Book Review: The Knot, by Jane Borodale

“Knowledge should run freely between men and women, readily available to those who care to know…”

(Henry Lyte, in “The Knot”)

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Henry Lyte was  a British botanist, living in the 16th century. He became well known for his translation of Rembert Dodoens’ “Cruydeboeck” – a register of mainly herbs and medicinal plants which was translated by other famous botanists into French and Latin as well as other languages. Other botanists around this time were Carolus Clusius (who gave Gentiana clusii its name), John Gerard (Geradia), John Tradescant (Tradescantia), or Mathias de l’Obel (Lobelia).

This novel is a fictional account of his life with his family on the Somerset Levels in the west of England.

“The Knot”, by Jane Borodale

TheKnot

While raising a large family, managing an estate, fighting a lawsuit by his father’s second wife for possession of his ancestral home, and creating a garden, Henry Lyte is also busy translating a botanical masterwork into English – a long process involving hours of dedicated and meticulous concentration, that will be of monumental importance to those who, in Elizabethan England, are unable to pay a physician and need information on medicinal plants in the English language. Henry dreamed: “Imagine a world where good health is a universal possibility!”

As the story slowly unravels, with Henry’s second wife Frances taking trouble in settling in, and the loss of several children to illness, we sense a secret regarding the death of his first wife, Anys. The sense of anticipation lasts throughout the book, though not affecting the gentle pace of rural life and the methodical progress of his work. In fact the tranquility of the garden and the down-to-earth gardener who always seems to be present seem to emanate peace and harmony, counterbalancing the annoyance Henry feels about his wife’s lack of interest in his garden, and his step-mother’s claim to his home.

Henry loves his garden and plants above everything it seems… One evening his wife refuses to accompany him to view the madonna lilies, so he goes out alone:

“He bends his head and breathes deeply. If only more men would take the chance to drink in the smell of lilies in the night in June, he thinks. There can be nothing so delicious. Nothing that could make a man so contented. He feels dizzy with love and tenderness for his garden. Above him is the clicking of bats, and a pale moth looms and flutters near the grass. He tilts his face to the moon and closes his eyes to its whiteness, bathes in its unflinching gaze. The air is warm. He feels enveloped, cupped between the sky and the earth…”

The passing of seasons and the constant references to plants and herbs growing in the marshy surroundings or in his own garden drew me into the story. As did the disparity between Henry’s love of nature and mankind, and his unintentional negligence to the needs of his family. He can, however, give his seeds and beans his absolute attention. On inspecting them he sees:

“… they are all – he feels quite overwhelmed with the sheer mass of them – waiting… And the promise they contain. These things seem dead, and yet… A few drops of water, the enclosing dark earth with minerals, the warmth of sunlight; and each of these dessicated, mummified little bits of toughness will hydrate, fatten and burst into vivid miraculous sweet shoots, climbing, sinewing towards the light.”

This book is not a masterpiece, but a gentle and enjoyable read. I personally felt that the storyline was lacking, but the journey through Henry Lyte’s life is pleasurable and calming. Little drama, hardly suspense, but I am glad I read it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the earlier pioneering botanists. The age in which he lived was so much slower and life was harder. The connection to the earth had to be suppressed where prayer was considered the only connection necessary:

“He wonders whether there has been any rigorous scientific study of the effects of spring on nature and man, and even idly toys with the idea of making some notes towards this himself… not as a counter to the truth of God, of course, but rather as an observational study of what actually occurs.”

Henry Lyte, sadly, does not appear to have had any plants named after him. Had he sacrificed the peace of the countryside for London he may have had more success and renown, but he is depicted here as a lover of plants and the earth above all, who hated travelling to the city…

~~~

So, if your reading list is not too long already, here’s another book to add!

😀

What IS a Garden?

I am reading a lovely novel at the moment about a botanist in 16th century Somerset (The Knot, by Jane Borodale).

I will write a review of it very soon, as I’m sure it will be of interest to many of you gardeners out there, but I have to share these lines from it today!

When asked by a botanist colleague what his garden is: “So if it is not a work of art, what do you call it?”

Henry Lyte replied:

“A garden is a deliberate gathering together of living things, partially governed.”

I think that sums it up perfectly!

Definition of a Garden

What do you think?

Winter Reading

This hasn’t been a year for reading for me; partly a matter of time, but also because I have been struggling for months(!) with a novel I was determined to finish before starting something else. I failed! I’m still reading the novel: “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving, but have also started some short stories by Lydia Davis, along with some other short fiction.

The best book I’ve been reading recently was this:

Casting Shadows

CastingShadows

This is a collection of short stories, published by Word Machine Press, from new writers who developed them as part of their MA course in Professional Writing. These stories were immediately singled out for publishing.

Fancy a good chilling read by the warm fireplace this winter? You will feel your spine tingling, shivers on your goosebumps, your hair standing on end! Each of the eight ghost stories will draw you in making you feel as if you are really there. You can’t put this book down in the middle of a story. However, each is just a few pages long, and if time is short you could fit one in over lunch. You’ll be hooked though, and impatient to read the next! I found these writers all succeeded in making their stories very vivid, and very real… I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s “Tales of the Unexpected”, with a twist at the end – at times almost expected but not always.

An extra point – the illustrations are also remarkable.

The reason I chose this book was one of the writers, Danielle Charles. Danielle has a blog called

The Teacup Chronicles

which was the first blog I ever followed, two years ago. Since then I have taken much pleasure in her moving tales and prose, and her delicious natural recipes. There is something magical about the way she writes, and her photographs are also always a delight.

I hope you will drop by her blog, or even better – buy the book!

~~~

Another book I’m dipping into at the moment is also a collection of (relatively) short stories and writings, this time by an old favourite: Charles Dickens, and his Christmas stories in

Dickens at Christmas

Dickens

Of course, “A Christmas Carol” is in there, which I re-read at least partly every December. But you will also find all the Christmas Books as well as many other Christmas themed tales.

I particularly enjoyed the first story “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” from “The Pickwick Papers”. A miserable grave-digger is kidnapped on Christmas Eve and shown the error of his ways, in a similar way to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. This time it isn’t ghosts that “spirit” the character away, but a group of rather violent goblins…

There are several very short stories, and a few slightly longer. Perfect for selecting some reading for half an hour or a whole afternoon. Another attraction of this book is its binding and cover. If you are going to look at a book again and again, it has to be a hardback, and my Christmas Carol paperback was beginning to look a bit scruffy. This version is well bound and the cover is very seasonal. A classic.

So, what have you been reading recently? Any tips?

😀

Red Velvet Cake

My favourite niece (okay I’ve only got one, but she’s still my favourite!) gave me a sweet book for my birthday… with a sweet title too: “Sweet Tooth” by Lily Vanilli. I had never heard of Lily before, but apparently her bakery in London is rather famous…

LilyVanilli

I chose this recipe simply because it looked pretty, and I’d been wondering what is so special about this cake – I have seen so many recipes for red velvet cake, but had never eaten a piece. Until now.

Yummy! It’s really smooth, and most definitely velvety. It’s also only slightly chocolatey, not too sweet, and the colour is very attractive too. But you can easily leave out the food colouring as the texture is, I think, the best thing about it!

Red Velvet Cake

RedVelvet1

This is Lily Vanilli’s recipe, not at all adapted! (Buy her book!)

  • 115g butter
  • 280g (caster) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tbsps red food colouring
  • 325g plain flour
  • 30 cocoa powder
  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • 2 round cake tins or muffin pans and/or mini cake tins (I had six mini cakes and four muffins from this quantity)

Preheat oven to 180°C and grease/line baking tins.

Cream butter and sugar together for about 4 minutes with an electric mixer. It should be really smooth. Then add in the eggs and continue mixing. Add the food colouring and mix to combine. Sift the flour and cocoa together and add half to the mixture. Beat agin until just incorporated. Now beat in the buttermilk. Then add the rest of the flour/cocoa. Beat in, but don’t overmix.

Now the funny part – mix the bicarbonate of soda with the vinegar in a separate dish and watch it fizz! Pour over the batter and carefully fold it in – don’t beat it!

Divide between your pans and bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on the tins you are using. (Use a toothpick to check if the middle’s done). Cool on a rack before decorating. If you’re making a cake the filling is up to you. Lily recommends cream cheese frosting. I just plopped a little whipped cream or creme fraiche with a raspberry on top!

RedVelvet2

Have you ever had red velvet cake before?

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

by Hilary Mantel

BringUpTheBodies3

This is a review I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Even if you haven’t read Wolf Hall, the first in this (what promises to be a) trilogy, Bring up the Bodies is an excellent read. Perfect for your summer holidays! I thought Wolf Hall was fantastic, but the sequel was much easier to get into at the beginning, and focussed immediately on the court of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hilary Mantel takes you back to the early sixteenth century, when Henry VIII still hasn’t had a legitimate son to succeed him on the throne of England. The death of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and the “imprisonment” of his daughter Mary, later to become Queen Mary, coincide with the increasing discomfort within the royal court at Anne Boleyn’s behaviour. At the head of this, advising the king and controlling all the strings it seems, is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s political deeds and manipulations are revealed with exquisite detail. In fact, despite clearly using a lot of imagination and fantasy, Mantel sticks to details such as dates and places with fastidious precision.

As the book progresses England’s isolation from the Catholic Church becomes clearer and the fate of the monasteries is hinted at. With this backdrop, the future of Henry’s monarchy is considered to be at risk and an heir is the absolute priority. Henry is by this time besotted with Jane Seymour. Cromwell’s role here is to ensure that Anne is removed from the throne legally, so that Jane may be accepted as the new Queen, while at the same time various families and connections useful to his and the king’s own future are secured. He is a genius. And yet somehow we suspect that as his net is spun, he may also fall victim to his own cunning plans… in fact we may even begin to wish he does…

Extremely well written and powerfully compelling to the last page. Different to other historical novels, I feel – as you are drawn into the dialogues and characters so genuinely and transported immediately into the court of Henry and into Cromwell’s head. I am now hoping the third novel will be out soon. And will it remain at a trilogy? I thoroughly recommend this book, and if you have the time to read Wolf Hall first, all the better, but not a necessity.

BringUpTheBodies2

By the way, Hilary Mantel won The Man Booker Prize for both these novels, making her the first woman to win the prize twice.