Five Sisters at the Turn of the 14th Century

I move between history and historical fiction frequently in my reading, which leads me to think about the difference between the two. Obviously, history is history and fiction is fiction—but the two aren’t so neatly separate. Good writers of history (at least of history for popular audiences) work to achieve the flow and engagement we associate with novels, and good historical novelists research carefully to get their facts straight.

Reading history can be like pondering a map: we see the outline of a land, its topography, the most prominent structures and features. Reading historical fiction is, at its best, like time travel: we don’t necessarily get the big picture, but we perceive one small part of that picture vividly and even, at the best of times, feel that we’re experiencing it for ourselves.

I’ve just finished with Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314, by the Australian author of Scots descent J. M. Harvey. My knowledge of Scots history is very limited, so I pretty much had to approach this book in isolation; I didn’t have a preexisting understanding of the tumultuous time period in which it’s set. I’ve read a bit about the two English kings Edward, who fought the Scots around the turn of the 14th Century, but that’s left me able to recognize the occasional name and little else.

In the preface, Harvey tells us “In this fictional narrative, the five sisters of Robert the Bruce speak to us from the past. Their remarkable story deserves to be told, so that they might no longer be ‘unwept, unhonour’d and unsung’—to borrow a line from Sir Walter Scott. The Bruce, Robert the Bruce, was a legendary king of Scotland, devoted to uniting the warring clans and ridding the country of the English.  His five sisters (and their sisters-in-law, children, and nieces) are, indeed a remarkable bunch. Isabel (Isa), the eldest, marries the King of Norway and watches the lives of her siblings—when information is available—from afar. The next two sisters, Christina (Kirsty) and Mary are captured by the English, along with a sister-in-law and a niece. Christina is “caged” within a convent; Mary is literally caged, hanging in a wood and metal pen in the open air above an English castle. The younger two sisters, Mathilde and Margaret, evade capture; filling in a gap in the historical record, Harvey imagines them as fugitives in Orkney.

One can understand why Harvey was eager to write this book. And, having read the jacket synopsis, I was certainly eager to read it. My feelings now, as I’ve finished it, are mixed—contradictory enough that I want to deal with them as individual bullet points, rather than trying to sort through them all at once.

• These are interesting women. I’m delighted to have had them brought to my attention and expect they’ll continue to live in my imagination for some time.

• Harvey is scrupulous constructing and maintaining her timeline so, as long as you read the afterward and sort fact from fiction, you can leave with a fairly clear outline of this period of history as seen from the Bruce perspective.

• The novel reminds us—we seem always to need reminding—of what a barbarous, messy business war is and of the brunt of the suffering borne by civilians: the Scots peasants face misery regardless of who has the nominally stronger hold on the land. English invaders murder, rape, and pillage; Scots defenders burn crops and destroy villages to keep them out of the hands of the English.

• The book has occasional moments of real beauty. For example, in her first letter to Kirsty, Isa writes of her leave-taking and journey to Norway: “For an unusually long time, sea creatures followed our vessel and I could not keep my eyes from their sleek forms and gentle eyes. I hoped they might travel back to you and whisper in their strange tongues that all was well; that these things shall indeed pass.”

• Unfortunately the prose style here is—I was going to say “uneven,” but actually the problem is that the prose style is too even. The above sample is a rarity. Most of the parts of the book written as correspondence among the sisters, sound dully identical. Isa’s letters to Kirsty and Kirsty’s letters to Isa are interchangeable, except for the geographic references.

• The omniscient narrator who directs other sections of the book has a voice like a history textbook—dry and all-seeing, taking the life out of what should be vivid events. Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It is as well that foresight is denied mere mortals. Had they [the books’ characters] known what terrible price they would have to pay to achieve their goal [of a united, independent Scotland], their steps may have faltered and turned from such a perilous path; their actions would ultimately fracture their beloved family and the country they so revered.” This doesn’t build suspense, as perhaps it was intended. It flattens the narrative.

• At times, the writer seems to abandon sense in order to ride the flow of a phrase she’s begun. As Mary festers both figuratively and literally in her cage, we’re told, “When some of the older folk no longer wandered by, [Mary] presumed illness or death had overtaken them. Such benign thoughts helped to fill the long hours.” Illness and death, benign? I don’t think so, not even in comparison with Mary’s miserable state.

I found the historical thread running through this novel fascinating, but as a reader I was less than fascinated. Harvey writes fiction as though it were textbook history, drying it out and rendering its varied terrain to a single level of flatness. I appreciate Harvey introducing me to these remarkable women, but I’m still waiting for a novel that will capture their lives vividly.

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