All the leaves were gone and they stood, reaching out their branches, like empty arms – Anne Donovan, Gone are the Leaves
I agreed to review this book having had a quick scan of Anne Donovan’s first novel Buddha Da, the story of a working-class Glaswegian man who discovers Buddhism, that was short-listed for the Orange Prize and nominated for the Whitbread First Novel Award; always keen to support a fellow Scot. I didn’t actually know what Gone are the Leaves was about and so when I started reading about Lairds and Ladies and castles narrated in an ancient Scottish dialect that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—Glaswegian it was not—I have to say I groaned inside: this was going to be—and I apologise for my thoughts in advance but they often have a mind of their own—a woman’s book. Set in Medieval times with a sassy wee seamstress as its heroine, what was I going to get out of this? When I look at my shelves books by men vastly outnumber books by women although very few of them could be described as men’s books—tales of adventure, spies, wars, sports, fast cars, loose women simply do not appeal—but then virtually none of the books I own by female authors could be described as women’s fiction either; they’re mainly literary novelists but the same goes for the books I own written by men. The only historical fiction I own are books I’ve been sent to review. Just so we know where we stand.
Of course the expression ‘women’s book’ isn’t a particularly helpful one. So, before we start perhaps we need to ask the question: What exactly is women’s fiction and is it the same as a romance novel?
RWA-WF defines women's fiction as, a commercial novel about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others, and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship. – Women’s Fiction Chapter of the Romance Writers of America
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
A Central Love Story: The main plot centres around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. – Romance Writers of America
Deidre is a young Scottish lass—she’s thirteen at the start of the book and isn’t an awful lot older by its end—who works as a seamstress alongside her mother for a woman we only ever get to know as ‘My Lady’, the wife of the local Laird who also remains unnamed. We never find out exactly where in Scotland his castle is—although it’s within reasonable travelling distance of Stirling—nor when precisely these events unfold but it seems reasonable to assume it’s within the Medieval period (so that could be any time between the 5th and the 15th century) but when you have a closer look at some of the words used (see below) we can pin it down to sometime between 1488 and 1603; since the Scots use ‘ken’ rather than ‘know’ and a Scottish king is still on the throne my guess is that they’re maybe located in the south-east corner (maybe Lothian?) in the early 1500’s not that it matters. The same goes for the events on the continent when the action moves there. We know they pass through France but not exactly where they end up other than it’s near France. My guess would be Italy because of the references to a remarkable inventor who sounds suspiciously like Leonardo da Vinci which is where I got the 1488 because that’s roughly when he was drawing flying machines; yes, there’s a flying machine in the book. So there’s a general—and clearly intentional—fuzziness to the novel which is fine because the specifics don’t really matter and authors have a tendency to do stuff like that to give the book a more universal feel reducing everything to archetypes. And that’s pretty much what we have here: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy find each other again, not that they were looking.
So it is a love story but a surprisingly passionless one. Romeo and Juliet they’re not. Only they are. For starters Deidre is the same age as Juliet. When we were told at school we were going to be studying Romeo and Juliet we all moaned: Not a love story! God, no. And yet that’s not really what I took away from the play. It was all about politics and intrigue, bickering families and far more bloodshed than I ever expected. I remember the balcony scene—but only because it’s been lampooned so often on TV—but that’s about it.
Deidre’s beau is Feilamort and Deidre is the first person he has any contact with when he arrives at the castle although it’s not exactly love at first sight:
Froths of hair trail frae the cowl; grey-brown silk glisks in the weak November sun. The fabric of his cloak was raugh and coorse: edges frayed, the warp and weft were like tracks in a ploughed field. Bitter needles of cauld must have penetrated his soft skin on the journey; his airms pricked wi gooseflesh when I helped him doon frae the pony. ‘Merci,’ he whispered. I mind his een that day, feartness drownt in the brown, grummlin their beauty.
He’s one amongst five boys relocated from France, the Lady’s homeland. Deidre says she’s “three-four year aulder” than them. They’re here to serve as pages but although at first Feilamort comes across as the runt of the litter—the first thing Deidre tells us about him is that he’s “the colour of a dead leaf”—he stands out in one respect:
Last nicht he sang and the sound of angels rang through the great hall, like flocht of siller birds swooping and diving. Lintie and throstle, feltie and laverock, cheetle and chirm and chirpie. He seemed transparent, as though you could see through his skin: he and the voice as one. Silence was the only fit response.
It becomes immediately clear that he’s patently unsuited to the life of a page and the Lady takes him under her wing. A music teacher is hired, one Signor Carlo, who sees great things in Feilamort and a ticket to the good life for himself through Feilamort. He’s not a selfish man or manipulative but he is a pragmatist and life’s few opportunities need to be grabbed by the neck and straddled as they try to scurry past.
As a part of the boy’s daily routine he’s permitted some fresh air and exercise. Deirdre—conveniently (why would a seamstress be assigned this task?)—winds up being the one to accompany him on his walks and this is how their friendship develops. And it is a friendship rather than a romance. What pushes things on faster than nature might have preferred left to its own devices is the intervention of the unnatural. Feilamort’s body is changing and we all know what happens to boys with angelic voices when they hit puberty. Unless something radical is done about it. Surprisingly he’s given a say in his future: let nature takes its course or submit to a certain procedure which would enable him to have a long—and hopefully rewarding for all concerned—career as a boy-soprano. The term used in the book was a new one on me: evirato (which literally means ‘emasculated’) rather than castrato; the operation they describe only involves the crushing as opposed to the physical removal of the testes. Either way he’ll never be able to father children afterwards. (The first male soprano employed in the pontifical chapel was actually not until 1644 but the practices of castration and emasculation—there is a difference—date back centuries and the various methods employed make uncomfortable reading.) Perhaps not unsurprisingly, before he allows himself to be mutilated, he has a request and Deidre requires very little persuasion. Her only precondition is that they handfast: maybe not a marriage in the eyes of God but good enough to salve the young girl’s conscience. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a story if she didn’t fall pregnant. Problem is by this time Feilamort’s off on his travels in the Continent and Deidre’s been packed off to a nunnery. She acquiesces for much the same reason as Feilamort makes his choice. As her mother says to her, “It would be a good life for you. You would be safe there.” Thus ends the first act: boy meets girl, boy loses girl… and other things.
In the book’s second section we’re introduced to a new character, Father Anthony. He’s not in Scotland, he knows nothing about the existence of this young couple but he does learn of a somewhat similar situation:
There was a beautiful, virtuous and learned young woman who travelled far across the water to be betrothed to a young man. Though many were charged with protecting the young woman, the young man seduced her. On her journey back through France, she discovered that she was with child. She stopped at the convent, where word came to her that the father of the child had died and the shock caused her to go into labour. The child was not of full term but perfectly formed and lusty nevertheless; the young woman died a few days afterwards of a fever brought on by childbirth.
The child, we soon realise, will grow up to be Feilamort and Father Anthony sets out to find out what’s become of him. It turns out the boy’s grandfather is still alive. He’s wealthy but also eccentric. And, of course, just to complicate matters, is related to the wife of the Scottish Laird. By the time Father Anthony reaches Scotland the boy’s long gone. But Deidre is not. Father Anthony learns of their relationship, makes the connection and aims to reunite all parties. He becomes Deirdre’s protector but tells her nothing of what he knows of the boy’s lineage. Weeks later, after little or no explanation, she’s carted off to somewhere near France—at least that’s where she’s told she is—and finds herself in a castle having delivered her baby and still none the wiser as to why all of this has happened to her. Feilamort in the meantime has been entertaining the rich friends and relatives of his Lady. He does as he’s told, seems resigned to his fate and doesn’t spend an awful lot of time pining for Deidre.
Now you would think that the grandfather would be overjoyed to learn he had both a living grandson and a great-grandson but, as I’ve said, he’s eccentric and so a simple reunion is not what takes place and the rest of the book is devoted to tying up a considerable number of loose ends because it doesn’t suit everyone for there to be anyone else in the picture when it comes to inheriting the Master’s fortune. You can see where this is going. It’s turning into a novel of intrigue and there’s really not an awful lot of romancing going on. To pay for her bed and board Deidre gets tasked with some embroidery when she’s not looking after baby and Feilamort sings for his supper most nights when he’s not tucked up in bed in case he catches a cold.
All of which makes me wonder what kind of book this is turning out to be. Is there a central love story? Well, technically, yes. But our two lovers seem perfectly content to let fate—and comfort—dictate their futures. It’s not until a third party gets involved that they have even the slightest chance of getting back together. They do, of course, meet again. How could they not meet again? They are after all the pawns that may very well be promoted any day soon. The imagery is a deliberate choice because neither of the ‘lovers’ feels like a player. The grownups are very much in charge:
I was pushed out of the back and awa doon the stair, Sister Agnes shoving me frae behind, half hauding me up. Outside there was a cart waiting for us and she hid me under some blankets in the back, the bairn safely cooried in beside me.
I was sobbing and girning and wailing, but she grabbed my airm and pinched me and said, ‘Lass, haud your wheest. Ye maun compose yersel if we are tae get awa. God is merciful, God is looking after us all. Ye must do His will. And for the next wee while ye maun do mine or there will be trouble for us all.’
‘Are we really going hame?’
‘The less ye ken the better,’ she said.
‘I am sick of being kept in the dark.’
‘I am protecting you. If you ken nothing ye can say nothing.’
So what about the emotionally satisfying ending? Well, I’m not going to give the ending away but Romeo and Juliet risked all and struggled to be with each other and look how Fate rewarded them. The thing about risk, to my mind, for it to be worth anything then the person must appreciate its value: there must be something to be gained, yes, but—and perhaps more importantly—something to be lost. The risks here are mainly taken by the adults. They’re the ones who would suffer the most if this all goes pear-shaped. What the kids have to do is trust them. Trust, of course, involves certain risks but it’s not on the same par with what the adults are risking. So I think those who enjoy historical romances might feel a bit let down by this one. Not enough passion.
Was I right at the start? Is this ‘women’s fiction’? Woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Check. Nothing more life-changing than motherhood. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships. Yes, I think this fits. She’s a first person narrator so we get to see inside her head in a way we don’t with the others especially Feilamort. She does grow as a character but not much to be honest. She has a child and her maternal instincts kick in to protect that child but she’s still in thrall to the power figures around her and rather than taking action she permits action to be taken on her behalf allowing “God’s will” to take place. If anything the adults go out of their way so that the couple doesn’t change, isn’t sullied by contact with unscrupulous and selfish individuals. Every effort goes into ensuring a happy ending. So, yes, check the hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship box. Not that a happy ending is guaranteed. Not all loose ends are tied up by the book’s ending and things could unravel quite easily. But that’s true to life.
A word or two needs to be written about the use of dialect in this book. There’ll be no reader who isn’t conversant with Medieval Scots who will be able to sit down and read this book without stumbling over at least a few words. Most you’ll be able to guess from the context—“Elinor was stirring a big pot of parritch (porridge). She paused at each cair (stir) of the spartle (porridge stick) tae tell me the next part of the story”—but not always. Here’s one that stumped me:
Mortfundyit, -fundeit, -fundit, ppl. a. [Mort adv. b; Fundyit ppl. a. But cf. also late ME. and e.m.E. (c 1410–18th c.) morefounde, -fonde, v., to take a chill, be benumbed with cold, F. morfondre to affect (a horse) with catarrh, to chill (one) through, f. F. morve mucus, catarrh, and fondre to melt.] Deadly cold. — And scharp hailstanys, mortfundeit [Sm. -it, R. -yit] of kynd; Doug. vii. Prol. 136. – Dictonary of the Scots Language
When Deidre uses the word it’s to describe a woman who’s distant, emotionally cold. It’s a great word but I’m not sure about its correct usage and I really can’t afford to spend half an hour researching every word I come across. I say that because the first couple of sites I used to check ‘spartle’ only listed it as a verb and not a noun. You have to be careful. The ARC I received did not have a glossary or any footnotes. If Anne was simply writing in Glaswegian I wouldn’t have too much of a problem. But this different. This is like slipping in an aside in Greek and not bothering with a translation for the rest of us. What, for example, does this mean?
Then he gied a cry and danced off again, pavie and snell.
Here’s a link to the Dictionary of the Scots Language. You can look them up.
As a story goes it’s not an especially complex one. Perhaps, like Romeo and Juliet, more than being a romance it’s actually a cautionary story about what happens when parents fail their children. The key player in all of this is the mysterious grandfather, the appropriately-named Master, and he has a plan. My main problem was trying to relate to him; his priorities would certainly not be mine. It’s why I’m not a big fan of history. I’m not saying we can’t learn from it but sometimes the only lesson we need take away is: Thank Christ we don’t live in world like that nowadays. We get to see things from Deidre’s point of view mainly but there are also sections devoted to Father Anthony (the only one written in the third person), Sister Agnes and Signor Carlo but oddly not Feilamort which keeps him at arm’s length; we only see him through the eyes of others. The bad guys too are kept at a distance. One of the pleasures of a series like The White Queen was witnessing the baddies scheming but there’s none of that here so the book feels a little one-sided. Something was missing. I’d read her again but only something contemporary.
Anne Donovan is the author of the prize-winning novel Buddha Da, the short-story collection Hieroglyphics and Being Emily. Buddha Da was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Scottish Book of the Year Award, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It received a Scottish Arts Council Award and won the Le Prince Maurice Award in Mauritius in 2004. She has also written for radio and the stage and has been working on the screenplay for the film of Buddha Da. She lives in Glasgow.