This Month’s Book  Discussion on

Prophecy by S.J Parris

Cityread London 2017

This time we did our bit for the Cityread project, a London-wide promotion to get people reading SJ Parris’s 2011 historical pot-boiler Prophecy, the second of her series starring 16th century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as a sort of James Bond of his era, here thwarting dastardly plots to replace Elizabeth I with a catholic monarch.

The author uses a lot of proper historical details of the Elizabethan court and Tudor London topography, and makes characters of a roll-call of English and French historical figures. She’s read up on them very nicely, including personal traits like the shape of John Dee’s beard and Bruno’s diminutive stature. Bruno is nowadays remembered for speculating that the universe is infinite and that exoplanets exist (and for being burnt at the stake for such post-Copernican heresy by the Roman Inquisition). Our action clearly pre-dates his unfortunate end, but post-dates his speculations, so that we get the narrative thinly sprinkled with references to them. Keep it real.

Here’s a review from The Independent, entitled Zounds! An Elizabethan feast with a surfeit of ham: SJ Parris has done her homework and the mise en scène is convincingly rendered, but the plot is slow and the characters creak terribly, uttering information-laden explanatory speeches peppered with self-conscious Tudorisms (“Christ’s blood!” etc). Their eyes flash, flicker and blaze, they avert their gaze, and gesticulate like a troupe of ham actors.

Did we agree? Yes, unfortunately, saving Tim who spoke up for it as a good pot-boiler and a nice read, although he’d prefer Hilary Mantel or CV Wedgwood. Malcolm had worked out early on that he’d have to read 23 pages a day to get through it in the time he’d allowed himself, and stuck to that, thinking fondly the while of the Blackadder TV series.

What was it, about historical fiction as a genre? Did Walter Scott and Manzoni start it? Malcolm wanted to know. They represented a genre with a sort of social contention, celebrating a populist nationalism out of step with geopolitical real-politik. Would Parris in future be seen as a reflection of early 21st Century isolationalist stuff? Not a chance, according to Janet. What we had here was intended as pure entertainment. Sara had it down as ‘small beer’, repeating the established canon. She had gone to see the current production of Schiller’s play Maria Stuart and much preferred its feminist slant on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary.

After all, we’ve had Wu Ming’s Q and Manituana, picking less popular bits of history and subverting received historical opinion. Gore Vidal’s Burr was another example, not forgetting Robert Graves’ I Claudius. Our criterion of interest seems to have been revision, not repetition of school-book stuff.

The problem with the book, for Rory, was literal repetition, more than one occasion when the hero recounts the same thoughts at some length to the reader. Far from James Bond, it made Bruno seem dull and dim. (And did we know, we had added to our repertoire of first-person transgender narratives? SJ Parris is a woman!) For Jenny, the author’s habit of ‘up-talking’, sticking a rhetorical question mark after a statement, put her off. Doubtless other infelicities could be unearthed if we had the patience to pursue them. We didn’t.

Maybe, according to Janet, the interesting thing was the theme of the book, the importance of prophecies [here foretelling the monarch’s death] at that period. OK, but Malcolm thought Parris’s assertion that ‘the poorest household has an almanac predicting the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn…’ was rather doubtful in an age of mass illiteracy. And another thing – Bruno was relatively prolific as an author, but it was all in Latin. As this should be, don’t you think?

City of London Libraries