Magazine article The Spectator

A Wandering Minstrel

Magazine article The Spectator

A Wandering Minstrel

Article excerpt

Penelope Fitzgerald


by Rose Tremain

Chano, L16.99, pp. 454

I'm not sure that music is the opposite of silence, but Rose Tremain's spellbinding new book is certainly a matter of contrasts and extremes. The story is based on the life of the 17th-century King Christian IV of Denmark, but it is told in the present tense. It's brought closer by passages from diaries and notebooks and thoughts `plucked from the air' by a four-year-old child, but all these are told as if in the past. Again, we're asked to listen to music `as we long to in our innermost souls', but have to shiver with the King's orchestra which is ordered to play, concealed, in a freezing cellar used as a hen-house. We see `the blue of air and sea, which is neither dark nor light', but also the savage effects of seasickness, a `green-gilled' German musician, `his thin hand nurturing his bowl of tea'. At the court of King Christian are carefully bred Arab horses, `edgy and strong as dancers', a pleasure to watch, but we also see an afterbirth thrown into the lake and nibbled at by a shoal of fishes. At the silver mines in the Numedal, which the King had relied upon to make his country rich, all goes well at first, then a murderous explosion lays waste a whole district. For the sufferers there is tenderness, but the medical profession, with its cold steel and questionable drugs, is dreaded by all who have to depend on it.

The King likes to drink himself into a state of stupefaction, but he is an aesthete. Although his doted-upon consort, the grossly self-indulgent Kirsten Munk, doesn't know one note from another, he has carefully assembled his orchestra. His lutanist is Peter Claire, as handsome as an angel, who has come to him from Ireland, from the household of Earl O'Fingal. Peter falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, the daughter of Johann, a rich landowner in Jutland. When Johann's wife dies he takes up with his housekeeper, Magdalena, attracted, in fact almost hypnotised, by her `colossal arse'. So are the rest of his family, with the exception of Emilia and the four-year-old youngest, the boy Marcus, who sees Magdalena as a witch. Meanwhile Peter's sister Charlotte, representing normality, is going to marry solid George Middleton from Norfolk, Tremain's own county which she writes about with affection. …

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