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.