Book review: After Flodden by Rosemary Goring

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ROSEMARY Goring, literary editor of the Herald newspapers and formerly of Scotland on Sunday, is mild and courteous in manner, and gentle of speech.

After Flodden

By Rosemary Goring

Polygon, 329pp, £14.99

A St Andrews graduate, she has also worked as an editor of dictionaries, and of the Church of Scotland’s Life and Work magazine. If you were told she had written a novel, you might expect something elegant and understated, an ironic comedy of manners or morals. You couldn’t be more wrong. After Flodden is a tremendous Romance, the work of a wild and turbulent imagination, a tale of blood, slaughter, treachery, devotion, and adventure. It’s as violent, though not as economical, as a Border Ballad; and for great parts of the novel, it’s the world of the Riding Ballads that we are invited to inhabit. I can’t believe that anyone who loves Romance will not delight in it.

The plot is properly complicated, even hard to follow. No matter; a couple of weeks ago, in reviewing Robert Low’s Bannockburn novel The Lion Rampart, I quoted Scott as asking “What is a plot for but for bringing in fine things?” Quite so; there are fine things in abundance here. You may sometimes lose the track of the story – or indeed stories, for there are many of them – partly because the author, audaciously but effectively, moves back and forward in time. It doesn’t matter, for you will soon pick it up again, and the time-shifts, which are well handled, work to deepen and enrich the narrative.

It is, like many Romances, a quest novel. The young heroine, Louise, a French girl living in Edinburgh, whose elder sister Marguerite was the mistress of the king, James IV, till she died in childbirth, sets out, alone but for the company of her devoted and ferocious dog (somewhat puzzlingly described as a vixen rather than bitch), in search of her brother Benoit, lost or not heard of since the terrible battle. On her way she collects, as in all the best Romances, companions: a young boy who has carried his father’s body from the fatal field; a courtier who forms an attachment to her, but may not be all he seems; and the head of a reiving clan who has vowed revenge on the English lord responsible for his father’s death.

Though the novel is entitled After Flodden, we are not deprived of accounts of the early stages of the campaign or of the ghastly battle itself. But most affecting is the picture of the fearful and demoralised country awaiting an English invasion, of the nation in mourning, of the horror of the Berwick dungeons where prisoners are held, and of the resolution needed to survive. There is also a splendid and affecting twist in the plot, as the identity of the spy who supplied information to the English commander, the Earl of Surrey, is revealed. He may be deemed a villain, but he is treated with understanding, if not sympathy. Goring knows that moral judgements are not absolutes but are made according to the point of view of those judging. Think of the opposing descriptions: terrorist and freedom-fighter.

The portrait of the strange, dazzling, enigmatic and complicated king is well-devised and executed. James has always been a bit of a mystery, hugely ambitious, a libertine who was also a religious devotee, apparently full of self-confidence, yet riddled with guilt. Goring makes him a wholly credible figure, a bold spirit whose misjudgement brought ruin on himself and his country.

How to pitch your dialogue is one of the most difficult problems that the author of an historical novel has to address. I wouldn’t say Goring is wholly successful – the register shifts too much, sometimes disturbingly – but she eschews archaism and tushery and rations, sensibly, the use of broad Scots. Occasionally, she carelessly employs modern phrases which jar somewhat. Nevertheless, on the whole her dialogue does better than pass muster and, having myself, long ago, written a novel set in roughly the same period, I know how difficult it is to make dialogue convincing, how hard to be consistent. Goring manages it better than most, better than I did in that novel. She is also very good on weather, always important in a novel, partly as a means of creating the right mood, essential in a Romance

I would suppose this novel has been long pondered, lived with for years in the author’s mind. Though it is full of fine invention, much of it gives the impression of having been remembered rather than made up. It is made up, of course, but novels are made from memory, imagination and observation, and those in which memory plays a large part are usually good. After Flodden is very good indeed, and hugely enjoyable, even though so much of the matter is grim and painful.