Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh: student, trader, makar, conduit, would-be Lover in early days of our Reform by Andrew Greig, is a fictionalised version of the young adulthood of William Fowler, a Scottish makar (or poet), set in the 1570s and 80s in the aftermath of the Scottish Reformation. It begins when he sets off from Edinburgh to St Andrews to attend university in his mid-teens, and I’d guess that the narrative spans about ten years in total, though either there weren’t any dates given towards the end, or I didn’t write them down. William Fowler was a real person, though I hadn’t heard of him until this book crossed my path. In fact, I believe almost all the key characters were real people, with the exception of the Nicholsons. Tom Nicolson is a brillian fellow scholar at St Andrews, though unlike William he is a poor student from a fishing family. His sister Rose immediately captures William’s lonely adolescent heart, and while the story is told from William’s first person point of view and follows him throughout, his friendship with both Nicolsons is integral to the story. This is certainly one of my favourite books of the year so far – in fact, I think it’s some of the best historical fiction I’ve read in a very long time.
I thought Rose was an absolutely wonderful character, and it’s only right that she gets the title position over William, because his youthful love for her so informs his story, even when she’s not on the page. She’s so real: frustrated by the duel restrictions of being poor and being female, but not sounding like a 21st century twitter feminist; struggling with religious doubt at a time when that was particularly dangerous, yet without parrotting Christopher Hitchens; brilliant, but clearly running up against the limits of her education all the time. It would be so easy to make a character like this a cliché – I have read so many implausible women in historical fiction, normally when they are being used as a device for thinly-veiled speechifying from the author on 21st century issues – but I thought she was easily the most compelling character in a novel packed full of them. I was particularly impressed with the way that Greig always shows Rose through the lens of William’s infatuation because the story is from his perspective, yet simultaneously allows the reader to see beyond that and develop a more honest picture of her. That is a hurdle that a lot of authors can’t jump, but he really pulls it off.
There is a lot packed into this book. For me, perhaps the most interesting thing was the depiction of Scotland in early days after the Reformation. I’m familiar with the English Reformation, having both studied it at school and learnt about it through church, but I’d never really thought about the Scottish Reformation before. I suppose I assumed that Scotland followed a similar path to England, but a very different story is told in these pages. I absolutely loved the depiction of William as a character caught between the illegal but devout Catholicism of his mother, and the equally devout Calvinism of his deceased father. Complicating matters further, his father was accidentally killed during an outbreak of violence associated with the Reformation. Will’s questioning and faith and doubt is done very well: it’s clearly important both to the character and to the narrative, but it isn’t overwhelming. It didn’t feel preachy or heavy-handed to me – more an exploration of something of great importance to everyone at the time, whatever their professed or internal beliefs. University is a natural time and place for someone to be working out what they believe, even now – how much more in the context of “the early days of our Reform”?
Like probably all 21st century Protestants, my feelings about the Reformation are a bit complicated: I am very glad it happened, and in addition to my theological differences with the Catholic church, I think the various abuses the established church was engaging in at the time needed to be abolished. However, because it ended up being a political as much as a religious movement, and used as an pretext for widespread violence, I can also see that it caused a lot of harm. I felt that this book captured a lot of the good and the bad of the reformation – Rose is able to access her limited education thanks to educational reforms brought about by the Kirk, but then using that education to question church teaching puts her in a dangerous position. This is, of course, both unbiblical and counter to the stated aims of the reformation: the point of having a Bible in your own language is that you can read and engage with and doubt and believe it for yourself. Sectarianism continued to be a problem in Scotland for a long time – which of course Greig knew at the time of writing – and I feel like you can see the seeds of that being sown in this book, without ever feeling like it’s written from a 21st century perspective. Again, that’s a difficult thing to accomplish and I think he did a great job with it.
There’s a lot of Scots used in the dialogue, but it’s pretty easy to follow if you’ve grown up in the UK, even outside Scotland. (Though it took a truly embarrassing amount of googling before I figured out that “Embra” was “Edinburgh” and not, in fact, a major Scottish city that I’d somehow never heard of). A lot of the vocab used is still at least somewhat familiar south of the border, and between that and context clues I only needed to figure out the meaning of one or two words over the course of the novel. There is a glossary at the back, but I didn’t use it – I was reading on Kindle and find it easier to flip back and forth in a paper novel. If you have no familiarity with Scots at all, you might be better off either with a physical book, so you can easily look things up, or with an audiobook, so you can hear the words being spoken. Some of the history, on the other hand, I found quite difficult to follow: for instance, I was only aware of one Sir Walter Scott before reading this novel, and spent the first part of the book very confused about why a nineteenth century novelist was hanging around in the 1500s and engaging in border skirmishes. Eventually I stopped to look it up and things became a bit clearer. The other key political characters were people I had only vaguely heard of, or sometimes was completely unaware of – but that didn’t in any way diminish my enjoyment, so I don’t think knowledge of Scottish history is necessary to enjoy this book.
In fact, I would recommend this to anyone with any interest in church history and/or Scottish history, or really anyone who likes historical fiction at all. I haven’t even touched on all the political skulduggery or royal shenanigans (or even Will’s early experiences as a translator and makar), which make up most of the book! Normally I am wary of contemporary novels that are longer than about 300 pages, but this earns every one of its nearly 500 pages – I found that it was packed full of plot without sacrificing character, and therefore flew by. It’s all tied up together, and I had to pick something to focus on for this review or I would have been here all day. My very highest recommendation for this book, which I think is going to be a strong contender for my favourite book of the year.
I am interested that you are so enthusiastic about a work of Historical Fiction, a genre which I dislike/distrust for all the reasons you express. But I will generally read one if the events being covered are sufficiently distant from my own concerns, and I recently listened to Philipa Gregory’s Tidelands which covers a similar period and similar concerns to this novel -don’t read it, it’s mostly a lightweight romance.
Despite having no religious beliefs at all I barrack for the Protestants in all these religious disputes. But I have one query. I assume the new Bible was in English. What proportion of the Scottish population spoke English rather than Gaelic? (And I think the Bible was made readable so people could better obey it, not query it).
I’m sure that there were ulterior motives for some people who were involved in translating the Bible into the vernacular, but for most movements that had that as an aim, they wanted people to be able to read it in their own homes so that people were less reliant on priests as mediators between themselves and God, and could develop their own (more sincere) faith – which, as spelled out throughout the Bible, involves questioning and doubting. As for English vs Gaelic, Gaelic was the language of the highlands and islands. In the big population centres like Edinburgh and Glasgow, the main language was Scots – which, like English, had Early Modern English as its ancestor. So there was a fair amount of overlap between the two languages at the time, and the Tyndale Bible would have been much more comprehensible than Latin. And the Bible was translated into Gaelic around the same time – Irish Gaelic, but again there was a lot of overlap between the two languages.
I think that historical fiction done well can be excellent. It can have all the problems you identify – but all genres have their own flaws. Science fiction can be filled with info dumps and paper-thin characters, for example. It doesn’t mean that all science fiction is like that – just that it’s a peril of the genre. There’s plenty of bad historical fiction out there, for sure, but the same is true of pretty much all genres.
So glad you loved his one as much as I did! I probably know more about the Scottish Reformation and its ramifications than the English one, although it’s the English one we learned about in school. Some of the history was obscure to me too at the beginning but I felt he did a great job of gradually making it all clear, so that in the end I felt the book would work for people who knew nothing about the period so long as they had the patience to keep going. He’s such a wonderful writer, but I often don’t particularly enjoy the subjects he chooses, so it was a real delight to finally read a book by him that seemed specially written just for me… and you, and all the other people who’ve loved it! 😀
I would never have read it without your review, so thank you for putting it in my way! Yes, he did a great job of making things clear without engaging in a lot of tedious exposition – I rarely had to stop and Google, despite not knowing the period at all. None of his other books seem especially appealing to me plot wise, but I will definitely be watching for new ones.
Several people have recommended Fair Helen to me as being the most similar to this. I’ve stuck it on my wishlist, so we’ll see (at some point)!
I have this on my TBR and your praise is making me want to read it even more! I don’t know much about the Scottish Reformation either but I find church history really fascinating. I wonder how I would get on with the language though.
Oh, I hope you enjoy it! Greig is good at putting words into context, so you wouldn’t need to look everything up, and the glossary is very comprehensive. I found I got into the swing of it after a bit.
I can absolutely see how the cross section of topics appealed to you especially!
Looking at the picture of the very old college makes me wonder in what ways it’s been renovated and modernized. The main building at my college, where I have all my classes, had only one bathroom in the whole place, and that’s the basement. I couldn’t figure out why until I realized when the building went up, it was back when they were still using outhouses.
I suspect St Andrews has been extensively remodelled and modernised over the years – it’s one of the best-respected universities in the UK, so their competition is Glasgow/Cambridge/Oxford, and I doubt they would be able to attract students away from those places without all mod cons.
I wondered! Even the University of NOtre Dame still has dorms that don’t have air conditioning and the rooms are super tiny. The new dorms are totally modern, but on that campus the dorms are about the equivalent of frats and sororities, so students vie for buildings with tradition.