The pleasure of historical novels lies in their remoteness. People travel on horseback and you are not reminded that the Honda needs a new clutch. Women dash about in velvet gowns, throwing on cloaks to go out into the night, and underlings indulge your every whim (taking time out only to roll in the hay during harvest festivals). Castles may tumble and villains abound, but oh, so long ago, and always good triumphs and happiness holds the last page.
And if ever anyone deserved it, it's Zipporah, "The Adulteress," who has had to endure a scheming housekeeper trying to disinherit her by bedding down Zipporah's lusty old uncle, an evil estate manager who almost murders her, a crippled, clinging husband, an immoral nephew who tries to steal off with her daughter, and a brief love affair with a moody doctor whose past includes a Terrible Secret. All this to return to the arms of the only man she really loves, the Frenchman who made her "The Adulteress."
"He put his arms about me and held me close to him. 'I love you,' he said.
" 'I love you,' I answered.
" 'Dear Zipporah . . . be happy . . .'
" 'I am . . . and then I'm not.'
" 'It had to be.'
" 'It should never have been.'
" 'It has been.'
" 'Oh God,' I said . . ."
But England and France are on the verge of war and Gerard, having changed her life and taught her on page 97 "what I had never known before--that I was a deeply sensuous woman," must leave.
Not to reappear until page 332, which seems highly unfair. No amount of blackmailing, suicides, fires, secret burials and other amusements make up for the fact that the promised love affair has been shoved offstage.
Instead we must follow along with a motley of shallow characters, convinced that we are in another era not because of attention to detail but because of the inclusion of the historic event, as Zipporah and her doctor visit the pleasure gardens of Ranelagh to hear a concert performance by the 8-year-old Mozart. "As the boy sat there and played, we were transported from this fashionable rotunda. I don't know whether others felt as I did, but it seemed to me that I was flying through space and the music, so delicately played, so inspiring and yet so mysterious, was carrying me along . . . I think a good many of us that night realized that we were in the presence of genius."
In "The Old Priory" we are in the presence of the potato, a new and exotic vegetable that, it is hoped, will save the failing fortunes of the Tresizes.
And quite a comedown it has been from the day in 1590 when Arthur Tresize bought The Old Priory, curse and all. The estate prospers but the family does not, as one wife dies, another runs away and a third goes mad. It is for the second generation to lose the fortune and the third to reclaim it.
Although the narrative of the book spans three generations, it is both more tightly written and more compelling than "The Adulteress." The characters, as unpleasant as they often are, are real. Nor does Norah Lofts need to plunk a boy Mozart down at his harpsichord to remind us what year it is. She sets her book in a different time by showing us a different way of life, a different morality, with unwanted babies put out to die and a young woman put out to whore to make money for the family:
"When I was 10 I got a job at the grammar school, making beds and emptying chamberpots, but that lasted only two years because I began to be pretty and a danger to the young gentlemen; so I went to pick and bale wool. Picking, which meant taking thorns and burrs out of the fleeces and cleaning out the bits which dung or tar had soiled, was, I suppose, no worse than emptying chamberpots but it was a great deal heavier and harder on the hands and I was not altogether sorry when Mother said I could leave, trim myself up a bit and take to harlotry. But I hadn't the nature for it . . . when it came down to a man in a shirt and me in my shift, or sometimes completely naked, I felt a kind of shuddering. Mother was amused and said I'd get better with practice."
Even the slave trade is happily explained away by Arthur Tresize, talking about the ship he had sailed on: "This sounds cruel, but the slaves were men and women captured in the endless tribal wars or men who had got into debt and thereby forfeited their freedom. Most of them would have ended in the cooking pot, but for the trade."
A voice from a long-gone time, but what else do we read historical fiction for?