Book review: Ken Follett plots a masterly tale of Tudor intrigue in A Column of Fire
IN 1989, The Pillars of the Earth, the first novel in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series, was a world-wide publishing sensation, selling some 26 million copies. World Without End, the sequel, was also a major best-seller. Twenty-eight years after the Kingsbridge story began, Follett has written the epic, third instalment, set during the Tudor era. Opening at Christmas 1558, A Column of Fire covers some fifty years of tumultuous history that changed the face of Europe. It includes crucial events, such as the accession of Elizabeth Tudor, the Spanish Armada, the St. Bartholomew Massacre, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In particular, Follett examines the rise of Protestantism and the reaction of the dominant Roman Catholic church, determined not to lose its previously undisputed power over kings and commoners.
At the heart of Follett’s tale is a love story. Young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge eager to see Margery Fitzgerald, the woman he loves. He finds his home town much changed and Margery under pressure from her family to marry their choice of husband, the boorish Lord Shiring. The Willard family are suspected to have Protestant leanings and the Fitzgerald family will not allow Margery to imperil her soul by marrying Ned. The two families are also business rivals, with Sir Reginald Fitzgerald being more devious than the straight-talking Alice Willard, Ned’s mother, who runs the family business. Follett’s research into day-to-day life in Tudor times is extensive but the facts never overwhelm the fiction. Kingsbridge is vividly brought to life, its inhabitants torn apart by ruthless religious disputes, with terrible violence inflicted by both sides. The novel features two excellent baddies, Rollo, brother to Margery, who is a religious fanatic and eager to root out what he sees as the cancer of Protestantism. In France, the lowly-born social climber Pierre Aumande, becomes a spy for the legendary commander, the Duke de Guise, uncle to Mary, Queen of Scots. Aumande callously capitalises on the love of an innocent woman to discover the names of Parisian Protestants.
When the Willard family fortune is lost due the French reclaiming Calais, the Willards’ main trading port, and Sir Reginald Fitzgerald’s refusal to repay a business loan, Ned finds employment with William Cecil, advisor to the young Princess Elizabeth, half-sister to Queen Mary. Cecil runs a network of spies throughout Europe, gathering intelligence about those who support Elizabeth’s claim to the English throne and those that oppose her. As Queen Mary’s health falters, various plots swirl around Elizabeth, with many fearing that she will bring Protestantism back to England if she accedes. Mary, Queen of Scots, living at the French court and about to marry the Dauphin, is the choice of the powerful Catholic faction at court, and she haunts Elizabeth’s nightmares. Follett’s depiction of Elizabeth Tudor shows a young woman who has lived in the shadow of the executioner for most of her life. She is a talented linguist with a sharp political mind, and relies on Cecil and her inner coterie to keep her safe. By placing Ned Willard in Elizabeth’s service, Follett takes his tale out of Kingsbridge and into the political hotspots of Europe, with countries lining up behind the Catholic and Protestant causes.
Sustaining a novel of 746 pages is no mean feat and one that Follett carries off with aplomb. There are no saggy, padded-out chapters as each one is filled with action that drives the plot forward. Follett is painting on a much bigger canvas than before and managing a huge cast of characters, but he never loses control of his material. His main characters are well-defined and become more interesting as they age. If there is a fault, it is that Follett’s dialogue is jarringly modern at times. Would Caterina de’ Medici, Queen of France, really use crude and profane language? Did 16th Century people use “sexy”, or “cute”? Fortunately, the characters are strong enough to withstand these occasional slips but it is odd that these quirks survived the editing process.
This is an epic novel in every sense, not least the sheer size and weight of the book. Follett has painted a picture of the second half of the 16th century that captivates from beginning to end. It demands a considerable investment of time but offers rich rewards. The characters, both fictional and real, are fascinating, and the Tudor period setting holds its own special allure. This is a novel that fans of historical fiction will savour and cherish.