08 November 2009

Book of the Week (37): "Mantlemass 1: The Lark and the Laurel" by Barbara Willard

It was at Bosworth field that the red rose of Lancaster finally trod the white rose of York into the blood-sodden English earth. Civil war, one that had lasted for decades, was finally at an end. The repercussions were to last for many years more, not least for those who had changed sides, seeing self-advancement as more important than any loyalty. Cecily's father is one such man, and in the chaotic weeks after Bosworth he flees England, seeking safety in France, but leaving his cosseted daughter behind, given to his sister for safekeeping. Cecily has been kept safe from the world; dressed in rich clothes, veiled, guarded day and night with her every whim catered for until she is nothing but a spoilt, self-centred girl.

The day she is abandoned by her father, all that changes. At first she screams and rails against the unfairness of life, but slowly the rhythm of country life takes hold, and her hands turn from lily-white and smooth to nut-brown and skilled. And, as her body comes to learn this new life, her mind breaks free from the chains that held her as the obedient, meek, babyish girl who obeyed her father's every whim and she becomes a young woman who thinks for herself, who understands and relishes her new freedom - and who seizes love when it is offered.

This is a wonderful story. History, a sense of place, truly three-dimensional characters and a slow-building love story all combine into an enthralling read. There's adventure too, and a chase on horseback that'll have you biting your nails, breathless for the outcome. But it is the twist in the story's tail that lifts this Mantlemass book above other historical romps. A twist that you really don't see coming...

This isn't a new book. Originally published in 1970 it is the first in a series of seven, and it has just been published anew and for a new generation to enjoy. I've fallen in love, and am going to hunt down all the others - hopefully Jane Nissen Books will be re-releasing them soon. Jane Nissen Books' self-advertising reads: "Bringing Classic Children's Books Back into Print". Well, if all her classics are as fresh and readable as this one, then we should all be reading them - every one.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn


  • Try more from Jane Nissen - the Noel Streatfields are probably the closest to Mantlemass, so (if you haven't already) try the delight of Theatre Shoes. Or if you want more history, try Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time.
  • The closest books in terms feel to the Mantlemass stories (a fabulous sense of place, a deeply affecting love story etc) are K. M. Peyton's Flambards series.
  • Or maybe a more recent take on the historical novel? Try something like Mary Hoffman's The Falconer's Knot or Troubadour.

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