issue 30 > nonfiction > watson
The Altarpiece: The Cross and the Crown (Book I)
London, UK and NY, NY:A book review by Courtney Watson
Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013. 400pp.
Sarah Kennedy's debut novel, The Altarpiece, is not one to be missed. The thoroughly absorbing story, as finely wrought as the missing artwork that sets the plot into motion, is rife with drama, intrigue, and thrilling historical details that echo the most riveting passages of Margaret George's Tudor-era biographical novels (The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) while detailing the utter destruction of the Catholic church in England during the Protestant Reformation. Though the mystery of the missing altarpiece makes this novel a page-turner, at the heart of the story lurks something much more vital: a smart young woman's desire to pursue a much greater life than the one offered to her.
The heroine at the center of The Altarpiece, Book 1 of Kennedy's The Cross and Crown series, is Catherine Havens, a foundling raised by the nuns at Mt. Grace Priory in North Yorkshire. As an intelligent young woman gifted in physic—that most medieval amalgamation of medicine and magic—and favored by Mother Christina Havens, the prioress of Mt. Grace, Catherine is as feared and disdained as she is respected and loved. Catherine's "receipt" books, illuminated by her own hand, offer evidence many would readily use against her. Catherine's determination to save what she can of her books and the other treasures long-guarded by Mt. Grace provide some of the most harrowing moments in the story.
The most compelling subplot at work in The Altarpiece deals with the fraught nature of Catherine's talent. In Catherine's world, the practice of physic is inherently subversive because of the perceived conflation of medicine and witchcraft; people fear Catherine, but they also need her and call for her when they become ill. That Catherine is a nun makes her gifts seem all the more transgressive. Kennedy deftly illustrates the danger Catherine is in by showing how much she is feared by the invading soldiers before whom she is essentially powerless: "Where do you keep your poison?...You will have to cease your black magic in the light of the new order. You have done your last poisoning, lady" (Kennedy 51). Even though the soldiers invading the priory do so under orders of the king and even though they possess all of the power in the situation, their fear of Catherine and what she represents is clear on every page. Indeed, throughout the novel, Catherine is referred to as a witch and her healing—even though it saves the lives of others in the story and people refer to her as "the doctor nun" (Kennedy 69)—is described as being black magic.
The setting of Kennedy's novel is a fully-realized vision of England on the precipice of Reformation, replete with gold-shot tapestries and iconography ripe for destruction. The story opens at Mt. Grace Priory in the gloomy chill of North Yorkshire. The year is 1535 and Henry VIII's assault on the Catholic Church's stronghold in England is well underway as soldiers gleefully pillage and plunder the treasures belonging to the churches and abbeys, tearing churches down to their foundations in search of anything shiny and smashing statues of saints to dust. The priory is under siege and the entire way of life for the nuns who live there is being dismantled piece by piece. Kennedy doesn't flinch (but readers might) at the violence that takes place as Mt. Grace Priory is looted and destroyed. Though the writing throughout the novel is vivid and lyrical, some of Kennedy's most compelling prose happens when she describes the wholesale destruction wrought by the Reformation, using Mt. Grace Priory as an example:
The soldiers were gutting the church, tearing through whatever they could reach. The shabbiest one had found little to carry off, but his dagger was out and he was chipping off the noses of the saints. His eyes were glazed with lust for his task, moving with methodical precision from statue to statue, as though he were walking the stations of the cross. S. Catherine's wheel was battered and notched where he had tried to knock it from her, and it now looked like a wheel of fire. S. Christopher's shoulder was now empty and forlorn, his feet pointing into the broken waves. He sliced at S. Etheldreda's neck, and left the gallant profile of Thomas Harrington a bedraggled pile of crumbles on the flags. (Kennedy 52)
The details in this passage, like many others throughout the novel, are extraordinary, and they bring the enormity of a particularly violent and bloody moment in British history to life. Through the eyes of Catherine Havens, Kennedy shows just how thorough were Henry VIII's efforts to excise Catholicism from England: churches were at risk of being torn to their foundations, until all that remained were the dusty ghosts of their saints. Soldiers and mercenaries tore through Mt. Grace Priory, taking anything of value, even prising jewelry off the nuns themselves, happily following Henry VIII's orders: "Steal? No, no. We clean in the king's name. Have you not heard? The church is to be purified" (53). These are the words of one soldier, but the same sentiment is expressed by many throughout the novel.
What makes The Altarpiece a particularly interesting work of historical fiction is Kennedy's dynamic portrayal of women in sixteenth-century England. The author shows a diverse array of distinctive female characters moving the story forward. Strong female characters abound in this novel. Though set in an historical era when women's stories are often overlooked entirely in favor of those belonging to their male counterparts, the female experience of this time period is vital throughout the novel. While Catherine is the primary focus of the narrative, many supporting female characters are particularly well-drawn, with compelling stories of their own. Though the reader may assume that women were completely without agency during this period, that's not the case and it's very interesting to see how it was possible for women of the church to claim a degree of autonomy: "We have done as we thought best at Mt. Grace and have been our own mistresses in our daily affairs…I read and write and tend my garden and study what grows in it…Would the king let me live so? No, I will be hounded and hanged for a witch if I walk the path God has led me down" (Kennedy 89-90). This passage gives a sense of the freedom that was at stake for the nuns of Mt. Grace; Kennedy makes it very clear that for these women, precious artwork was just the beginning of what they had to lose during the Reformation.
Catherine offers the novel's best example of how a talented woman could avoid becoming trapped by the traditional roles of wife, mother, and servant: "And who would you have me marry, Father? It has not been so many years that you told me to settle my mind on my vows. To put my wits to study. I have done so and I do not mean to throw it all over for marriage. I have seen how marriage treats women. You yourself have taught me to see. You said I was bound for greater things. Called to do more" (57). In this passage, Catherine expresses her concern that the Reformation will prove to be particularly detrimental to women like her, ones who have chosen to cultivate their talents rather than submit to marriage: "A fire rushed into Catherine and her voice rose...'How will it be for the women? At least our father in Rome let us be as we thought best. This...this king will have us making shirts for some clod or other. He will have us ignorant as dirt'" (57). Catherine's disgust over what the Reformation will mean for her and the other women at Mt. Grace offers insight into the degree of independence she had within the Catholic Church. Raised in the church, she was taught to read and write and she was free to cultivate her talents and intellect. The Reformation would end all of that, which brings a great sense of urgency to the story.
Although the driving force of the plot centers on the mysterious disappearance of the valuable altarpiece belonging to Mt. Grace, the female characters and the way they interact with one another are the lifeblood of the story. Christina Havens, a former heiress and the head of Mt. Grace, is a strong-willed woman who is completely misguided by her faith and who wrongly believes that the old way of life is not gone forever. She pins her hopes on the displaced Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's exiled queen and the woman he tore his country apart to be rid of so that he would be free to marry the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. The queen is sent away to a monastery to be forgotten about as Henry's campaign against the church rages on. Christina sees the now-dowager queen as the savior who will rescue them and restore Catholicism to England, a role for which Catherine of Aragon is woefully miscast. One of the great moments in this novel is a cameo appearance by Catherine of Aragon, whom Catherine seeks out on Christina's orders. Rather than providing reassurance that Henry's campaign against the church is a fleeting whim, the sickly and gloomy former queen confirms that the church has forsaken its foothold in England and that all hope is lost.
The Altarpiece has much to offer its readers: intelligence, wit, romance, mystery, and a setting that haunts even as it enchants. The energy in the language conveys the urgency of a fraught moment in history with prose as bright and dazzling as Catherine's illuminated manuscripts. Kennedy's command of her characters and subject matter is impressive, and The Altarpiece is a very promising beginning to Kennedy's The Cross and Crown series.