Reviewed by M. J. Logue
I make no apologies for my first review for this blog being an old-fashioned, out of print novel, one of Rosemary Sutcliff's lesser-known books.
In fact, I'm reviewing it in the hope that people will once again turn to this simple, tender, moving portrayal of the relationship between Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Parliament during the English Civil War, and his plain, brown, feisty wife Anne.
It's no epic courtly love story. Quite the opposite: the story of a plain woman who comes to love her principled and honourable husband with a passion that frightens her, in the uncomfortable self-knowledge that he will, in all probability, never see her in the same way as she sees him. There is little glamour in their love story, little chivalry, little courtliness. Despite its setting in the England of the 1640s, we are not in the realms of lace and glittering satins, but of buff and steel, of hunger and danger and tragedy. Of the little commonwealth of a small manor in Yorkshire, thrust all unwilling into war, and of a woman's fear for the man she has come to hold precious.
As ever, Rosemary Sutcliff's skill lies in her ability to weave a tale around the tiny domestic details of a household that stick in the reader's memory long after the last page: the honeyed scent of the snowdrops on a table, the whiff of tobacco smoke and a golden sunset over the Yorkshire Dales. The Fairfax of Ms Sutcliff's writing is not an articulate, poetic courtier, but an awkward, rather diffident soldier - and a reader expecting grand declarations may wonder what on earth the fiery Anne sees in him at times, this decent, kind, stiff, rather too honourable gentleman whose idea of a compliment is to tell her she looks "bonnie in t'firelight".
Nor - this book having been written in 1959 - is there a deal of sexual tension. But indeed, it would have jarred, had there been explicit physical loving in this story. I am still not sure - having read this book every year without fail, for the last 20 years, having cried at exactly the same parts every time, at the death of Captain Smith and of the baby Elizabeth - I still couldn't say with any degree of certainty whether or not Thomas Fairfax ends the book by returning his wife's love, not physically. But then, as Anne says, “You could not hold a winged thing; you could not even perfectly remember it afterward, for that, too, was a kind of holding.” Whatever it is, is enough.
No, I love this book. I would like more people to love it. Some of the historical accuracy is shaky, but the battle scenes are stirring and moving, and the relationships drawn with a tenderness that can be heartbreaking. Sutcliff's dialogue is almost perfect in its simplicity, of things not said but felt with the heart.