I dare to link these two books, Robert the Bruce and Bitter Greens, because, despite using vastly different approaches to their subjects, Scott and Forsyth have written brilliant historical studies.
Ronald McNair Scott has written a traditional history with clarity in elegant prose. He has shown me why Robert the Bruce, a King of Scotland from 1306, was, and is, such a revered ruler. Prior to reading this novel I had a very thin grasp of the circumstances and wars that resulted in an independent Scotland. Moreover, I realised that I had been inculcated with the English version of events. Robert the Bruce success was not dependent on the inadequacy of Edward II as a king and general but a result of Robert’s clever and determined leadership.
Robert the Bruce was the consequence of Edward I’s disregard for the Treaty of Birgham, which he signed in 1290 guaranteeing the laws, liberties and customs of Scotland, and in 1292 used force to try and annex Scotland. He almost succeeded as in a series of bloody wars, using superior numbers and armour, he imposed military control. Scottish lords either fled after conquest or made submission with tribute and hostages. Edward I cruelty, his treatment of William Wallace was one many outrages, was influential in feeding rebellion that crowned Robert King of Scotland in 1306.
Yet Robert the Bruce was king in name only. It was not until 1328 that he secured his kingdom with the Treaty of Edinburgh with the English. R.N. Scott carefully and clearly leads us through the complexity of intrigues and furious battles by which Robert the Bruce won back Scottish lands. The author attributes Robert’s success to his character as much as to his brilliant generalship. He inspires his people who give hearts, children and sustenance. The author, like the king he is studying, does not lose sight of the human cost of wars that raged across Scotland and Ireland. Robert the Bruce lost four brothers in the war, his wife and child were captives and his sisters suffered demeaning imprisonment.
Thank you Ronald McNair Smith for the bibliography, which is guiding further reading, the maps and the family trees, and especially for Chapter 1 which succinctly outlines the clan and church influences in Scotland and explains the feudal social structure which enabled, encouraged, the wars between Scotland and England.
Bitter Greens is an artful mixture of fairytale, magic realism and historical fiction. Kate Forsyth braids together a well-researched biography of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, writer and historian, and the mythical histories of two of la Force’s fictional creations, Margherita (Rapunzel) and Selena Leonelli (the witch). In the process we are shown the workings of the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV in all its glory and horror. Kate Forsyth provides us with an intense understanding of the cruel etiquette, caprices and vengeance that characterised Louis XIV rule.
Selena Leonelli not only a witch but in Forsyth’s novel becomes Titian’s mystery model and the novel moves cleverly into Magic Ralism. Through the lens of her vile, voluptuous and voracious experiences we see Venice, the plague, the life of a courtesan and her bloody attempts to remain young and beautiful. All of the characters experience love and make love but Margherita, the stolen child held captive in the tower who remains faithful and loving, is the determinedly hopeful and justifiably so.
But it is Charlotte-Rose who most enchants in Bitter Greens as she grapples with the perdition of being exiled to a nunnery and dreary physical trials of that enforced calling by reliving her time in the French King’s court and making stories.
Roanld Scott’s history of Robert the Bruce I chanced upon but Bitter Greens I gave as a gift to Angharad https://tintededges.wordpress.com/ to read during her flight home to Australia. She has returned the novel to me, a couple of years later, with a salutation from Kate Forsyth. And so well-written books wend their way around the world.