Rose Nicholson is a remarkable novel, a work of imagination, intelligence and enthusiasm, set in the troubled and violent years of the minority of James VI, a time when it was not yet certain that the revolution Protestant would hold, and the hope of a Catholic restoration. was still alive. So it’s a historical novel, but it’s also a romance in which wonderful things happen and the title Rose Nicolson, a fisherwoman from St Andrews with remarkable intellectual gifts, is accused of necromancy. Add to that murders, political plots, poetry, philosophical reflections and raids on the English border, and it is obvious that Greig has concocted the richest of beers.
The narrator is William Fowler, a historical figure. In fact, it is anything but relevant. The novel would also be captivating and read with equal authority if Fowler were a creature of Greig’s imagination. Fair enough, necessary too, as few readers have probably heard of Fowler, a minor poet, pamphleteer, printer, scholar, trader, financier and friend of George Buchanan, the great humanist scholar, poet, playwright, historian, turned Protestant reformer, stern critic of Queen Mary and guardian of her son James VI, “Jamie Saxt” in the novel. Greig gives a sympathetic and convincing image of Buchanan.
Fowler, in real life and in the novel, is the son of a now deceased Edinburgh merchant and his Catholic wife, a shrewd businesswoman and money lender. The novel begins with his departure to enroll as a student at St Andrews. On a stormy journey from Leith to Fife, he is joined spitting on the railing by a young with long, lively red hair who surreptitiously borrows his dagger, eating it just as secretly after she has done her job in the black night. The boy is young Walter Scott, Laird of Branxholm and Buccleuch, and, always aware of this debt to William, he will be his friend and will remain so throughout his life. This young Walter Scott is a violent and endearing character, quite convincing. The other Walter Scott or Stevenson would have been happy to portray him as Greig does.
The evocation of St Andrews and the student life there – the city ravaged by religious strife with its large cathedral already in ruins – is beautifully compelling. There, William befriends a Bejant companion from a fishing family but originally from the Highlands. His sister is the title Rose. Already engaged to a fisherman, she will be the love and star of Fowler’s life. If it seems unlikely that a fisherwoman, even trained by her college brother, would be able to read Latin, meditate on philosophy, educate herself, and express dangerously heretical opinions, well, this is a novel. where the improbable is always possible. , and is here convincing. Rose would be comfortable in a Waverley novel, and no further justification of the character and wit Greig gives her is necessary.
To attempt to offer even a vague glimpse into the plot would be absurd in a brief review. To quote another Walter Scott again, “what’s the point of the plot if not to bring beautiful things?” – and beautiful things are here in a happy and haunting abundance.
A note on history is in order, however. The turbulent, confused, and confusing years of the boy-king’s youth are, I guess, nothing as well-known as the story of Mary Queen of Scots or the story of the 17th century civil wars. Greig, as faithful as I can to the facts, brings them to life. While there are echoes of Scott and Stevenson everywhere, his treatment of the bloody rivalries, plots and betrayals of those years that saw two regents murdered and the oldest survivor, the Earl of Morton, ultimately sentenced to death, is in the manner of Dumas, and just as fascinating as Les Trois Mousquetaires or Vingt ans après.
This novel is full of surprises, rich in delights. Greig writes with rare authority and understanding. Sometimes it seems like he’s behind a heavy tapestry or curtain, listening to whatever is being said, then squeezing through a hole to see the action. Finally, there is a rich use of Scots, enough to require a glossary, but for the most part, although there is an occasional and slightly disturbing intrusion of 21st century words or phrases, he is lucid and a the essential speed that a historical novel needs.
Rose Nicolson, by Andrew Greig, riverrun, 452pp, £ 18.99
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