We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman
Originally published 1971
Book of the Month Club, 1st printing, 2000
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: We Speak No Treason features three narrators who tell the story of the rise and fall of York, and the end of the Plantagenet dynasty. The first narrator is The Maiden, a young woman in the household of the Duchess of Bedford and Elizabeth Woodville, who unexpectedly witnesses what she should not. She keeps her secret and manages to travel in the Duchess’ entourage, where she befriends a fool and falls in love with a prince. She is fortunate in that her prince loves her, too, and he becomes the center of her life until Warwick and Clarence rise against Edward IV, when the Maiden must bid farewell to her prince of Gloucester. It is then that she betrays herself, and due to her secret knowledge, is exiled, never to see court or her love again.
Our second narrator is The Fool Patch, jester to Edward IV. He loves the Maiden well, and hates Gloucester for seeming to betray her and for what Patch believes is an unseemly lust for the lands of Anne of Neville, Warwick’s daughter. Edward IV bestows Patch upon Gloucester as a wedding gift, and after spending time in the North, Patch comes to appreciate Gloucester’s justness and good character.
The Man of Keen Sight is the third narrator, a young man who becomes one of Gloucester’s henchmen at a young age. He serves Gloucester well, even accompanying him to Flanders during the brief exile following Warwick’s rebellion. When Edward IV returns to the throne, however, the Man of Keen Sight is distracted by the evils of livery and maintenance, and joins the household of Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, son to Elizabeth Woodville and no friend to Gloucester. After Edward IV’s death and the race for the King, the Man of Keen Sight returns to Gloucester, and remains loyal until the last.
The fourth and final part sees a return to the Maiden, who is now The Nun, immured at a small religious house full of venality and betrayal. She now has two secrets, both Elizabeth Woodville’s and her own, and keeps them until those she loves best are threatened. Though she and Gloucester are bound closer than ever now, the Nun never sees him again until one final moment after she and he have both lost everything. Of course, the Gloucester mentioned here is the infamously evil Richard III, demonstrated in Jarman’s novel to be a fair and honest man of strict loyalties and morals. He is much a man of his time in many ways, a time in which loyalty bound men (and women) not simply to a nation, but to factions and above all, to personalities. In the Man of Keen Sight’s perceptions of Richard and his peers is a clear portrayal of Richard’s deep and abiding loyalty, to his brothers and others, as well as his need for reciprocation. Unfortunately, when money and ambition weighed against loyalty, Richard and the Plantagenets lost. Jarman does a nice job of letting events speak for themselves, allowing Richard’s acts to depict his character, such as when The Man takes his wife to listen as Richard passes judgment, or when he observes how Richard’s acts have benefited not only himself or his peers, but the people of England. In essence, a portrait is painted of a man who cannot escape his fate, a fate that seems cruelly unjust.
As it may be guessed, Jarman is squarely in the pro-Ricardian camp, and speculates that he sent the Princes in the Tower (Edward V and Richard, Duke of York) to safety in the Netherlands. This jibes with Patch’s observation of Henry VII (usurper!) and of Perkin Warbeck, the mysterious Prince/Pretender. Pretenders are a major theme in We Speak No Treason, as the various narrators observe people pretending to be what they are not, generally for ambition or gain, sometimes out of desperation. From our twenty-first century hindsight there is much opportunity to smack one’s forehead and cry out, “Can’t you see what they’ll do?!” as the novel rolls toward history’s heartless conclusion.
In a way, the fourth part is rather jarring, coming back into the story after Richard has met his end, and experiencing it all over again–plus the parts about her religious house, which were fascinating, but seemed like another tale entirely. I am not sure how Jarman would remedy that, though. I sometimes had difficulty sympathizing with the Maiden, because she seemed a bit half-witted, but she was also a sincere depiction of a teenager in love. And we’ve all been there. And though it is at times rather slow, there are much worse Ricardian novels out there (The King’s Bed, anyone?).
The novel is also much of its time–the late 60s and early 70s–when historical fiction was written in a prose somewhat more purple than what we are used to today. It doesn’t often seem dated, however, but rather has a dreamlike feel unlike that of other Ricardian fiction I have read. This was either the second or third Ricardian novel I read (before or after Daughter of Time, with The Sunne in Splendour in first place), and on coming back to it for a second reading, I find that it stands up well. Fortunately, it was reprinted in 2000, and is again in print, but in two parts. Older copies are fairly easy to find on Ebay, for $1, plus shipping. (That’s where I acquired my copy!)
Cover: I like it. We’ve got Richard, with some symbolic imagery surrounding him (but why is the Hog black?). I’m also a fan of the first hardcover copy, which depicts mediaeval figures sketched, in a sort of parade of narrators. Worth checking out is the awesome late 70s and early 80s romance covers, with women en déshabillé. My nine year old heart would have thrilled to them!
Therefore one did not heed the few glum and abstracted persons who sat, toying with their trenchers and staring into air. Richard Gloucester was one of these. He had come in late, a little footsore I swear and glad to be seated, his face worn and weary and unsmiling. My own magical powers took hold of me and I half-killed myself trying to make him laugh, but to no avail. By the end of the entertainment I had the strangest feeling of kinship with him. For I, too, had wandered many weeks in search of my love, and I remembered how people had chaffed me. This feeling grew stronger until I reminded myself of Gloucester’s motives; I drew a callous skin over my soul and thought of how Anne Neville, if she remained hidden, would make of me a fashionable man.
03 May – 05 May