Books: Men in Ironic Masques ; Astraea by Jane Stevenson Jonathan Cape, Pounds 15.99, 308pp; It's History, but Not as We Know It. Stevie Davies Admires the Visual Tricks and Treats of a Novel That Paints a Teasing Portrait of the Past
Davies, Stevie, The Independent (London, England)
CANDLELIGHT GLOWING on mobile faces, recessive figures static in shadow: Jane Stevenson's Astraea, set in 1630s Holland, invents a language bathed in the illusionist techniques of Dutch realism, as if to beckon readers into a perspective box or camera obscura into a painted world. This is realism purchased by cunning diffractions and compositional sleights.
In this strange trompe d'oeil world, the eye focuses the historical figure of the tragic Winter Queen", Elizabeth of Bohemia, with her black lover. A black lover? A secret mystical marriage, sanctioned by the queen's Calvinist chaplain in the name of millennarian alchemy? Even those who know the period well may well ask, did Elizabeth have an African lover? Yet we can't prove the man's non-existence: for most of history is pure darkness to us and what we discern there, we divine. "It is hard to look into darkness and see nothing," observes the Yoruba prince, ex-slave, sage, shaman, pensive fellow-human.
Stevenson's quartet of novellas, Several Deceptions, announced a theme of narrative duplicity: her first novel, London Bridges, focused on a labyrinthine scam. Astraea is an audacious melange of fact and fabrication, a tall tale of the mating of an exiled black king and white queen, begetting an apocalyptic child. Behind it stands Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, performed for Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine's nuptials in 1612.
In youth hailed as the Protestant hope in warring Europe, Elizabeth went on to demonstrate the shambles of history. She and her husband were driven out of Bohemia. Her masque-like idyll was succeeded by humiliation and widowhood. The ageing Winter Queen ate the bitter bread of exile, her penurious court overrun by rats and mice, louts and creditors, burdened by irksome unmarried daughters. …