An Island, a Border Terrier, and a Historical Novelist

Following links through my library’s catalogue had led me to many interesting discoveries, but imagine my surprise when I found a novelist who shared a name with my dog!

Bryher, by David Levine

Bryher, by David Levine

My Briar was named after Bryher, one of the Scilly Isles – we changed the spelling to the English as the Cornish is often misspelt – and when, after my initial surprise, I did a little research, I discovered that author Annie Winifred Ellerman has taken the name of that same island as her pseudonym.

Bryher was a patron of the arts, a political activist, a journalist, a film-maker, a novelist, and, by all accounts, a difficult but fascinating woman. The book I had stumbled across was one of a series of reissued historical novels, selected by Rosemary Sutcliff.

I placed my order.

The Player’s Boy opened with words from a will.

Will of Augustine Phillips, May 4th 1605:

“I give to Samuell Gilborne my late apprentice the somme of xls and my mouse colloured velvet hose and a white taffity doublet a black taffity suite my purple cloake sworde and dagger And my base vyoll Item I give to James Sandes my apprentice the somme of xls and a citterne And a Bandore and a Lute to be paide and delivered unto him at th’ expirication of his terme of yeares in his Indenture of apprentishoode.”

Bryher span her story around those real bequests.

It begins with young actor, James Sandes, at the deathbed of his master.  His master was Augustine Phillips, one of the great actors of Elizabethan England, and he had seen potential in a young man who approached him after a performance, asking for another song.

The Player's BoyThe apprentice would grieve for the master who had taught him all that he knew about acting. And he would find another place, another master, but it would never be the same.

The world had changed, and it would go on changing.  The glory days of the theatre had faded and all but disappeared.

The apprentice’s love of the theatre faded too. He was fascinated by travellers’ tales. He was nostalgic for the country life he had left behind. But he just went on, drifting through life.

His story is short, and rather elusive, but it is quite beautifully done.

Her characters lived and breathed, and I could hear their voices in my head as they spoke of so very many things.

They spoke particularly of impending execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, ordered by King James to appease the Spanish. His decline spoke for the changes in England.

It is an England brought back to life by an author who so clearly knew and loved the period she wrote about, and who had the skill to use that knowledge to illuminate her story.

It’s one of those stories where little seems to happen, but much is said about life and the world.

Difficult to write about, but absorbing to read.

I’m left wondering, does anyone write this kind of historical novel any more?

There are many wonderful stories, full of drama, intrigue and incident, but I’m looking for something a little quieter. Thoughtful stories of lives lived in different ages …

And in the meantime I already have another of Bryher’s books on order …

5 responses

  1. This sounds fascinating, and as you say, a bit different from most historical novels being written today. And I would never have guessed that Briar was named after one of the Scilly Isles!

    • We wanted a name that was local, simple, not a name for humans, and suitable for a small brown dog – after looking through a lot of books we came up with Bryher/Briar.

      I’m inclined to think that now the sort of books Bryher wrote work well around the two world wars and so novelists are less inclined to go further back.

  2. I share your liking for “Thoughtful stories of lives lived in different ages …” This is another author I’ve not heard of, someone new to look for.

    • I stumbled across Bryher purely by chance, and I don’t think I’ve seen any reference to her before. A few of her works have been reprinted by smaller/academic presses and – on the basis of this one book – I think you’d like her.

  3. Pingback: The Question of What Should Sit on Top of the Persephone Bookcase …. | Beyond Eden Rock

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