Pendower: a story of Cornwall in the time of Henry VIII by Marianne Filleul (1877)

I was reaching for a book by a rather well known author on of the Cornish fiction shelves in the library when another book caught my eye. I didn’t know the title, I didn’t know the author, but it was beautifully bound and a lovely shade of blue so I had to pick it up. By a strange coincidence both the book in my hand and the book were historical novels, set in Cornwall in an age when the Tudors ruled England.

I was curious, and so I decided that the book in my hand could come home and the book I had been reaching for could wait.

The story opens in the summer of 1539, in the Grounds of the Convent of St Bridget in the Valley of Pendower. Everyone there is aware that they would not escape the dissolution of the monasteries and that their days there would be numbered.

Two girls from very different backgrounds had become friends, both were happy there, but they had different hopes for the future. Evelyn’s parents had sent her to the convent because they feared that an only girl left at home in the country with her brother might not grow into the lady she should become, while Cecily has come to the convent as an orphan, taken in because an ancestor had left a substantial legacy. Evelyn wanted to go home and, in time, to marry and have a husband, a family and a home of her home; but Cecily wanted only to live out the rest of her life in a religious house, in the service of God.

This OneWhen dissolution came Evelyn asked her parents, Squire and Dame Vivian, if they would give her friend a home. They agreed, and Cecily became a second daughter to them. When Evelyn was married – to Sir Ralph Oldcastle; a match that delighted her and her parents – Cecily remained, and she continued to put the church and her faith at the centre of her life.

The plot that unfolds from this point is quite simple. The mother abbess has been charged with keeping a secret, but her consciences troubled her. On her deathbed, in the home of Sister Agnes, who had taken a husband so that she could provide a home for the mother abbess, she passed on the letter that held that secret. Cecily’s ancestor had not left his fortune to the convent, just a small legacy, and most of the money that had been taken should have gone to his family. Cecily should have been a heiress.

Evelyn wanted justice for her friend; but her husband had been granted the lands that had belonged to the convent and he saw no reason to make the contents of the letter known ….

It’s a simple story, and the setting makes it sing.

I’ve read many novels that consider the reformation at court, and in the light of the marriages of Henry VIII, but I don’t think I’ve read one before that considered its impact on the country.  Marianne Filleul caught the fear and the confusion perfectly, and presented the question in its simplest form. Should mass be said in Latin, that sounded beautiful was not understood, or should it be said in plain language for all to understand?

At first Cecily clung to the old ways, but soon she became an adherent of the new. Young Father Theodore, a friend of the Vivian family, agreed with her; but old Father Cyprian, who had ruled over the convent opposed him vehemently, insisting the old ways must be adhered to do.  The community was divided, and the country was at war.

That took Sir Ralph away from home, and his disillusioned wife didn’t miss him. It took the sons of the Vivian family too, and they were badly missed.

The Cornish were intrigued by news from court, as Ann Boleyn fell from favour and met her end; as Henry married again and an heir was finally born; as Henry married for a fourth , fifth and sixth time; as Edward VI came to the throne and England was ruled by the Lord Protector; as Mary succeeded him and took the county back to Rome; and finally as Elizabeth came to the throne.

It was fascinating to see familiar history this way; and of course the fortunes of adherents to the old and new ways rose and fell. When they realised what Queen Mary was doing Cecily and Theodore began to make plans to go into exile ….

Marianne Filleul spun her plot around this history so cleverly that it held me through a very big book. Her writing was quite formal but it was so rich, and wonderfully readable. Her characters were simply but effectively drawn, and though I could never feel that I knew them as well as I might, I cared for them and I felt with them as events unfolded.

I was never entirely surprised; partly because I knew the history, and partly because I could see quite plainly which argument – and which characters – the author favoured.

This is a distinctive story, but it isn’t innovative, it’s simply a very good historical novel written in a Victorian style.

I have been able to find out very little about the author. Though she write little about Cornwall itself – this is a book driven by characters and events – the names and the details she uses ring true. And I see she has other books that use Cornish names ….

I’m not rushing to look for them, but if I saw another I’d definitely pick it up.