Shortlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction
It’s not every historical novel that sends its reader searching for a Scottish sonnet sequence dating from 1587, entitled The Tarantula of Love, is it? (Not that I’ve found the text yet – if you can help, please do so.) Nor is every 440-page historical novel so full of action as this, but then the reformation in Scotland was a time of religious, political foment, an ongoing battle against the counter-reformation, assassination, martyrdom, witch trials, forgery, cattle raiding, romance. There was this man, John Knox, the dour Calvinist, who sucked the pleasure out of everything. There was a young boy on the throne, James the Sixth of Scotland, his regents, the in-fighting and power plays associated with that. But Jamie Saxt as he was known, was also a gifted poet, a member of a poet’s circle along with William Fowler, author of the afore-mentioned Tarantula of Love, and main protagonist of Rose Nicolson.
“I like to concentrate on people who were on the fringes of history”, said Greig. William Fowler was just that. A minor Scottish poet and translator, who never made it to the centre of the court. Brought up in a divided household not far from Holyrood: his father a supporter of the Reformation, his mother firmly but secretly on the Catholic side. After her husband’s accidental death on the doorstep of their house (wrong place, wrong time), she became a money lender. Her son, though, wanting not to enter this business, goes to the University at St. Andrews, travelling via ship. An encounter on that voyage with a certain Walter Scott (a predecessor of the Walter Scott) is to prove fateful … as is his meeting with Rose, the sister of his best pal, Tom, once he reaches his destination.
Greig is not proud of the Reformation. This was a time when the wrong answer to a theological question could get you killed, but it was also a time when girls, up to the age of 12, regardless of their class, were educated on a par with boys. So Rose, although destined to be a fisherwife, can speak Latin and has her own unconventional thoughts. William has never met anyone like her and his infatuation is instant. Although it can never be, this relationship is to prove dangerous to both. Especially when Rose starts reciting Ovid’s Heroides (a gift from Will) and is accused by a jealous not-so-well-educated rival of witchcraft.
What follows is the climax of the novel, one in which Greig’s Walter Scott, repays the debt he owes William Fowler. It’s probably entirely fictional, Greig writing into the gaps of William Fowler’s scanty history, he being a man who dabbled in a bit of this and that, but who never really amounted to much. That Greig does so in the manner of Stevenson is all to the good: plenty of action, lots of colour, many a memorable scene. Poor Will takes his fair share from the school of hard knocks: a beating in St Andrews for walking over dark stains on the street (in actuality, the scorches of execution pyres), a bankruptcy, a second severe beating in Paris from Catholic enemies, the Hamiltons. But it is the fate of his horse, Bucephalus, that pulled my heartstrings. These were perilous times indeed, for man and beast alike.
Could Rose Nicolson, set mainly in Edinburgh and St Andrews the two poles of C16th Scotland, be infused with even more Scottishness? Well yes, through the Scots language. Not authentic C16th Scots – that would be unintelligible to modern-day readers, but what I’m taking to be the modern equivalent. Not that I’m an expert even after 30+ years up here, but I understood most of it, making use of the helpful 9-page Scots glossary when needed. This enhanced my enjoyment of the novel – I loved reading “high heid yins” (the bosses) and other Scottishnesses in a literary novel. As I turned the final page, I sighed, “Well, that was really enjoyable”. Which leads to only one conclusion: Andrew Greig won the “sair fecht” (tough struggle) he says had writing it.