ROBYN CADWALLADER The Fire and the Rose. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Robyn Cadwallader’s third novel is set against the anti-Semitism of the thirteenth century and England’s expulsion of the Jews.
‘What you doing there, girl? Why stand and shiver when the sun shines? You must’ve heard the story of Little Hugh before. They recite it over and over.’
Eleanor looks toward the voice and doesn’t move; it’s Chera the Jewess, the twine seller.
‘They made you scared of me, too? You know you’re allowed to do business with us. It’s just eating with us, or living with us, is the problem. The king thinks you might catch our evil ways if you get too close.’ Chera coughs out a bitter laugh.
The year is 1276 and Eleanor has been living in Lincoln for ‘more than two seasons’. She works as a kitchen maid for Stephen Wooler, an important wool dealer, but she is not used to dealing with the many Jews who live in the city. Chera was the first person to help her when she arrived from her village ‘tired and lost’, but Chera has a sharp tongue. She had been a rich woman, but since King Edward recently outlawed money-lending, which in England only Jews had been allowed to do, she, like other Jews, has had to learn a new way to make a living.
As Chera tells Eleanor:
Two centuries ago King William invited us here, but he forbade us from joining guilds, so we had no choice but lend money, did we? Now King Edward has changed his mind and forbids usury … All I know is they always need money and Edward is even more greedy. More tallages against us. Even our boys, only twelve years old, are taxed.
Lincoln, as an important wool-trading city, had allowed Jews to settle there, but it was a city where they were especially hated. All Jews were obliged to wear a yellow badge; the Catholic church taught that they had killed Christ; those who needed to borrow money and ran up debts resented them; their language and their worship set them apart; and the story of Little Saint Hugh (one of Lincoln’s most loved saints, whose tomb attracted pilgrims to the Cathedral) told of his kidnapping by Jews and his ritual sacrifice. Eleanor sees the woman, Marchota, whose husband had been tortured and had confessed to the murder, pointed out and abused, but Marchota is resilient and she eventually becomes an important part of Eleanor’s life.
In her Author’s Note, Robyn Cadwallader explains that two questions prompted her to write Eleanor’s story. One was about the future of a little village girl who, in her earlier novel, The Anchoress, had learned to read and write: ‘How would she fare in a small village?’ The second was prompted by her shock on learning of the expulsion of all the Jews from England in the thirteenth century: ‘How, and why, could a large group of the population be forced to leave the country in which they were born?’
The Fire and the Rose, however, is not a history book but one in which Cadwallader has ‘researched deeply then imagined characters and events into the gaps’, and her imagination has brought Lincoln and its inhabitants vividly and excitingly to life. Anyone who read The Anchoress will know how Cadwallader can grip her readers and immerse them in the lives of her characters so deeply that you live with them, feel for them, and worry about them. She does this again in The Fire and the Rose. It is not a sequel to The Anchoress, but there are occasional references to things that happened there, and Eleanor, the energetic and curious child who once learned to read and secretly practised writing letters with a stick in the dirt, is now a 30-year-old woman and a skilled scribe.
It is hard to convey, in a short review, the richness and the emotional depth of this story, and the power of the history it covers. Part of it is about Eleanor’s determination to write and to defy the belief that women are not fit to work at such an art. In her home village, she had been employed by the lord of the manor to write up his accounts, but an accidental death, a woman’s antagonism and accusations, and ‘much death and sadness’, made her leave. In Lincoln she begins by convincing the taciturn Baundenay, who sells booksellers’ wares from his premises in Parchmingate, to let her have some scraps of parchment to practise on. Eventually, she confronts him, telling him how she learned her skill, and of her experience. He cuts her off:
‘Aye, girl. I know all you’ve done, and I know what I’ve showed you. Get to it now.’
Eleanor takes a breath. ‘I’d like to work for you. As a scribe, copying. I can do it from my house, and I can be quick, if need be. I’ll copy close and take care.’ The words come out in a rush.
‘Oh, aye? Women don’t do that work. You can’t join a guild. And you’ve got a little one. That’s your work.’
She argues, but he seems unmoved. Then: ‘Listen. Come back in a week, and we’ll see,’ he says.
This is only a small part of Eleanor’s story. There is much more, and most of it tells of the growing attraction between her and the Jewish spicer, Asher. Both of them would face punishment, public shaming and even death from their respective Christian and Jewish communities if their relationship were to be discovered. Their different religions divide them, and each struggles to understand the firm beliefs of the other and to find common ground between their faiths. They share a love of books and words, but they often disagree. And they both experience the prevailing hatred of the Jews and the events that see the whole Jewish community arrested and accused of coin-clipping and silver hoarding:
‘Arrested the lot. Every single one. Took ’em to the castle.’
Eleanor stops, stunned by the blow. ‘Who?’
‘Them Jews. Who else? Good riddance, I say. And about time.’
‘What do you mean why? You a Jew lover? Doesn’t matter why, as long as they’re gone.’ …
‘But the women and children as well?’ Jennet asks.
‘Whole lot. And others, too. Not just Jews.’ …
Eleanor wants to howl, to run, to find Asher, find out the truth …
Many of those arrested, mostly Jews but also a few who were thought to have been dealing with Jews, were publicly hanged or burned:
The platform is neat and sturdy, the rope thick and strong. The builders call to each other and laugh, apparently pleased with their work, as others bring rocks to set around a pole. Stake and gallows stand stark against the green expanse of Battle Place, tall and certain against the grey mottled sky.
This is part of the history of Lincoln. It is shocking to read of the anti-Semitism of that time, and to know it still exists. The misunderstanding of people who are different – a designation that includes Eleanor, the port-wine stain that disfigures her face being so obvious that it sets her apart from others – is very real. Shocking too, to see the power of the Christian church and the teaching that fostered discrimination and hatred, not just of Jews, but of anyone, especially women, who defied the clergy. Eleanor has reason to experience this, and reason to question the duplicity of the clergy, but her belief in the love of the Virgin Mary, and the comfort she gets from that love, is deep and lasting.
Eleanor is an intelligent, independent woman, determined not to be dominated by any man or creed, and well able to think for herself, but the love between her and Asher is tested to the limit and often looks as if it will fail. As the reader already knows, the expulsion of all the Jews from England will happen, and the two of them will be affected by it. How they deal with it is immensely moving. Cadwallader, acknowledging the support of her husband, writes that he ‘shared research trips with gusto’, and that he ‘read early drafts (and cried – twice)’. Most readers will completely understand why.
One other thing that adds to the power of this story and makes the book unique is the poetry – a few single pages, each headed ‘the walls speak’, that separate some chapters. These are the walls of Lincoln and they hold the history of the city:
We see the city battle with itself
so many times we’ve seen this deadly dance
the fiddler bowing notes of fear
the drummer beating smooth and steady
kill the one you cannot understand
other woman Jew.
Yet there is hope, and the title of the book echoes the final lines of ‘Little Gidding’ from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets that promise ‘all shall be well’ when ‘the fire and the rose are one’.
Robyn Cadwallader The Fire and the Rose Fourth Estate 2023 PB 384pp $32.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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