Published: 2010 (hardback), Macmillan New Writing, 313 pages
Setting the scene
The fortunes of journeyman painter, Hans Memling, change entirely when a humble sketch provides him with an unforeseen lifeline.
The small sketch, an un-commissioned likeness of the Princess of Burgundy, serves a part in sparing Memling’s life at war and salvaging him from impoverishment.
Newfound prosperity is accompanied by striking connections with powerful political figures. But Memling’s connections lead him far beyond Belgium and right into the very heart of civil-war wounded England.
Here, in Plantagenet England, Memling’s life takes a turn for the even more unexpected. Entangled in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, tragedy and political turmoil surrounding him, Memling plays a surprising role in one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
‘Not all of the painting needs to be confined to the frame.
The truth sometimes lies outside’.
This is a multi-themed novel about love, art and the tumultuous politics of the Wars of the Roses, all with an underlying emphasis on truth.
Written in the first-person retrospective narrative of Hans Memling, fifteenth century painter, we are treated to a story of ambiguous romance juxtaposed with a fresh, original outlook on over three decades worth of historical events and figures from the late middle ages (spanning 1460 to 1494).
The novel is split into two main parts. The first part of the novel begins in 1460 and centres around the Burgundian court and Memling’s burgeoning career as a painter in Bruges. Memling tells of his acquaintance with Charles, Duke of Burgundy, having sketched his beautiful daughter some years earlier, a sketch most precious to Charles. We read of the prospects this association provides Memling and of his equivocal relationship with the Duke’s daughter, Princess Marie.
The second part of the novel contrasts significantly to the first. Memling is invited to England by Sir John Donne (who in reality commissioned Memling to paint a triptych for him) and in 1482 we are transported from Bruges into the midst of Plantagenet England. Here, Memling’s eyes provide the reader with remarkable access to the English royal court. We closely witness the personal and political motivations behind the reigns of three English monarchs: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III and hear of Henry Tudor’s endeavour to claim the thrown.
Interspersed throughout the novel and detached from the narrative of events, are short chapters in which Memling contemplates the craftsmanship of painting. These thoughtful chapters show the author’s passion for Memling’s work and provide a continuous theme from start to end. They consequently ensure that the second part of the novel – where Memling, ‘artist to the great’, seems to become Memling, ‘confidant to the great’ – isn’t too far removed from the first part.
Some scenes are very well handled, such as the search for a particular casualty in the aftermath of the Battle of Nancy (France, 1477). A later death in the novel is also noticeably beautifully handled and is a highlight of the book- though it would spoil the plot and interesting twist to mention more. The novel would perhaps have benefited from more description, for example in the battle scene there is room for a bit more ‘gruesomeness’, though being written almost in diary form it is understandable that this is not the case.
It is also interesting to note that the novel is very sympathetic to Richard III. Richard III has traditionally been villainised through history, being accused of infanticide and considered essentially a throne-snatcher. Morgan uses the artistic license that comes with historical fiction to offer an absorbing, alternative theory of events surrounding Richard’s route to kingship.
Would I recommend this book? Yes
Morgan’s debut novel is a smart, interesting read with a good pace. It is well written, presenting a convincing narrative voice which is at times comedic. It is also pleasingly well-researched, incorporating many of the key events of the time, including the introduction of printing set up by William Caxton, a character Morgan weaves imaginatively into the novel.
If approaching this book without prior knowledge of Memling and his artwork, you will finish with an instilled interest in his work and an understanding of the context that goes with it.