studying Richard III by Shakespeare. She was the first teacher I had had who took Shakespeare seriously enough to discuss it, not just make us read it at home and show us the film. And one of the things she told us was that, wonderful as the pay was, it wasn't strictly accurate historically. She recommended we read Josephine Tey's novel, which I did as soon as I could get hold of it.

And then, when I was out of school and earning money, I found and joined the Richard III Society.

I recently got hold of the ebook and started to reread it yet again last night. I posted about it when I bought it online, but I hope you don't mind my mentioning it again.  It's the kind of book that stands up to a reread. When I was in my teens, I didn't realise how long ago it had been written and thought some of the references confusing, but now that I understand the world of the novel is different from now, I can just get on with it.

If you haven't read it, it's very simply a police procedural which never leaves the hospital room where Inspector Grant, the hero of some of Ms Tey's other books, is stuck with a broken leg he got in the course of his police duties. He's bored, the books he has been offered to read are not to his taste and the nurse won't even move his bed around so he can look at a different part of the ceiling. He is set a challenge: who really DID kill the Princes in the Tower, if it wasn't Richard? Was Richard really the villain Shakespeare portrays? Quite apart from the cleverness of setting a mystery novel in a hospital room, there's the fascination of the research aspect, something that I, as a librarian and writer of several non-fiction books, can only approve.

But there's more. The book is timeless, but also a product of its time, years before the Internet. If Grant was stuck in hospital today, he would be given a laptop or an iPad and could just google the information instead of relying on books and an earnest young research assistant to bring them. In fact, he'd probably, being what he is, demand and get his paperwork! There would be no story. :-)

I read my way through quite a bit of Richard III-themed fiction over the years, as well as the non-fiction books. There were some other mysteries, such as Jeremy Potter's A Trail Of Blood. The author was part of the Richard III Society, so would have an obvious bias in Richard's favour, but it made a fascinating mystery novel in its own right. The novel is set in the time of Henry VIII, who is about to close down the monasteries. A monk is sent on a search for a possible surviving Yorkist heir, in hopes that the heir, once found, might depose Henry and save the monasteries. It leads him through the story of Richard and his times.

There was one by Sharon Penman, who has since gone on to write about other English rulers, The Sunne In Splendour. That one is definitely for fans of the thick-as-a-brick historical saga, but is better than most of those.

One writer I discovered early on in my Richard III fan reading was Rosemary Hawley Jarman. Her novel, We Speak No Treason, kept me on the edge of my chair. Here's what the author had to say about her book in 2011, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, on her website.    

It's been a long time since I read it and I'm not sure how I would feel about it on a reread, but there's no doubt that it hooked me in at the time, with the beauty of the language and the descriptions - I could shut my eyes and picture every stitch of embroidery in the clothes, every banner fluttering from the towers, hear the music and the trumpets. The novel has a number of viewpoints - the Nut Brown Maid, Patch the court fool and the Man of Keen Sight. The girl falls in love with Richard and becomes pregnant with his daughter before being sent off to a convent(the daughter, Katherine, was a real person). Patch is not sure how he feels about Richard,  but becomes loyal. The Man of Keen Sight is an archer whose family appear again in another novel, The Courts Of Illusion, about Perkin Warbeck.

This novel was the one in which I first discovered Sir Edward Brampton, who was a real person, a Portuguese Jew who came to England and became a major member of Edward IV's court. He is only a minor, though important figure in this novel, but I became interested enough to look him up and wasn't he a character! In the novel, he is a dignified figure. In real life, he was much more colourful. Think cheeky Errol Flynn. The really interesting thing about him is that this loyal servant of Edward IV and Richard III(who knighted him) managed to charm Henry Tudor into welcoming him back to England, where he lived happily ever after. When you think of some of the things Henry did to many of those who had served Richard, that's quite an achievement!

Rosemary Hawley Jarman gives him an important task to do for Richard at the end of the novel, but I won't tell you what it is in case you want to read the novel.

I believe Ms Jarman is now writing fantasy. Interesting indeed...

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