(Suzy Spencer Dame Frevisse is a Benedictine nun in a small priory, St Frideswide's in Oxfordshire, in the 1430s,1440s and 1450s. She is called Dame Frevisse (a title used in some Benedictine orders) in all the books but Sister Frevisse on the covers of the first eight. It is not until The Reeve's Tale that she also becomes Dame on the cover. (Was this because the publishers suddenly noticed their mistake? Or had they at first thought that readers would be more likely to know what Sister meant?) She "had become a nun not so much in withdrawal from the world as in a glad going towards God". When we first meet her, she is the sometimes brusque hosteller of the priory who is responsible for looking after guests.
"The plainness of her habit made her age uncertain, but her face was too strongly shaped for mildness, her eyes too clever under their dark brows, seeing much and remarking on everything with subtle mockery." She says she is content "most of the time. Would it be simplest to say that I'm content with being content?" but "she did not suffer fools so calmly as a good Christian ought" and "was a little regretful of that".
She is strong on irony too. When told that demons had been seen, she "let her impatience show, 'I doubt it,' she said crisply. 'There was distinctly no smell of brimstone in the room.' " She is very down-to-earth, and not too impressed by shows of excessive humility shown by over pious sisters: "Irk twitched at Frevisse; so much insistent modesty wore at her nerves". But, as everyone soon recognizes, "she did have a skill at finding things out".
Margaret Frazer was the joint pen-name used, for the first 6 books only, by Gail Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld. Then Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld "half tired of the series" and pulled out, so the remaining books were written by Gail Frazer alone.
Gail Frazer was an archeology major who found she had shelves of research on 15th century England, and developed this way of making use of it. She lives in the countryside north of Elk River, Minnesota, with four cats. She was once married, and was left with two sons, now grown-up. She has also tried a variety of jobs, including that of librarian, secretary, TV researcher, and even assistant matron at an English girls' school. She was first diagnosed with cancer over twenty years ago and says that, "Mostly I've seen the cancer as a great annoyance and distraction, getting in the way of my work", but she has made use of the experience in some of her writing. She has published over twenty historical novels including the Player Joliffe books.
She is also the author of the Bishop Pecock novellas.
Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld (1943 - ) writes novels under many different names.
She spent the later part of her childhood and early adult life in Wisconsin, graduating from high school in Milwaukee. She was a journalist in the U.S. Navy for six and a half years (two in London), and later attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is married to a museum curator.
Her first mystery novel, Murder at the War, appeared in 1987. She went on to co-author the first 6 Margaret Frazer books. Then In 1998 she began writing a new series featuring amateur needleworking sleuth Betsy Devonshire. She is a Lay Eucharistic Visitor, lector and usher in The Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Minneapolis. She collects and is often seen in exuberant hats.
The Novice's Tale (1992)The Novice's Tale takes place in 1431.The quiet lives of the nuns at St Frideswide's are shattered by the unwelcome visit of the hard-drinking, blaspheming dowager, Lady Ermentrude, with her large retinue of lusty men and maids, baying hounds, and even a pet monkey in tow. The lady demands wine, a feast, and the return to her keeping of her niece, the frail and saintly young novice Thomasine. But someone poisons her. The most likely suspect is pious 17-year-old Thomasine. But Sister Frevisse is convinced of her innocence and sets about finding out what really happened.
Characters include wise if sleepy old Dominica Edith, who is in her 79th year and had been prioress for 32 years, and Thomas Chaucer (son of the poet) whose wife is Frevisse's aunt and in whose household Frevisse had spent 8 years of her youth. But it is the outrageous Lady Ermentrude who makes the most impression. She may be a caricature but she is certainly a lively one. She is Thomasine's great-aunt by marriage and, for reasons of her own, is determined to marry the girl off: "There's many a fine and lusty young man to be had. Half a dozen I know who'd have you at my word. And some two or three not so young but rich enough you'd find the marriage honey-sweet one way or other".
The saintly Thomasine, who anyway is frightened of men (and of the possibility of dying in childbirth), can only say, "I've chosen my bridgroom, Great-aunt, and there's none more fit than Him. I've wanted to be Christ's bride since I was eight years old. I'm taking my last vows in less than two weeks' time, at Michaelmass, God granting it, and then I'll be beyond any marrying with mortal man, thank God!" Lady Ermentrude "drew herself up with a sharp hiss of disapproval". It's not exactly profound characterisation, but it all makes quite an interesting story.
Having two authors, one a historian and the other a romantic novelist, means that every now and then, special historically descriptive bits seem to be added, as in sentences like: "Chaucer rose, gathering up his hood and beginning to fold it into a coxcomb hat, using the long liripipe to bind it into place". But I was interested to learn that crowner was the medieval equivalent of coroner. I'll have to take the authors' word for it that Ermentrude could have used expressions like "By God's great toe".
There is dramatic action too when Lady Ermentrude's son, the bullying Sir Walter, tries to break into the church to grab Thomasine who has been seeking sanctuary there. But his men could not get past a closed rank of nuns who blocked his way. "With no weapons but their own anger and courage, they were standing in a closed rank of black and veiled white across the center of the choir, between Sir Walter's men and Thomasine....In front of them all stood Dominica Edith. She should have seemed small there .... but her age was like a mantle of authority, and she was not frail but fierce, her hand raised defiantly against the men, forbidding any of them to come as much as one step closer. And behind her the nuns chanted the Dies Irae, the promise of God's wrath, judgment and doom on all men who crossed his Will.
The saintly Thomasine is a little hard to take. She has a young admirer but even he had to give up all hope of her when, lit a ray of light in the church, "she shone in its sudden brightness and, as if to answer it, raised her face, shining into it. With pure and simple loveliness, as if she were seeing something more wondrous than any fearful thing before her, she smiled, and reached out into the light and emptiness in front of her, toward something there that no one else could see." It sounds more like the world of romance than religion - but it all makes an easy read and led to a long series of further stories.
The Servant's Tale (1993)The Servant's Tale is set around Christmastide,1434. The sisters at St Frideswide's are nearly all suffering from heavy coughs and colds, but they cannot turn away travelers, even if they are disreputable travelling players. But the players bring with them the badly wounded husband of Meg, the cloister's scullery maid. They say they found him lying drunk in a ditch. Later on, there are two more violent deaths. The self-important crowner, Master Montfort, arrives to look into the deaths, and Sister Frevisse has to come up with evidence to stop him carrying off the wrong man.
Master Montfort makes a good opponent for the formidable but gentle Frevisse. "Collecting gossip from a priory nun is hardly likely to prove valuable," he says, trying to put Frevisse in her place. "Frevisse, not wanting to quarrel, or to lie by seeming to agree with him, bowed her head again and tucked her hands even further up her sleeves." Meanwhile Montfort has already made up his mind that it must be the players who are guilty: "The matter may lie in which two of them shared the task, but they are all equally to hang for it".
Characters, such as Meg the servant, are also sharply drawn. She, like the priory priest and indeed all the nuns, is much concerned that victims are properly shriven before their death, so that all their sins are forgiven and they are spared the pains of hell. And Thomasine is still there, as holy as ever: "Her holiness was as accepted a matter in the priory as the seven daily services, and Frevisse had heard it being whispered among the nuns that it was her holiness and the answering grace of God that kept her alone from succumbing to the present pest of sneezing and wheezing. About that, Frevisse worked very hard to have no opinion, for if she allowed herself one, it might have been that Sister Thomasine was kept free of disease to test Frevisse's patience." But at the very end of the book, we are told that even Sister Thomasine had succumbed and "was coughing in the cluster walk this morning".
Frevisse herself recognizes that she may be growing too fond of Joliffe, one of the young players. She "stared down at her thick black gown, and felt her wimple's tightness along her temples and under her chin .... She felt their constriction and their meaning. Knew what they gave her. And what they denied her. No, she said in her mind. No, this is where I belong, and this is what I should be doing.
Frevisse found that "a recitation of familiar prayers could sometimes take her through the cold and dark emotions of the moment into the harmonies of the seven crystal spheres that were around the world and led by steps of grace into the light and joy surrounding the throne of God in Heaven .... Among her reasons for choosing to become a nun had been her desire to join more freely, more frequently with that high place." Compare this with the occasion when she awoke one morning, full of weariness, feeling "tired of death, tired of being cold and ill, tired of being around other cold, sick women, tired even of prayers and worship". This sounds rather more convincing.
It's another fairly light-weight story, but comes up with a surprise (if not too likely) ending, and the interplay of characters is quite entertaining.
The Outlaw's Tale (1994)In the spring of 1434, Dame Frevisse, out of the nunnery on her way to a baptism at which Sister Emma, whom she had been told to accompany, is to be a godmother, is waylaid by a gang of outlaws. Their leader turns out to be her long-lost cousin, Nicholas. He asks for her help in getting him a Royal Pardon for his crimes. But then Emma is taken ill and Frevisse goes off with her for refuge at the nearby home of a Master Payne. Soon a brutal murder takes place. Frevisse, whose "own curiosity was among the worldy things she had not yet sufficiently curbed in her nunnery life" is determined to track down the killer, even if it turns out to be her own cousin.
This makes a dramatic story and it's full of action. For Frevisse, even garrulous Sister Emma's constant chatting, with her never failing supply of usually inappropriate "Wise Sayings", had seemed a pleasant change from the hard winter at the nunnery. But it is not long before she starts to wish she was safely back there.
An odd part of the story is when Master Payne, his wife, children and guests join together in a dinner-time conversation with their servants who happily chat with them about the murder. Is this sort of familiarity at all credible? The least interesting part is when Frevisse tries to work out in her mind who the murderer might be, and sets off on one of her lengthy rounds of questioning.
Frevisse herself feels shame by the end. Having misled Sister Emma, she had also "lied repeatedly. Betrayed the people who had given her shelter. Helped bring about" a death. "Deceived apparently without end .... What I did were sins. And behind them all was the worst sin. Pride. My pride that made me believe that I should interfere because I knew best what should be done." But it is all this that makes it an interesting story. Recommended.
The Bishop's Tale (1994)The Bishop's Case is set in late November, 1434. Sister Frevisse's great-uncle Thomas Chaucer (in whose household she had grown up) dies. Chaucer's death, and Frevisse's reaction to it, are convincingly described. Frevisse had been worrying about the consequences of her previous investigations: "There were people dead who might have been alive except for her choices". Domina Edith had "understood her sickness of heart", and, as part of a redistribution of jobs at the abbey (where there were only ten nuns and a prioress), she had moved Frevisse from being the hosteler to being novice mistress. The only snag was that there were no novices, so she had had to spend much of her time copying books.
Frevisse comes to stay at Ewelme Manor to attend Chaucer's funeral. Cardinal Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, his cousin, is also there to mourn his old friend. But then another guest, the querulous old Sir Clement Sharpe, arrives in troublesome mood. In the middle of the post-funeral meal at the Great Hall, he is heard calling out, "If I'm wrong in this matter, may God strike me down within the hour!" - and soon afterwards he collapses on the spot and dies.
The Bishop had heard Sharpe say similar things on previous occasions and thinks it odd "why God would choose to strike him down now in particular, when there were other, more suitable, times. Unless one is inclined to think God was asleep or busy elsewhere on the other occasions". He suspects Sir Philip, the local vicar, of being the possible killer, so asks Frevisse to investigate. Helped by her companion, old Sister Perpetua, she searches Sir Philip's room, but it requires all her skills to work out who the killer really was.
Frevisse is becoming more and more of a real person. At Chaucer's funeral, she remembers his love of beautiful things "from a delicately swirled and tinted Venetian goblet brought from overseas with infinite care and cost, to the subtleties of a sunset over his own hills. Was there anything like that in heaven for him to love? Or was heaven all love, with no need or desire distinguishing one soul from another? What was it like, to be pure spirit? And how, without throats, did the angels endlessly sing, Holy, holy, holy? And how did the saints hear them without ears?"
Some of the historical details are interesting too. I had not realized that in those times pairs of guests at dinner used to share a goblet of wine and a dish of food (from which the man was expected to serve the woman) between them, or that the Roman author Galen had known about allergies. There may not be very much exciting action, but I'd still recommend this book.
The Boy's Tale (1995)The Boy's Tale is set in the summer of 1436. A party of travelers are attacked and the survivors, including two young boys, aged five and six, seek refuge in St Frideswide's. Sister Frevisse discovers that the boys are half brothers to King Henry VI, but this must be kept secret as they have important enemies, determined to kill them. When actual attempts to murder them are made, Frevisse realizes it must be someone who is within the walls who is responsible.
Meanwhile very old and frail Dominica Edith, the prioress, lies dying. She tells Frevisse, "It's quite all right, you know. it will be a great freedom. To be quit of the body".
Without thinking, Frevisse replies, "But not easy".
"Oh no, not easy .... not easy at all. Nor as simple as it probably ought to be. But then nothing is as simple as it ought to be. Not love or hate or fear or even hope. No, hope is the least simple of all, I've sometimes thought .... Only God is uncomplicated".
The boys (together with the mischievous seven-year-old Lady Adela, who had been left in the care of St Frideswide's because she had a malformed hip and limped badly) present the nuns with a lively challenge, and come alive as real children.
Frevisse herself is still an interesting character. Less convincing is young Sister Thomasine who "had the admirable ability to lose herself so deeply in contemplation and prayer that she forgot where she was or what other task she was doing even while she was doing it. There was almost unanimous agreement throughout the priory that she was on her way to sainthood. Assuredly she was the most devout person Frevisse had ever encountered, and, unless Frevisse prayed very hard against her own inclination, also one of the most annoying."
There are realistic descriptions of the nuns and of life in the priory. Take Dame Perpetua and her attempt to teach French to the boys. What she doesn't know is that they have a French mother and can speak the language far better than she can. But "she thought Edmind and Jasper did not understand her because their French was poor and they must learn to speak it as well as Lady Angela did".
Then there's the nun's chaplain, tough but not too bright young Father Henry: "He and Latin were not so comfortable together as they might have been, but he made up for his inaccuracies with intensity". When a murdered body was brought in, he knew that "a soul cast unexpectedly from a body was in even worse peril than usually came at the moment of death; prayers as many and rapid as possible were needed to save it and, hopefully, ease its passing". So he prayed intensely.
All this and the historical background is well handled. What isn't so interesting is the basic plot which is rather simplistic. You end up caring more about the dying prioress than the machinations of the villain.
The Murderer's Tale (1996)The Murderer's Tale is set in the Spring of 1437. Dame Alys has been elected Prioress, following the death of Edith, and neither Dame Frevisse nor Dame Claire can get on with her. "She thinks that we're plotting against her," says Claire. "Frevisse did not try to conceal her irritability. Forbearance was not among the virtues she had sufficiently cultivated in her life, and Domina Alys' overbearing ways were an unceasing trial to her." So when Claire suggests that they should both make confession in chapter of prideful thoughts against the Prioress, so as to be allowed to go off on a pilgrimage to St Frideswide's shrine in Oxford, this gives Alys the chance of temporarily getting rid of them. But she asks them first to deliver a message to Lord Lovell at Minster Lovell.
It is on their way there that they meet another party bound for the same destination. This includes a young man, Lionel Knyvet, who turns out to be the Lovell heir, but suffers from the falling sickness. When he has an attack, he is believed to be possessed by a demon, something which nasty Giles, his cousin, is quick to tell everyone. He is also accompanied by his faithful steward Martyn Gravesend, whose presence Giles resents.
On arrival at Minster Lovell, they are welcomed by the graceful patrician Lady Lovell, who is running the estate in her husband's absence. But it's not long before the evil scheming Giles (yes, he is a bit of a caricature) starts smiling "to himself in the darkness. Making his own luck was what he meant to do tonight." He gets his evil way and Lionel finds himself accused of a murder, apparently committed in one of his epileptic attacks. But Frevisse notices that he lets his gloating show, so is soon on his trail.
The story proceeds at a leisurely pace (with time off for riddles and the antics of an affectionate dog) but the climax, when it comes, is nothing if not melodramatic. The historical background is, as usual, well handled, but it's difficult to conjure up much interest in the dastardly doings of Giles, even though the character of Lionel is quite sympathetically sketched.
The Prioress' Tale (1997)The Prioress' Tale. It is late October 1439 and three years since Domina Alys had been elected prioress (something the nuns had never really intended), and St Frideswide's has become nothing more than a guest house for her relatives, the Godfreys. There is less and less peace to be had anywhere. Constantly tormented by Domina Alys, Dame Freviss, now restored to the job of hosteler, is dismayed by the way that the priory's modest stores are being depleted by the Godfrey clan. Then when a longstanding family feud leads to first a kidnapping and then two murders, life gets increasingly difficult for everyone.
This was the first of the books that was written by Gail Frazer alone. Previously she had been responsible for the first drafts of the stories, so the basic plots and characters are not all that different. Their treatment, though, is notably less romanticized and more down-to-earth. So there are vivid descriptions of the taunting of a supposed madman and, believe it or not, of the birching of Frevisse by the prioress, who then takes the hosteler's job from her. Another surprise is the way that Sister Thomasine suddenly comes out of her shell and stands up to the prioress.
The characters of the nuns are convincingly and sympathetically drawn, and you even begin to feel some pity for the domineering prioress who "had enough to do without her days being eaten up with time in church". Yet she enjoyed the way the nuns in church had to stand until she had sat down. "It was a satisfying moment, a reminder to herself and them seven times in every day of who she was and how important, but Alys' impatience moved her almost invariably to hurry dignity along." So she can't even get that right.
Alys was determined to build up the priory, not only quite literally by employing workmen (whom she could ill afford to pay) to build an imposing tower, but by attracting some of her own relations as novices. A priory "had to be a daughter house, subservient to an abbey .... Domina Edith had made the best of it, but for Alys it rankled. If St Frideswide's had been an abbey, its abbess would have been subject to no one in England except the Bishop of Lincoln, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the King himself." That is what she would have liked.As for the nuns, "she knew not only one from the other but what each one of them was like and how each one of them had to be dealt with. Most of them she had brought to heel since she had become prioress." But then everything starts to go horribly wrong for her.
Towards the end of the book, there are protracted discussions about who might or might not have been the murderer. This is actually less interesting than the interplay of the prioress and Frevisse and the other nuns, and the historical details of life at the time. But it's still one of the better books.
The Maiden's Tale (1998)The Maiden's Tale starts in November 1439. Sister Frevisse has made an unusual journey to London to meet the new prioress whom Abbot Gilberd is appointing. This turns out to be his own sister, Dame Elisabeth. However, Dame Frevisse thinks she will probably be able to do the job.
While she is in London, the abbot urges Frevisse to go and visit her wealthy cousin Anne, lady wife of the Earl of Suffolk (incorrectly described as the earl of Suffolk. Similarly the author writes about the duke of Orleans, etc). But it turns out that Anne is involved with the dangerous political machinations of the Duke of Orleans and King Henry VI, with Bishop Beaufort very much part of the conspiracy. Frevisse gets asked to carry highly secret letters, then an attempt is made on the life of the Duke of Orleans and he takes refuge at the Suffolks' home. It is at this point, about halfway through the previously rather slow-moving story, that real excitement starts to build up.
This reaches its peak when another attempt is made to murder him.
The subsequent investigations of Frevisse come as something of an anticlimax, although there is a nice moment when Frevisse finds herself having to tell the usually imperious bishop what he has to do - and he actually does it. After dealing with him, "she felt as if something nasty had been dabbling in every corner of her mind. A nasty something with a bishop's name".
It all gets highly historical with numerous real people appearing as characters, and even young Jane, a member of Lady Alice's household, born with an ugly blemish on her face, is based on a real person, although the author admits that she had had to do a lot of guessing. But she does this sympathetically. She explains that Jane's uncle, the Earl of Suffolk "offered a large dowry to go with her marriage to anyone who would have her. William Chesman had taken it. It was the dowry and the Earl of Suffolk's favor he looked at, not at her." And, as another member of the household pointed out to Jane, "At least when you're married, you'll have your wimple to mostly cover it during the day and you can always have the bedchamber mostly dark at night when he comes to you".
The political background is rather overpowering, and much less interesting than Frevisse's own adventures, but Orleans himself emerges as quite an interesting figure, and you soon see why Frevisse wondered, "Was whatever was between Alice and this duke (Duke!) of Orleans more than what it should be? .... The devil could take so many shapes, come prowling in to devour the soul by way of so many sins. Including the sin of loving where you should not love". But there are again interesting historical details, as when priest and doctor quarrel over who should attend a badly injured man. It was "still the old quarrel, with Master Hyndstoke (the doctor) ready to risk the imperishable soul in trying to save the perishable body".
The Reeve's Tale (1999)The Reeve's Tale is set in the village of Prior Byfield, not in St Frideswide's. It is the summer of 1440, and Dame Frevisse has been sent to replace the steward of the nunnery who has been forced to step aside after being accused of dishonesty. Her new duties thrust the reluctant Frevisse into the conflicts, rivalries and domestic dramas of the villagers. Then mesles (modern-day measles) strikes and Frevisse has to stay tending the sick children so as not to expose the nunnery to the disease. But there have also been two savage murders, and she feels it her duty to track down the killer(s).The lengthy descriptions of the workings of the village court are doubtless accurate, even if much simplified, as the author explains in a note at the end of the book, and at first sound quite interesting. But, as they go on and on, they begin to get tedious, and the lengthy conversations (interminable gossip, it sometimes seems to be) and the lack of exciting action do not make it an easy book to read. The plot is slow-moving and not nearly as credible as the historical background.
Sister Thomasine floats among the villagers, her "slight frown softened to puzzlement as she said gently, 'I don't see why so many choose to make such trouble for themselves, to care so much for worldly things that at the end all come to nothing. Why care so much for things that always end, when there's God instead?' " It is she who welcomes the chance of transferring all the sick children to the church because she was "pleased beyond measure to be, all day and all night, in a church, uninterruptedly in sight of the altar". She really does sound too good to be true.
Frevisse has her moments, as when she has to face up to the know-all crowner, Montfort, who tells her abruptly, "Leave these matters to those whose business they are, dame. Go back to your prayers and stay there after this." But even so, she manages to give him "a curt curtsy and to say without strangling on it, 'Pray, pardon me.' " But it's not exactly dramatic action.
The Squire's Tale (2000)The Squire's Tale, set in 1483, is the story of Robert Fenner bitterly arguing with his wife, Lady Blaunche, about what to do with property over which she wrongfully claims ownership. Fenner realizes they are in imminent danger of being attacked by a powerful family, the Allesleys, if he does not give it up, but she still hopes to be able to leave to the young man Benedict, her son by a previous marriage.
Fenner decides to settle by arbitration - but Lady Blaunche has other plans. The situation is complicated by the return of his young ward Katherine whom Fenner had entrusted to St Frideswide's for safe keeping, and for whom he feels much (too much?) affection. He realizes that, as part of the settlement, she will have to be offered in marriage to the Allesley son and heir. Lady Blaunche, on the other hand, would like her to marry Benedict.
The opening chapter is rather confusing, but the story starts to come to life with the first appearance of Dame Frevisse, although we have to wait until page 190 for the first body to be found. The historical details ring true (although phrases like Not much ere sunset sound a bit pretentious), but the story seems romanticized, and some not very relevant conversations, such as talk about the weather, or stories told to the younger Fenner children, seem described in unnecessary detail. There's even a cozy, romantic ending when Frevisse felt "for the first time in too many days a quiet surety that some way now there would be goodness come from all the ill there had been".
But there is one thoroughly realistic moment: a description of a Caesarean delivery from a dead woman, carried out so that the baby could be hurriedly baptized so that its immortal soul would not "be doomed to that outermost ring of Hell where souls unsaved but not greatly sinful were left for eternity untormented by anything but the worst torment of all - of never having hope of seeing the face of God".
In a note at the end, the author points out that in those days the Caesarean incision was made "lengthwise to the body, because there was less blood that way, making it easier to find and deliver the baby in time for baptism before it, usually, died. Because the mother was almost invariably dead before this was done, it did not matter that all the belly muscles were severed in the process. Far later .... doctors continued to slice vertically rather than crosswise despite it was no longer necessary to do so and that it was understood that an incision side to side, between the stomach muscles, would leave them intact. Only eventually, and not many years ago, in the 1970s, did it occur to doctors to change their technique, and not all, I'm informed, have done so yet." This, to me, is the most interesting part of the book.
The Clerk's Tale (2002)The Clerk's Tale is set in January 1446. Domina Elisabeth had instructed Dame Frevisse to accompany her on a long journey to St Mary's Nunnery in Goring, where Elisabeth's cousin, Sister Ysobel, was dying of "lung sickness". Frevisse would not really have chosen to go, but, to her surprise, found herself enjoying the journey: "She had not known how nunnery life had palled for her .... Without she had known it, a gray weight had settled on her mind and spirit." But when they arrive at St Mary's, they are surprised to find it crowded with guests, dressed in mourning clothes. It turns out that Master Montfort, the ex-crowner who had recently been appointed escheator (responsible for determining lawful heirs of inheritances), had just been murdered. The new crowner turns out to be his son Christopher, who impresses Frevisse, as his father never had, with his shrewdness and willingness to listen.
All this gets the book off to a good start, but as the story progresses, and we get more and more details about the in-fighting regarding a disputed manor, the pace slackens, there are altogether too many prolonged investigatory conversations, and many of the lay characters are really not all that interesting. One of the more lively of them is old Lady Agnes who lives opposite the nunnery, is a friend of the dying Sister Ysobel, and offers accommodation to the two nuns. The neurotic crowner's clerk, Master Gruesby, is sharply sketched too, and is he who gives the book its title. But it is not really his tale at all - just a convenient device for the author to use. He is made uneasy by Frevisse as "she was hardly ever, with her thinking and what she did, where one thought she was or expected her to be". In fact, in some ways the two are alike as they were "two people who lived more inside themselves than out and had found their ways to the place they needed to be and held to it as strongly as they could".
Death is never far away. "Frevisse had noticed often enough ere this that while people knew of their own mortality, there were very few people who truly believed in it". She knows very well how important it is to pray for the dead, but found that "when she set to praying and her butterfly-mind began its fluttering, she did not follow it among her own scattered thoughts, trying to curb it, but let it go its way and went her own, into a further part of her mind where prayer came almost as easily as breathing, lightening her soul of the worldly dross that mere daily living gathered to her day in and out." She really misses the nunnery services. When she and Domina Elisabeth, both tired out, are about to share a bed, Frevisse thought "it was reasonable to suppose that they would say the Office.... but Domina Elisabeth, beginning to unpin her veil, said, 'I think we can forgo prayers tonight.' " Frevisse takes her religious duties more seriously.
All this seems more interesting than the rather tedious plot. In the end, you really do not care very much who the murderer is, and the climax when the murderer is pushed to his death is not exactly convincing. The author's strength is once again in the historical background rather than the story-telling.
The Bastards's Tale (2003)The Bastards's Tale is set in 1447. The bastard is Arteys FitzGloucester, illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, who, with his father, ends up being arrested by the scheming Duke of Suffolk, accused of treachery at the court of young King Henry VI at Bury St Edmunds. Dame Frevisse, accompanied by Dame Perpetua, has been sent there by the ambitious Bishop of Winchester to report back to him on what goes on. She uses the cover of going to see her high-placed cousin, Lady Alice of Suffolk, who is far from happy with what her husband, the Duke, is getting up to.
While Frevisse gets increasingly involved in all the plotting and scheming, Dame Perpetua is happily kept busy copying out manuscripts from the library of St Edmund's Abbey that can later be recopied more carefully back at St Frideswide's to make books that can be sold to earn some much needed revenue. It is details like this that help to bring the historical and geographical background to life.
What is less convincing is the way that Frevisse who "wanted to be done with this nonsense and go back to St Frideswide's in peace" even agrees to try to blackmail the Duke of Suffolk so as to save Arteys' life. As attractive player/spy Joliffe tells her, "What you're going to do is lie as you've never lied before". After a little "praying for courage and strength" she confronts Suffolk: "Meeting his angry gaze with feigned defiance mingled with equally feigned shame, Frevisse gave the lie on which everything depended, 'I have Gloucester's will because I was his mistress. And mother of his son.' " It all sounds straight out of romantic fiction.
But some interesting new characters are introduced, ranging from the Suffolk's bouncy 4-year-old son John (who is allowed to join in the well described players' performances in front of the king), to the inconspicuous but shrewd and friendly, even humorous, if unimportant, Bishop Pecock. And what with attempted/real smothering and stabbing, and a description of what it meant to be hung, drawn and quartered (suitably sanitized, but still nasty enough) there is more action than usual, making it one of the better books.
The Hunter's Tale (2004)The Hunter's Tale takes place in the summer of 1448, when the highly unpleasant Sir Ralph Woderove is found murdered near his estate and not even his family mourns him. He leaves behind him a will that means his widow cannot remarry or "live unchaste". It falls to Dame Frevisse to escort her and her young daughter back to their manor, where another family death occurs and Frevisse feels impelled to find the murderer.
There are a lot of complicated explanations, as when the inter-relationship of the three young men of the house is described:
"Close in age though they were, they (Hugh and Miles) were uncle and nephew because Sir Ralph - disappointed in the son he had had by his late first wife - had married Lady Anneys much about the time that disappointing son had come back from the French war with a French wife. Lady Anneys had borne Tom a year later and had Hugh a year after that, a few months before Miles was borne to their half-brother, who had shortly thereafter died, leaving his wife and infant son to his father's and stepmother's care. Miles' mother, much loathed by Sir Ralph and loathing him in return, had lived for another three years, then died, too; and Lady Anneys, with Tom and High and by then a daughter of her own, had taken Miles to herself as if he were another son rather than her step grandson.
"Follow all that if you can!"
According to another reviewer, "the plot moves at a stately pace". In other words, really slowly. Pages are taken up with Frevisse's thoughts about what has happened:
"There was Tom, who might have killed his father to protect himself. And Hugh, who maybe wanted the manor or Philippa or both badly enough to kill for them not once but twice .... And Miles, who openly hated Sir Ralph and had gained freedom by his death but not Philippa. To have Philippa, if he did want her, which was not certain, he needed both Tom and Hugh out of the way ..."And so it goes on for page after page. In the end, you just stop caring. It is difficult to feel involved, even in the melodramatic climax.
On a positive note, there is some quite interesting historical information about hounds, which the author seems to have well researched, and, as a sort of bonus, there's an entertaining, if not really very relevant, description of the nuns' great treat, a fishing trip. As with so many of the other books, it starts well enough, and the nuns' characters are well drawn, but not enough happens to hold the interest. Yet this is one of a "national bestselling series". It would be interesting to hear other people's views about it.
The Widow's Tale (2004)The Widow's Tale starts in the spring of 1449, when recently widowed Cristiana Helyngton is kidnapped, defamed and imprisoned in the far away monastery of St Frideswade's where the nuns have been told she is a wicked depraved woman and where she has to spend services prostrate in front of the altar. This is all part of a plot by her late husband's duplicitous cousin, Laurence Helyngton, to gain control over her lands and children.
The story gets off to a slow start, not helped by the rather awkward inclusion of little history lessons to fill in the background, but there are some amusing comments about the nuns' attitude to their prisoner Cristiana: "With rarely any scandal among themselves greater than someone falling asleep during an Office or sometimes a sharp word said over something, and such family news as came usually providing no more than talk for a day or two at best, a sinful widow set among them, doing her penance before their very eyes, was like a god-sent gift.
"But evil cousin Laurence soon finds that he needs Cristiana's help to "persuade" her young daughter Mary to make the marriage he has planned for her. She agrees to accompany him back to his home, accompanied by Domina Elisabeth, who feels that she is still responsible for her, and a none-too-willing Dame Frevisse. It is towards the end of this journey that the story really comes to life with their interception by Master Say and his men. He produces a paper from the Duke of Suffolk authorizing him to take Cristiana into his care. This he does, and interesting developments follow although Frevisse "could not help wondering how tainted Master Say might truly be". There is some exciting action too, as when Laurence attempts to kidnap Cristiana's daughters.
To secure her freedom and save her young daughters, Cristiana must use a secret letter that would bring down Lord Suffolk and other scheming lords who were close to the King. Then Cristiana's own brother, Sir Gerveys, who was returning from a journey to get the letter, is savagely attacked. Frevisse is asked to investigate this likely betrayal. "Ask questions," her cousin Alice tells her, "Watch people. You're good at all that".
There follow pages of her asking questions - and this soon gets rather tedious. Her thoughts go on and on like this:
"She'd not even found out how Sir Gerveys and Cristiana had been overheard on that first day although they must have been. Or else one of them was betraying the other and Frevisse could not believe that. Or Master Say had told Suffolk himself. She must not let go of that possibility, not when she as yet had no sure thought on how yesterday's betrayal had happened either. Since Pers (Gerveys' squire) had been keeping guard on the stairs outside the bedchamber, Sir Gerveys must have been heard talking with Master Say. By whom?
"It all ends with an unlikely melodramatic climax, with three dead and one scarred for life, and Frevisse wondering, "Was it better to have killed for love rather than in hate? Frevisse did not know, could only hope, and with a sigh out of her depths of sorrow and regrets, she turned to Compline's prayers .... Because beyond today was Eternity and the vastness of God's love". It all sounds just a bit too cozy.
The Sempster's Tale (2006)The Sempster's Tale starts in the summer of 1450, when widow Anne Blakhall, a tailor and embroiderer, has taken as lover a foreign merchant, Daved Weir, who is secretly a Jew. His life is in constant peril because Jews have been banished from England for over a hundred years. Meanwhile Dame Frevisse is in London to arrange for funeral vestments for her cousin's murdered husband, the Duke of Suffolk. This gives her the excuse to see Anne from whom she has been asked to collect a supply of (heavy) smuggled gold to take to her cousin. Then a rebel army marches on London and a murdered body is discovered that that has been mutilated with what are supposedly Hebrew letters. Could David be the murderer?
All this makes quite a strong and interesting story, although some parts (such as the Duke of Suffolk's murder) seem strangely glossed over, and the story of the gold-smuggling never reaches any conclusion. But there are interesting descriptions of London at the time (particularly of its drapers' and stationers' shops and of the embroiderer's art), and of Anne's position as femme sole in the Broiderers Guild that made it possible for her to work on her own. The sexual attraction felt by Anne and David is convincingly described, as is Brother Michael, an obnoxious Fransiscan friar, who arrogantly tells David, "What you are, you and all your kind, is a disease in the body of Christendom, to be cleansed by baptism or cut away by force if you refuse to change from your diseased ways". And he fully intends to see him burnt at the stake.
Frevisse is unhappy to be mixed up in all the plotting and scheming. "She knew full well that what came to someone too often seemed to match nothing in their life to earn it. It didn't matter that she knew the psalm's promised happiness and goodness were the happiness and goodness given by God after this world. Knowing a thing and being at peace with it were two often quite different things, and today most certainly she could not reconcile them." And she finds it hard to accept that David, as a Jew, might be damned forever. Perhaps "Mankind's sin was crowned in its folly by teaching by way of endless arguments and tangled laws that salvation was more difficult to have than ever God had meant it to be".
Plenty happens, although there are several pages of conjecture towards the end that rather slow things down, but it is certainly one of the more lively and interesting books. Recommended.
The Traitor's Gate (2007)The Traitor's Gate is set in troubled times in 1450, when rebellious factions, determined to unseat insecure King Henry from the throne, have been staging uprisings throughout England. Even London for a time is captured by rebels. In the midst of all this unrest, Dame Frevisse has been sent for by her cousin Lady Alice, the recently widowed Duchess of Suffolk. It turns out that she is much worried about a highly confidential missing letter, written by her husband, and possibly revealing who the arch plotter really is. One-time wandering player Simon Joliffe is also highly involved, and even Frevisse finds it hard to be sure who. if anyone, can be trusted.
This is the 16th Frevisse mystery and unfortunately one of the longest and slowest moving. There's a particularly arid patch in the middle, full of protracted conversations and altogether too much politics to hold the interest. Joliffe gets involved in much more violence than he likes (he does not really like any) and turns out to be a trusted servant of the Duke of York. But, as he admits to Frevisse, his name is not really Joliffe and he is obviously much more than the strolling actor he once pretended to be. Let's hope we don't have to wait for another 16 books to discover who he really is!
Frevisse herself is fairly subdued in this story. She turns to prayer "that she be not angry at Alice for demanding her help and even angrier at Domina Elisabeth for sending her away so readily. Or at least not so angry." More often, though, her prayers take the form of quotes in Latin from appropriate nunnery services, followed by a translation into English. This is not very revealing and, when repeated quite so frequently, gets a litle tiresome.
The historical background (including the way that the Duke of Somerset had virtually abandoned Normandy without a struggle) offered the author what she called "an embarrassment of riches in the way of violence, mysterious deaths, and inadequately explained events around which to build my plot". She had to invent the secret letter on which the plot hinges (the author seems very fond of secret letters), but generally it is the real historical background that seems to grip her most.
Unfortunately she does this at the expense of her characters, who are not all that interesting - nor are their long conversations. Here, for example, is Alice, talking about her missing household priest: "He saw himself on his way to a bishopric by way of serving Suffolk. He was disappointed almost past bearing when Reynolde Pecock was made bishop of Chichester instead of him this year, after Bishop Moleyn's death ...." and so it goes on at length. We really don't need to know all these names nor all the English place names which the author seems so keen to mention. Nor do we need quite so many mention of "commissions of oyer and terminer" whose task was "to hear reports of crimes and determine indictments". She is even able to get in a mention of a "Sir John Fastolf" as someone famed in the French war.
Luckily, though, there is more action later in the book, and some amusing moments as when Frevisse, returning to St Frideswide's, decides, for her own reasons, to spend a night in the guest hall. There she pretends not to be well, then hears her old friend Sister Claire, the infirmarian, who knows what she's up to, telling the others, "It may be only she's over wearied, not being as young as she once was". Then she hears another nun, who also knows what is going on, explaining "she's querulous and a little restless". Not "being as young" and "querulous"? Frevisse felt that "advantage was being taken of her in her 'illness' " - especially as she had been given some distinctly unpleasant tasting potion by Dame Claire.
Later, when out picking apples, Frevisse felt an "awareness that under the long grass among the trees were all the nuns who had ever died at St Frideswide's. They were all here, as - God willing - she someday would be, her grave as unmarked, as grass-grown, and forgotten as all of theirs ... And there were worse things than being forgotten after death .... Better a quiet and forgotten grave than a long-lived fame for ill and evil deeds". This makes us feel for her - although earlier she had been, as she herself so truly put it, "in danger of becoming nothing but tedious".
The book ends before the King's and the Duke of York's destiny is revealed - but let's hope than the next book, if there is one, will be more concerned with Dame Frevisse than with all this political strife.
The Apostate'sTale (2008*The Apostate'sTale tells how, as the nuns of St Frideswide's priory prepare for the welcome end of Lent in 1452, their peaceful expectations are overset by the sudden return of long-vanished Sister Cecely. Nine years before, she had fled from the nunnery with a man. Now her lover is dead and she has come back, bringing her illegitimate young son with her.
She claims she is penitent, and that she wants only to redeem her sin and find a safe haven for her child. Neither she nor her child can be turned away, but it is decided they must be separated, and Cecely, as an apostate and disgraced nun, is not even allowed to attend services.
There is only just enough food to go round. Then more visitors arrive (Cecely's lover's relations) and the plot thickens. Two of the visitors get poisoned, and hosteler Dame Frevisse wonders if Cecely could be the guilty party. Cecely certainly despises the nuns: "She knew for a truth they were just women without the courage to be women." She angrily demands, "Where had God been when Guy (her lover) died. If God 'loved' and 'cared' and 'comforted' ", where had he been then? .... What God is is cruel."Dame Frevisse snapped, "What God is - " but stopped.
Pleased at having stung her into even that much, Cecely jibed, "What? What are you telling me God is? That he's a loving God ...?""What God is," Dame Frevisse began again, coldly now, "is a victim of our foolishness. Loving us, he's hurt by the hurts we bring on ourselves." It's not really much of an answer from such a supposedly experienced nun.
There are mercifully no politics in this story. The author explains that the major confrontation earlier in the year between the Duke of York and the King's party "did not come to battle, and so little more than rumor and slight report were likely to have reached northern Oxfordshire and then would be quickly lost under the more immediate interests of people's lives." Unfortunately, though, the basic plot, all about squabbles, inheritances and what to do about Cecely, is not all that interesting, although the wicked Cecely herself does bring a touch of life to the proceedings.
Frevisse, as seen through the eyes of Cecely, is described as "a cold unbending woman who was, at best, uncaring about her (Cecely's) pain or, more likely, was enjoying it." Frevisse explains to Abbot Gilberd who had come to the priory to help his sister, the tired and ailing prioress, that she had given Cecely no comfort because Cecely "had lived comfortably in her lies for years ... To have the lies broken and all her comfort gone may be the only way she'll ever be able to grow into facing the truth." The Abbot seems to take this as an answer.
But it does not make Frevisse sound all that attractive. She may have had her own times of darkness but they "were fewer as the years went by. When they did come, they were as dark as ever, but at least they did not come as often, and she knew now that on the far side of each one of them she would find she was changed for the better." But you can see why one of the servants described her as "stiff as a stick, that one".
There are only 8 nuns (according to page 5) or 9 (according to page 29), including just the one novice, so they welcome the arrival of a mother who says, quite untruthfully, that she would like her daughter, Elianor, to become a nun."
What she wants," her daughter told Frevisse, "is for me to give up my hope and settle for whatever husband she'll choose for me". What Elianor would really like is "to kneel down at the altar and give herself into prayer". She, like the ever-holy Dame Thomasine, never seems to have any doubts, although at one point Thomasine does go as far as to tell Frevisse, "I've never had urge to give up everything to the desires of the flesh. I never have. Nor I don't now. But I'm so ...." She looked up at Frevisse with pleading eyes, as if confessing to a thing of shame. "I'm so tired." This may sound sentimental, but we get another view of her from Cecely to whom Thomassine "was a woman so unbrained with holiness she probably could not keep watch on a wart on her thumb".
Other nuns are more credible, as when they all manage to be in the cloister walk so that they can see what is going on when Cecely is taken up to be interviewed by the abbot. We can share too in their concern for the ailing prioress. Then right at the end of the book, there's an election for a new prioress - and guess who gets elected! Perhaps the new incumbent will give the stories a much-needed lift, and give us a real insight into the human and religious problems that will must surely arise.
The author has her own website. There's an interview with her on the Whistling Shade site. There are also interesting interviews about "getting medieval" with her (and Sharan Newman) on a site by Jeri Westerson (recommended, despite it's narrow columns that make it hard to read!)Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld also has her own website where she explains why she wrote under so many different names.