Can a house built from the ashes of tragedy ever be a place of lasting happiness? Can the hereditary mix of wild gypsy lore, fierce independence, magic and mystery truly settle in a respectable home?
The Town House is the first in Norah Lofts’ enduringly popular Suffolk Trilogy about the Old Vine at Baildon. Built in the late fourteenth century by Martin Reed, a runaway serf who had defied his master for the woman he loved, the house was to change and grow for six centuries. In its very foundations it held secrets and lies, passionate love and deep despair.
The vast scope of The Suffolk Trilogy—continued with The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset—involves the reader in a fascinating journey through time. In The Town House, Norah Lofts evokes fourteenth- and fifteenth-century life from the perspective of five different characters. Her sympathetic touch and ability to imbue each character with life involves us from the first to the last page. She convincingly recreates the historical era in which each character lives, not merely to set the scene but to add an understanding of why and how they act as they do.
Tomorrow the man I love is to die; horribly and in public … I am supposed to be praying that he may recant. They don’t like this burning of heretics. A heretic who recants is defeated and finished, one who burns scores a kind of victory.
The doomed love story of Josiana Greenwood and Walter Rancon sets the scene as the destiny of the great Suffolk house known as the Old Vine continues to unfold. Haunted by the stubbornness of its founder, Martin Reed, and the mystical gypsy blood of his wife, their descendants, both innocent and guilty, are caught up in a world of witch-hunts, wars and revolution over two centuries—between the days of Christopher Columbus and the Restoration of Charles II.
The House at Old Vine is the second in Norah Lofts’ enduringly popular Suffolk Trilogy which began with The Town House and concludes with The House at Sunset. Fans of Norah Lofts’ work particularly appreciate how her characters who live around the Suffolk town of Baildon interact with one another between different books. Here, we also learn more of the notorious Hatton family and Merravay, featured in Bless This House, in an enthralling series of stories of believable characters who were prepared to live, to fight, to kill and to die for what they believed.
“At the age of seven I was a skilful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a tolerable introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord … I saw nothing strange in one day running barefoot and the next mincing along in silk hose and satin slippers.”
From street urchin daughter of an inveterate gambler to mistress of the Old Vine, Felicity Hatton’s story begins the last part of Norah Lofts’ enduringly popular Suffolk Trilogy which began with The Town House and continued with The House at Old Vine.
With the coming of the 20th century, the house was in decline—soon to be broken into apartments and shops, including a café serving the increasingly poorer passing trade. For Public Health Inspector Jonathan Roper it was a disgrace that should be demolished without further ado.
But whether they loved it or hated it, the the Old Vine had affected every person who came into contact with it. Their stories were woven into the house’s timber, bricks and mortar; the ghosts of love, hate, jealousy, deceit and murder haunted it—and when the very fabric of the house itself was threatened, the battle for its survival must commence.
The beautiful house was built for a pirate rewarded by Good Queen Bess for the plunder that he brought home. But tragedy was born within its walls before Thomas Rowhedge even took possession and its memory remained in an icy atmosphere of despair by the window seat in the hall.
It was home to a witch who could charm animals and a ghost who challenged everything but true love. It was filled with hope and heartbreak for four hundred years. It saw the passing of the Civil War and the restoration of the King. It became rich with an Indian Nabob and poor with a 20th century innkeeper. It tested every soul that entered it and gave no quarter to those it found wanting.
The house was Merravay and it would always call back its own to try and complete the dance of love broken so cruelly as soon as its cornerstone was laid.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, heir to one of the largest and wealthiest duchies in Europe, was headstrong but wise and had mastered all the rules of the political game before she was twenty. She needed to be stronger than any nobleman and, in a world where a woman’s place was as a wife and mother, she fought continually to hold and wield power as a ruler in her own right.
Despite being the wife of two kings and mother of three, she was never anything other than her own woman. Eleanor rode in the Second Crusade with her husband Louis VII of France, rebelled against her second husband, Henry II of England, ruled as Queen Regent when her son Richard the Lionheart set off for the Third Crusade and personally negotiated Richard’s ransom when he was captured. She outlived all but two of her children.
Norah Lofts brings to passionate life this brave and complex woman who was Queen of both France and England, brought us the concepts of chivalry and courtly love and who was compared with Penthesilia, mythical queen of the Amazons.
(Please note: this edition is not available in the USA, its Dependencies or Canada).
Ataxerxes, King of Persia needed a wife. This warrior lord was so powerful that he could make his choice from all his Empire. He picked the one girl who would have given anything to have been passed over, a Jewish scholar, Esther, from the back streets of his capital, Shushan.
To a King bored by the chattering of women wreathed in musky scents, this changeling was a breath of fresh air. But the new Queen of Persia was lost in a world of protocol and soon lost her husband’s favour. Worse, she had to hide her faith and deny her origins for Haman, the King’s favourite, was an Amelekite, an ancient enemy of the Jews, and determined to have revenge. Esther’s only hope to avert a holocaust was to risk her own life and go, uninvited, before a King who had already disposed of one unpopular wife.
Norah Lofts’ Esther, first published in 1951, is a magical re-telling of the Old Testament Book of Esther, the story behind the Jewish festival of Purim.
The Fleece Inn stood where the three roads joined—to London, to Norwich and to the sea. Its trade was prosperous, its hospitality famous and its host, fat Job, was jolly and generous—to his guests.
To his servants Job was cruel and menacing and to Ellie Roon, the most menial servant at the Fleece, he was a figure of terror. Ellie was used to being shouted at and bullied but when her illegitimate daughter was born—in a rat-ridden attic of the Fleece—she decided that Hester must have a different kind of life.
And so Hester Roon, equipped with little more than courage and a strong will, began her eventful progress in the harsh world of 18th century England. After fleeing from the inn, she became involved in the London underworld. From there she was to find herself a destiny far beyond her imaginings.
Melchior had never seen anything like it; the star was so bright, so full of tragedy and glory. He knew at once that it was his task to find the child and warn its parents. But Melchior was old, poor and unwise in the ways of men. Providence took him to the barbarian king, Gaspar, who wanted to know if this great King in the East would be a threat to his empire. It was Balthazar, the escaped slave with a wonderful knowledge of languages, who helped them find their way across hazardous and violent country to Judea.
Just as the three men began their journey, a young girl stood bravely before her betrothed husband in Nazareth trying to find the words to tell him that she was pregnant. Not only was the child not his but she had never known a man. How could she make him understand that their destiny was to raise the Christ-child together?
Norah Lofts’ 1965 classic novel weaves together all the characters of the Nativity; from the gentle strength of Mary and the kindness and loyalty of Joseph through the tempestuous journey of the three wise men and the tragedy of the shepherds to the misery of the the innkeeper and his wife. As the day of the miraculous birth drew closer, all those who were to take part in in the greatest story ever told were given the choice whether to sink beneath their fear or to seek salvation.
She was the daughter of a preacher and a gypsy. A strange and elusive child with powers of prophecy, she grew into an even stranger woman. From those around her she inspired love and admiration or furious hatred. Nothing in between. And somehow Jassy could transform even those who loved her into her enemies.
Barney Hatton, the dispossessed heir of Mortiboys, loved her but not enough. Lindy, a servant girl who worked there, loved her too much. Elizabeth Twysdale, who taught Jassy her lessons, hated her more with every passing day.
And because of the people around her, the people who loved or loathed her, Jassy’s life was destined to be one of passion and anguish.
Will Oakley, landlord of The Fleece, had two daughters, as different in character as they were in appearance. Myrtle was vivid, bright and lovely, a dreamer with a generous spirit and a zest for life. Harriet was ugly —not in form or figure but when she turned round and men saw her pockmarked face they shuddered. And their revulsion had slowly corroded her soul, destroyed compassion and the ability to show affection. But one thing Harriet did not lack was courage.
She was to need every ounce of it at the autumnal feast of Michael and All Angels in 1817 when the Ipswich coach arrived carrying a strange, ill-assorted company destined to change forever the lives of those who lived at The Fleece.
That night the Inn played host to a philanderer, a suicidal woman, a desperate maid-of-all-work, a highwayman, a handsome foreigner with a scarred face—and the fat man who appeared to be gloating over some malicious secret of his own and who carried the power to destroy Will Oakley and his family forever.
Julia Ashley was born to a life of dramatic twists and tragedy. Saved from Cromwell’s Irish massacres by her nurse, saved from starvation by a Dutch sea captain… Her future and any possible lasting happiness depended entirely on a ‘glove marriage’ to a man who was no more than a name.
The Dutch East Indies, in the seventeenth century, were lands of legendary riches; of ‘nutmeg princes;’ of fortunes and family empires built on barbaric plantations and slavery. And amid the extravagance, the cruelty, the bizarre customs, perhaps the strangest events of all were the curious weddings that sent girls half-way around the world to husbands they had never seen.
Julia, brave and stoical with a stormy and turbulent history behind her, took her ‘glove’—of yellow, pearl-sewn silk—and began the journey to the island of Rua, to a land of seeming paradise where nothing was exactly as it appeared.
Sir Charles Augustus Shelmadine was an autocrat. He ruled his village with a firm but kindly hand—instructing his tenants on their crops, their children and their love affairs. When he died and the new Squire came, the village stirred uneasily. For the new Squire had strange ideas—and even stranger friends—people like Mr. Mundford who never seemed to grow any older and whose name was linked with the terrible Hell Fire Club. Mr. Mundford was interested in too many things that should not have concerned him… like the ruins of the old Roman temple where the rites of Mithras had once been enacted… and in the silent, amber-eyed young woman called Damask Greenaway.
Damask was the daughter of a Bible-thumping Christian. But when she lost the love of her life, she turned against all she had been raised to believe and a strange power possessed her; a power to make people do what she pleased. It was this power that Mr. Mundford was hoping to harness on that most powerful of nights: All Hallow’s Eve.
‘Princesses are born to be exiled. What is the alternative? Spinsterhood? Think of your aunts.’ Such cold comfort was all the Dowager Princess of Wales could offer to her fifteen-year-old daughter, the vivacious and loving Caroline Matilda, about to leave for Denmark to marry its king.
No one knew then that Christian VII was mentally unstable and, when he disliked his young bride on sight, Caroline’s life became an heroic struggle to adapt both to a man and a court which disapproved of her unaffected ways and refused to be pleased.
But when Johan Struensee was summoned to court to treat Christian’s increasing instability, Caroline Matilda found an unexpected ally; a man who understood her, appreciated her and taught her that love was possible even in exile.
In an historically accurate story of high romance and tragedy, Norah Lofts vividly illuminates the stark contrasts of 18th century Denmark; the cruelty, poverty and oppression of existence under an absolute monarch sinking into madness; the royal court with its pomp and pageantry and the hatreds and intrigues that swirled around the young, lovely figure who was, briefly, its Queen.
A King, A Princess and a Poet…
Legend has long told the story of Blondel the Lute Player who found the lost soldier-king Richard Coeur-de-Lion—kidnapped on the way back from the great crusade to the Holy Land. Blondel found his king by travelling for months across Europe singing the first part of a love-song which Richard and he had composed together. One day, from behind castle walls, the voice of Richard responded to the strain.
But why would a minstrel embark on such a risky pilgrimage to find his king? Norah Lofts weaves a fascinating back-story to the tale of the Lionheart who strode out of the courts of twelfth-century Europe to lead his knights onto the Saracen battlefield—inspired by a vision of the Holy Land.
The Lute Player tells of the courageous Richard and his ill-fated union with Berengaria, Princess of Navarre—of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and her possessive love—and, above all, it tells of Blondel whose life was woven in with all of them and who set out on his mission as an act of great love—but not a love for the King…
(Please note: this edition is not available in the USA, its Dependencies or Canada).
WHERE TO BUY
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