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The Three Destinations of the Medieval Pilgrim

This week I have have had the pleasure of writing a post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It’s a companion piece to last week’s post here about medieval pilgrims and looks at the places to which medieval pilgrim travelled, in particular, Compostela.

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In the Middle Ages the top three destinations for pilgrims were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in that order of importance. For the English, a pilgrimage abroad was never an easy thing to undertake and wars, thieves and bandits made it even more difficult.

Jerusalem and Rome were top of the list for obvious reasons, but why was Compostela the third? Compostela is in Galicia, in northern Spain, and is a little less than fifty miles from Cape Finisterre, which the Romans thought was the edge of the world.

The cathedral at Compostela is said to contain the remains of St James the Great, believed to be the first apostle to be martyred. One of the legends about St James is that he preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was martyred by being beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His remains were then transported from Judea to Spain in a rudderless, stone boat guided by angels. Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

Click here to read the rest.

 

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Praying for the souls of the royal family

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This week I was in Coventry and was fortunate enough to be able to go into the church of St John the Baptist in the city centre. It is referred to as Coventry’s medieval gem, and this is no exaggeration. The church was founded in the fourteenth century, under circumstances that we’ll go into shortly, but underwent huge alterations in the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the centre of Coventry was destroyed during the war, so it’s wonderful that St John’s has survived.

I went to the church to look at some needlework panels showing over a thousand years of Coventry’s history including St Osburga, Lady Godiva, the Civil War, the industrialisation of Coventry and the Second World War, but the real interest for me was the founding of the church, which is documented at various places inside the building.

In 1344 Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, gave some land to the guild of St John the Baptist in Coventry. The land was part of her manor, Cheylesmore. The chapel was to be a chantry, where Masses would be said for members of the royal family, including her husband, the late king. Since the official date for the death of Edward II was September 1327, the timing of this endowment has been taken by many to confirm the theory that he didn’t actually die until the early 1340s, having escaped, or been allowed to escape, from Berkeley Castle and gone to the Continent.

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The impy on a pillar inside the church

 

The grant of the land includes the stipulation that, in addition to saying Masses for the members of the guild (living and dead), two priests had to say Masses daily for Edward III, his wife Philippa, and Edward, the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) during their lifetimes and for their souls after their deaths.  It has been suggested that she founded the guild of St John herself specifically to say Masses for the royal family. The chapel was consecrated on 2nd May 1350.

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The position of the chapel – probably

 

The photograph above shows the aisle that is believed to mark the original foundation, with the needlework panels I’d gone to see down one side. On Isabella’s death in 1358 her grandson, the Black Prince inherited the Cheylesmore manor and donated more land to the guild.

The guild flourished and by 1393 there were nine priests.

The chantry was dissolved in 1548 and became a parish church in 1734.

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The student and his learning

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Students and their lives have changed very little over the  centuries. In the fourteenth century, as now, student debt was a problem. Students could only afford to attend university if they had a patron to give or lend them the necessary funds, and their future employment was never certain. Students lived in dark and cold lodgings. In Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale two Oxford students lodge with a carpenter. Students were generally known for their violence and dissipation, both demonstrated by Chaucer’s students, one of whom cuckolds his landlord and causes him to break his arm. Students were often involved in fights – with one another and with the people of the town in which the university was located. One thing that was very different then, however, was the time of the lectures. They started early in the morning, usually before dawn.

The universities had a reputation for being repressive, which was one of the reasons why the students often felt the need to do outrageous things outside of the university in the town that housed it.

A university was made up of the guild of teachers and the first universities were in Paris and Bologna. The latter was famous for law and the former for theology. Other universities were formed when teachers left these universities, usually after quarrelling with the town authorities. In Spain and Portugal the universities were royal foundations. Many universities were founded specifically to provide men for the medieval equivalent of the Civil Service.

Teachers were paid by their students, but most academics could not afford to do nothing other than teach. The had to combine study with a career, unless they were a friar. The friars needed well-trained theologians, so enabled clever men to remain in the universities to continue their education. At Oxford in the early fourteenth century there were ninety Dominicans and eighty-four Franciscans. The Dominicans had taught at the university first. The General Chapter of the Dominicans (their ruling body) had decreed in the thirteenth century that every community in the Order should have a friar in charge of theological study. His duties included arranging discussions and directing the reading of the friars in his house. None of them was permitted to preach in pubic until they had studied for three years and each province (a Dominican administrative area) was supposed to support three students in a university at any one time.

Students were clerics and wore the tonsure. They needed a benefice (a salaried ecclesiastical position, usually that of a rector or vicar) when they finished their studies in order to get started on their career. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in England there were many more clergy than there were benefices.

Medieval universities were ecclesiastical establishments. They were the means by which sons of commoners or peasants could rise to eminence. Most teachers were under thirty. The students were usually between fourteen and nineteen years old, but could be older, since some took 20 years to finish their degree.

Lectures at universities were given in Latin, which had to be learned before a man could become a student at a university. Latin was taught in schools, which any boy could attend if his parents could afford the fee and, if he was a villein, he had the permission of his lord of the manor. This could usually be obtained by paying a fine to the lord. In fourteenth century Paris the teachers began to lecture in the vernacular, but many years passed before other universities did the same. Teaching was mostly oral due to the cost of books, and students were expected to learn by discussing and debating with their teachers and with one another.

The curriculum was designed to create men who could administer the church and the state. The curriculum was the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Students also studied the Trivium: rhetoric, grammar and logic. By the fourteenth century the Quadrivium were the four most important subjects. Universities were mainly training men for the church, so theology originally predominated. Medicine and law were also taught.  Theology and law were higher degrees. Theology included the study of the world created by God.  Most of Edward III’s bishops had legal training. By the mid-fourteenth century there were more graduates in law than in anything else. Legally trained clerks from the universities were in demand as administrators and bureaucrats.

Rather surprisingly, the universities did not concern themselves with the spiritual condition of their students until the end of the fourteenth century. Equally surprisingly, given that many of the students went on to serve kings and popes, they did not bother teaching them how to behave.

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The gate to New College, Oxford. New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham,  Chancellor under both Edward III and Richard II, to enable poorer students to attend university. He also founded Winchester College in order to provide educated students for it.

The oldest university in England is Oxford. It was probably founded some time between 1164 and 1169.  It was founded when students and teachers left Paris after a conflict with the Parisian authorities. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 when teachers at Oxford argued with the town authorities and left. There were around 1,500 to 2,000 students in Oxford at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

 

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The Reeve

reeve_and_serfs

In the countryside, where most of the population lived, the most important man in a fourteenth century village was the reeve. Although he was a villein, he had great responsibility. The village housed the serfs and tenants of the lord of the manor. There were three main officials who ran the manor:

  • the steward
  • the bailiff
  • the reeve

The first two looked out entirely for the lord’s interests, but the reeve also had responsibilities to the villagers.

Men who worked the land were either free or serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). Serfs were not slaves, but they could do very little without the permission of the lord of the manor. The reeve was a villein, which meant he was a serf. He was selected for the position by the other villagers. Usually he came from one of the better-off families. The position of reeve meant that he had further opportunity to increase his wealth.

He came into the position at Michaelmas (29th September). This was when the agricultural year began. He served a fixed term, a number of years, and one of his main tasks was to make sure that those who owed labour to the lord reported for work and gave what they owed. He was responsible for every activity on the lord’s demesne as well as the livestock. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit. The rest of the land was leased to tenants. The demesne was worked by the lord’s own serfs, who were normally required to work for him for three days a week and to provide additional services at ploughing and harvest times. The serfs lived off their own strips of land, which they worked when they were not working for the lord. These strips also belonged to the lord.

Some reeves sold produce from the lord’s demesne and some collected rents. The reeve had to provide the demesne account at the end of the agricultural year, which he usually did by reading the marks on his tally stick to the lord’s clerk, who wrote it down.

The reeve was not paid with money, but the benefits he received made the position more than worthwhile. He did not have to provide any agricultural labour to the lord, and he might eat occasionally at the lord’s table. In many places, however, where quotas were required to be met by the village, the reeve would probably have to make up any shortfall himself.

Reeves were sometimes accused of using their master’s property, seed and labour provided by the villeins on their own holdings.

One of the reasons why the position of reeve was unpopular (some men paid to avoid the responsibility) was that the demesne was usually about ten times or more the size of anything the reeve had managed before and there was always the risk that he might not be capable of managing it, if it was his first term. The risk of a bad choice being made by the villagers was felt by both the lord and the reeve. The reeve had local knowledge of the land, the labour, the nearby markets, the best crops to grow and the best animals to raise, but he was responsible for making it all work together, ensuring that the harvest was sufficient for the lord’s household with enough to spare for sale. There was always a chance that an inexperienced reeve would be overwhelmed by the size of the task. The lord bore another risk – that the reeve would prove to be dishonest. To mitigate this risk most manors had stewards and auditors to check on the reeve.

If he was any good a reeve could usually make a profit from his office, not however, to the extent depicted in the Canterbury Tales. There is an old reeve among Chaucer’s pilgrims. Chaucer implies that he is as much a crook as the miller, his fellow pilgrim, since he is richer than his lord.

 

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Now out – The Heart That Wins

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The third part of the Regency Spies trilogy is now available. The Heart That Wins takes place around the Battle of Waterloo.

In early 1815 it seems that the war with Bonaparte is over, but Sophia Arbuthnot is not so sure. When she learns that the exiled Emperor is about to reclaim his throne, she flees to Paris where she meets the man whose proposal of marriage she rejected two years before.

Captain John Warren has fought his way from Spain to Paris in an effort to put Sophia behind him, but now he has to face up to the choices he made as a boy. Before things can be resolved between them, they both have to face up to the choices that they made and confront the French spy who is working against them. Can first love have a second chance?

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And So To Bed

Lancelot and Guinevere

I recently read Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home and one bit of information in it made me sit up and pay attention because of its dramatic possibilities. She said that people used to experience what was known as the first sleep and the second sleep during the night, punctuated by one or two hours of wakefulness. This suggested all kinds of things to me, but also raised some questions. Further research was required.

It turns out that this was a fairly well-known phenomenon and was recorded in diaries and court papers. Each sleep would last about four hours and could be preceded and succeeded by an indefinite time of wakefulness. The intensity of the waking period in the middle could vary. For some it would be a period of dozing: of not being quite awake, but not fully asleep. For some it was a period of contemplation or prayer. Some chatted to one another and some ate. Others, and I find this quite bizarre, got up and went to visit their neighbours. A common and unsurprising activity was sex. In some periods couples were encouraged to have sex between the two sleeps, because they would be fresher than they would have been when they first went to bed after the working day and it would be more enjoyable and therefore more fruitful. There was a medieval belief that women could only conceive if they enjoyed the sexual act.

People would go to bed just after dusk. Lighting was expensive and there was no reason to stay up after dark. No work could be done in the fields and anything that could be done in the house required a light. This is where my first question arises. Some of the activities mentioned above would have needed light, unless you imagine people leaving their houses to go and sit with their neighbours in darkness. Why didn’t they just stay up later and do those things by candlelight anyway? A possible answer was that they just knew that sleep was better when it was made up of two short chunks of time.

Once in bed they might doze for a bit and then sleep for three or four hours. Then they would wake up, do whatever they did for a couple of hours, doze a bit more, then sleep until dawn. This is where my second question arises. Did they all wake up at the same time? If not, how could you know your neighbours would be awake when you visited them?

 Chaucer mentions this pattern in The Squire’s Tale. The men have drunk themselves into a stupor after a late night party, but Canacee has gone to bed at dusk. She “slepte hire firste sleep, and thanne awook”. Having woken, she wants to go for a walk with the women of the house while the men are still asleep. Admittedly, her governess does say that this is an unusual thing to do, but that might be because Canacee has no intention of going back to bed.

To me, the idea of a split sleep works well in winter when the longest night is almost seventeen hours long in northern Europe, but what happened at midsummer when there were fewer than seven hours of darkness? Did they still have a first and second sleep? Did they have to have a nap during the daytime?

Since the story in which I thought this could be used takes place at the end of winter, I don’t need to worry too much about these questions and can usefully have the lovers meet during the gap between the two sleeps, while those charged with guarding the heroine are continuing to doze, but I shall continue to search for the answers to the questions.

An experiment in the 1990s showed that, left to their own devices, people will fall back into the old pattern of sleep if they experience fourteen hours of darkness each day. The subjects reported that when they were awake they felt more awake than they had before the experiment.

Not surprisingly, the idea for this post came to me while I was lying away in bed.

 

The modern experiment that I’m aware of was carried out by Thomas Wehr, but there have been others.

The collator of diary and court material is Roger Ekirch

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Ten Things You Didn’t Know About The Black Death

Black Death in Bed

Today is this blog’s first anniversary, so I thought I would return to the ever popular subject of the Black Death. Regular readers will know that I’m ever so slightly obsessed with the Black Death, and I haven’t posted about it for a while. What comes after is not for the faint of heart.

The following are ten things that most people don’t know about the Black Death:

1. It wasn’t called the Black Death

The plague that hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century was not called the Black Death until much later. The name arose because of the way that parts of the victim’s bodies became blackened due to gangrene and necrosis. At the time, people called it far more expressive things, such as the Big Death or the Great Death. Personally, I find these far more terrifying names than the Black Death.

2. It was caused by gerbils

There is still a lot of debate about how the Black Death was started and how it spread. Rats and their fleas are still the favoured cause, although there were no rats in Iceland at the time and Iceland did not escape the Black Death. Recent research has indicated that the plague might have originated in gerbils in Asia. There’s an article on the BBC website  which talks about this.

3. It wasn’t always fatal

Some of those infected did survive: about a third of them. It’s not known exactly why they recovered.

4. There were three different manifestations

There wasn’t just one form of plague, but three. The three types are bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic. There is constant debate about this as well, with many researchers believing that the fourteenth century plague was not bubonic, because mortality rates would have been much lower than they seem to have been, even allowing for the probable exaggerations of the medieval chroniclers.

Bubonic plague took three days to a week to kill the infected person. It is this type that we most associate with the Black Death since it was the most common. Buboes (large pus-filled swellings) appeared in the armpit, neck, groin and upper thigh. Bubonic plague was spread by fleas. It was the least virulent form and had the highest survival rate, although ‘highest’ is a relative term here.

Pneumonic plague was the most virulent, but rarest form. It was a respiratory infection spread by coughs and sneezes. Once people were infected they were usually dead within thirty-six hours. Survival rates were less than ten percent.

Septicaemic plague resulted in uncontrolled bleeding. It was spread by exposure to another plague victim and fewer than one in a hundred who were infected survived.

5. It entered England through Melcombe Regis

It’s now fairly certain that the Black Death came into England via Melcombe Regis, brought by sailors from Gascony. Melcombe Regis is on the south coast and is now part of Weymouth. In the fourteenth century it was a significant port.

6. It wasn’t just a one-off occurrence

The initial occurrence of the plague in Europe was between 1347 and 1352, but it didn’t just disappear after that. It returned to England in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93. There were also recurrences through the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries culminating in the Great Plague of 1665. There have been other occurrences into the twenty-first century in other parts of the world. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not all the manifestations of plague since the fourteenth century have been the same plague.

7.  An English royal princess was a victim

One of Edward III’s daughters, Joan, was on her way to marry Pedro, the heir to the Castilian throne when she was infected. This is the same Pedro who was later aided by Joan’s older brother, the Black Prince, in his fight to regain his throne from his brother. Joan was only fourteen when she died near Bordeaux in 1348. Edward III wrote a very moving letter when he received news of her death. Medieval parents have often been accused of being unfeeling about their children, in part because of the large number they tended to have, but also because life was so precarious that they would always be grieving if they allowed themselves to love their children. There is no doubt that Edward III loved his many children and he and his wife grieved when they lost them.

8. Its victims were once compared to lasagne

In a particularly evocative passage from his chronicle, Marco di Coppo Stefani compares the way in which the dead were buried in Florence with the way in which a lasagne was made. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

9. It could travel one mile a day

This rather surprising fact makes many researchers question the traditionally accepted methods of transmitting the plague and even whether or not the Black Death was really bubonic plague. Modern outbreaks of bubonic plague have travelled much slower, even with modern transportation methods. An outbreak in India at the end of the nineteenth century (from 1896 to the mid-1920s) travelled on average only fifteen metres a week, despite the availability of trains and motor cars.

10.  Some places were spared

A large area around Milan seems to have been spared, as was a lot of Europe east of Krakow and an area north of the Pyrenees. In many countries small areas were unaffected, but there’s no real understanding of why this was.

 

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A Garter and Chivalry

Edward III and the garter

Edward III was his father’s son and the early years of his reign, at least, were informed by the disastrous end of his father’s. Edward III was at pains to show that he was a different kind of king in the hope of hanging on to his crown… and his life.

Although far from a coward, Edward II didn’t seem to enjoy fighting as much as his son and he certainly possessed none of Edward III’s military genius. Edward II had little in common with his barons, and his wife and her lover found it fairly easy to depose him and then murder him. Edward III wished to escape a similar fate.

The creation of the Order of the Knights of the Garter was an important step in the process of creating a new kind of kingship for England. Edward had been considering ways in which to bind his knights to one another and to him for some time. He had originally considered something similar to the Round Table. Arthurian legends were popular at the time and it wouldn’t hurt the king to be considered a second Arthur.

In the end he decided to create a chivalric order that included an element of the spiritual.

After the surprising military successes of 1346 (victories against the French at Crécy and the Scots at Neville’s Cross) the king was in a position to his ideas into effect and the Order was created on St George’s Day 1349 (probably).

There are only ever 24 Knights of the Garter, plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales. These days they tend to be rather elderly – 4 are in their 90s and the youngest is 64. When the first Knights of the Garter were created they were much younger, mostly in their 20s. The Black Prince was 18 and the king himself was one of the oldest at 36.

The first knights included men who had fought beside the king and the Prince in France, such as the earl of Lancaster (the king’s most trusted general), the earl of Warwick, the Captal de Buch (a trusted Gascon lord) and the Prince’s friends Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, as well as Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan of Kent who later married the Prince.

The Knights would meet on St George’s day, usually at Windsor and their meeting would often be accompanied by a tournament. The tournament provided a spectacular entertainment for those in attendance, but it also had a more serious purpose. The Order of the Garter was an order of chivalry and the tournament allowed its members to demonstrate their chivalry by feats of arms.

Orders of knighthood were being formed in other European countries at the time, as the modern methods of warfare were beginning to make their rôle in it less important. Soldiers were being paid rather than providing their services as a feudal duty and had little personal loyalty to those who paid them.

The Garter Knights have a motto ‘Hony soi qui mal y pense’, which probably refers to Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Since one of the objects of the Order was to bind the members to him so that they would support him in foreign wars, this makes sense. It means ‘Shamed be he who thinks evil of it’.

No one knows why the garter was chosen as the emblem, although there are lots of theories, some of them rather salacious. It probably symbolized something relating, again, to the king’s claim to the French throne.

Windsor was important to Edward III as it was his birthplace. It was also his favorite residence outside London, although Woodstock, where three of his children were born, including the Black Prince, was another place where he liked to stay. It was in Windsor that he chose to institute the Order and where he built their spiritual home, which reflected the increasing attribution of English military success to St George and the cross of St George was used to represent the king as much as his own royal standard.

One of the more surprising things about the institution of the Order is that it happened while England was in the grip of the Black Death. It’s easy to imagine that everything just stopped for the time during which Europe was expecting the world to end, but things did continue, although there were some comments from contemporary chroniclers that this might not be the best time for what many considered frivolity. Since he lost one of his much-loved daughters to the Black Death, Edward III was as aware as anyone else of the impact the plague was having on the country.

The kind of kingship he created certainly worked for him. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he died a natural death and was king for 50 years.

 

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Christmas at Aston Eyre

Acton Eyre church

This lovely view was what presented itself to me while I was sitting in my pew on Christmas morning. It was my first time inside this twelfth century church in rural Shropshire, but I don’t think it will be my last. I thought I’d share it with you in lieu of a normal post, given the busyness of the season.

Technically the church is a chapel of ease, which means it was built for parishioners who live a long way from the parish church. In this case it was for the wealthy family living in the village in 1132. It’s about a mile to the parish church in Morville.

It’s a tiny church, with the pews wide enough to take only three (if large) or four (if small) people, but it’s easy enough to imagine it without the pews and with its medieval congregation standing around.

 

 

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Emma – Contains Spoilers

Emma

This month sees the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Emma. Not only is this my favourite book by Jane Austen, but it’s my favourite book by anyone. My only regret is that I can never read it for the first time again. I can still remember where I was and what I felt when I realised that Frank Churchill wasn’t going to marry Emma. There’s no one else, I thought, who’s she going to marry? So cleverly had Austen woven her tale that I couldn’t see the obvious answer. Clearly Emma had to marry someone, this was a Jane Austen novel after all. Emma had avoided the very unsuitable vicar, but had been avoided by the very suitable Frank Churchill, although, now that I thought about it, he wasn’t that suitable after all. Perhaps he had been a bit weak what with going off to have his hair cut and forever promising to visit his father and never quite managing it and he was paying rather a lot of attention to that rather dull, but talented, Jane Fairfax. Surely Emma couldn’t be going to go through life a spinster, spending her evenings with her father and the well-meaning, but not always complimentary Mr Knightley.

I came late to Jane Austen, which is probably a good thing. Other girls at school had Persuasion on the syllabus. My class, however, stuck resolutely to twentieth century literature: Nineteen Eighty-Four (still in the future in those days), Poets of the Twentieth Century and Over The Bridge, thank you very much. If you’ve heard of Richard Church in any context other than an exam syllabus you’re doing better than me. I’d never come across him before I read his memoir for O’ Level and I’ve never come across him since. I resented the fact that other girls were reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare while I was reading people I’d never heard of (George Orwell excepted), although I confess that I came to love Louis MacNeice, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, among others.

It took me a very long time to get round to Persuasion and longer still before I liked it. The jury is still out on Mansfield Park. Apparently people who like and understand Jane Austen are divided into two camps: those who think Emma is the best thing she wrote and those who think it’s Mansfield Park.  I’m obviously not in the Mansfield Park camp, but I’m beginning to appreciate just how sly Austen was being when she wrote it. I think my very first feeling of connection with Austen came when I read in Mansfield Park that Fanny called the Isle of Wight ‘the Island’, which is how I, and everyone who lives on the Hampshire coast, refer to it, so it does have a special place in my heart, even if I don’t love it as much as I should.

What of Emma then? Famously Austen wrote that she was going to “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, but everyone thinks that she was joking. Emma isn’t terribly self-aware at the beginning of the novel, but that changes, with a little help from Mr. Knightley. She might be spoiled and she might be lord of all she surveys, but she has a good heart and has been brought up by people with good hearts and wisdom. I include Mr. Knightley among the people who brought her up, despite the distasteful twenty-first century supposition that he was ‘grooming’ her to be his bride, which I don’t think is the case.

Maria Edgeworth, who had been sent a complimentary copy, thought there was no story in it, which rather misses the point. Edgeworth wrote, and presumably liked, stories with morals. Emma has no moral; it’s a story about growing up, realising who you are and marriage.

I have to confess that I love the 1996 film of the book, although you only have to see Jeremy Northam to know that Mr Knightley and Emma were made for one another, which rather ruins the twist. I’m also very fond of the 1972 BBC serialisation in which Mr Knightley is played by John Carson, despite being far too old for the rôle. The portrayal of Emma in that adaptation comes quite close to making her unlikeable.

1815 was the year of Waterloo, the end of more than twenty years of war with France. For all of Emma’s life England had been at war, but you’d hardly know it from Emma, for all it can be read as a celebration of what it is to be English. The only reminder of the war is Colonel Campbell, who takes in the orphaned Jane Fairfax because he was a friend of her father, Lieutenant Fairfax, who died in the wars. Austen herself knew what it was to be at war; with two brothers in the navy, she could hardly be unaware. When she was living in Southampton, she had seen warships being built. Being at war was just like breathing; it simply happened.

It was the move to Chawton in 1809 that finally gave Austen the means to write and to write well. The cottage she lived in with her sister and her mother is now a museum and you can see the room in which she sat and wrote, unless visitors came or there was work around the house to be done or a brother to be visited.

When I first read Emma I didn’t realise that it was about Highbury as much as it was about Emma.  Much as I love my home town and love to think of Austen walking its streets, I know that she was much happier in small country villages. Bath and Southampton must have killed her creativity stone dead.

Anyone who has read Emma knows what it was to live in a small village two hundred years ago. It was a very small, suffocating community, where everyone knew everyone else and their business. An intrigue such as the one between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax would have kept the village talking for months, if not years.

Emma is a great novel, because it rewards those who reread it. If you want to understand how truly awful Mr. Elton is, why not reread it paying particular attention to him and his wife. Or have a look at Miss Bates, who is so aware of her precarious position as a poor spinster that she can’t stop talking. She is far more intelligent than she seems at first. Or read it to see how Mr. Knightley is patiently and gently guiding the ungrateful Emma to be all that she can be…  so that she can marry someone else. Is he jealous of Frank Churchill? Only on a second reading. It passed me by completely the first time, as it did Emma.

Many times Emma has been named the greatest novel in English. I’m a big fan of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe hates Emma because it’s the book that forces him to admit that a woman can write as well as, if not better, than a man. There must be many in his position. Whenever there are lists of the ‘One hundred books you must read before you die’ Emma is there in the top five, unless it’s been supplanted by Pride and Prejudice, which I can never understand.

There are many books that I return to time after time: East of Eden, Madame Bovary, La Porte Etroite,  To Kill a Mockingbird and all the novels of Jane Austen, but it is Emma that gives me the greatest pleasure and the greatest reward.

Emma has moments of great cruelty and great comedy. There is a lot of cruelty in Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. Emma almost robs her friend of the opportunity to marry Robert Martin, the man who is perfect for her, by her constant sneering at his efforts to woo Miss Smith. Mrs. Elton is a comedic creation whom no one is meant to love, with her ‘caro sposos’ and ‘barouche landaus’. The reader knows that they’re meant to laugh at her, and they do.

Marriage is one of the key themes of the book. ‘Poor Miss Taylor’ needs to marry, and it is her wedding that sets the events of the novel in progress. As Emma’s governess she can only expect a barren future as Emma’s companion if she does not marry. Jane Fairfax, as if in her image, is a companion whose life can only go downhill after she becomes a governess, as it seems likely she must. Harriet must also marry. There is no future for her if she does not, as she isn’t even clever enough to become a governess; there is no indication how long the support of her unknown father will last. Emma might not need to marry from a financial point of view, but she needs a husband in order to fulfil her rôle in society. Mrs. Elton is an example of a woman on the shelf who grabs her chance to avoid spinsterhood by marrying the appalling Mr. Elton. Miss Bates is, of course, the future that awaits any of them.

It was as a homage to Mr. Knightley that I called my first Regency hero George, and in recognition of Emma as my favourite book that Lady Anna in The Heart that Lies has three suitors, only one of whom is perfect for her.

Emma is my favourite book, what more can I say? Two hundred years ago, in a cottage less than thirty miles away from here a woman a few years younger than I am now, sat down day after day and wrote the greatest novel in the English language and she never knew what she’d done.

 

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