Norah Lofts (1904-1983) has a loyal and respectful readership among those who actually read books, rather than talk about them. There is a small and passionately devoted reading class (Robertson Davies called them the clerisy) for whom the reading of novels is nearly an act of devotion and your correspondent hopes to number himself among this blessed few.
So when fellow travelers of the printed page recommended Norah Lofts, attention had to be paid. Quite a successful novelist in her time, Lofts wrote three novels set in the same country house in Suffolk, England, a number of mystery novels under the pen name Peter Curtis, and several historical novels. My introduction to Lofts was her deeply moving novel about Richard the Lionhearted, The Lute Player (1951).
Usually, there are two types of historical fiction. One strings momentous events into some kind of narrative, usually propelled by a key historical figure. (An excellent example of this would be Anouilh’s Becket.) The other type usually focuses on some kind of personal drama involving fictional characters played out against the backdrop of history. (My favorite example here is Rostand’s Cyrano, where the battle of Arras is largely a matter of who loves whom.) The Lute Player is actually a wonderful synthesis of both approaches.
The novel is the story of Richard Plantagenet and the Third Crusade into the Holy Land. His vision was to Christianize Jerusalem and thereby create a multi-national Christian kingdom. (Imagine the changing tides of history had he succeeded.) It is told through three vastly different viewpoints, that of Duchess Anna Apieta (a wholly fictional character), Richard’s mother, the historical Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Blondel the lute player (a character of disputed historicity).
The Lute Player is a novel of thwarted passions, sexual and otherwise. Anna Apieta loves the lute player Blondel. However, Blondel loves Berengaria, princess of Navarre; she, in turn, loves Richard Plantagenet. But Richard loves both Blondel and, more importantly, a vision of what his kingdom would be once he has secured the Holy Land.
This simplistic summation may be misleading – rest assured that The Lute Player is no Harlequin Romance in armor. The passions of the key characters drive their personalities, and are often the root causes of decisions that change the course of history. Lofts writes with keen psychological insight and deep sympathy for her characters; her gaze is steady and critical, but charitable nonetheless.
Here is a snippet where Blondel awakes, wounded on the battlefield. On one side of him is a dead man, on the other, a man whose mouth and jaw have been hideously damaged by a sword:
Presently I was conscious of a smell of boiled mutton mingling with and then overpowering all the other smells. I opened my eyes again and saw two men, one carrying a great steaming bucket, the other a ladle and a number of bowls. “Who’s for mutton stew, fresh mutton stew?” cried the man with the bucket.
“Dead,” said the one with the bowls, peering at my right-hand neighbor and moving on to peer at me. “The next is all right. Hi, boy, want some fresh mutton stew? Put you on your legs in no time.”
“No, thank you,” I said, and ridiculous fresh tears came into my eyes as I thought how welcome, how wonderful, fresh mutton stew would have been last night; to me with an unsickened stomach, to the man on my right who would never enjoy anything again, to the man on my left who last night had had his teeth and his lips and his tongue as God made them.
Good stuff. Even better is how Lofts can delineate character in a few deft strokes. Here is Anna Apieta on an abbess:
She had a keen brain and, in any matter disconnected with the religious life, a sense of justice, a gift of logic. Professionally – and religion with its many ramifications was to her a profession rather than a vocation – she was unjust, illogical, dictatorial to an unimaginable degree, and unbearably superior. So armored, so immune, that often words failed me and I longed with childish fury to smack her smooth plump face.
The Lute Player is most deeply satisfying as an investigation into the mystery that is Richard the Lionhearted. For a mainstream novel of 1951, it treats his homosexuality in a surprisingly nonjudgmental way, and one of Blondel’s major difficulties is his own inability to respond to Richard: …I began to reckon his many virtues, his great courage, his justice, his attention to detail, his lively mind, his fortitude in adversity; even the fact that he was, when he chose, a minstrel without peer leapt up to give me a sharp stab. I had always preserved a sense of proportion in my attitude towards him, had never fallen into the state of hero worship as many diverse kinds of men had done. In the great days of his triumphs and resounding exploits some corner of my mind had stayed sour. Now in the days of his failure, with his fatal weakness exposed, my cursed minnesinger’s art set to work on him and I saw him as a great man, a hero – rebuffed by a sniffling, prudish little lute player.
But Richard also uses people indiscriminately to achieve his own ends, mercilessly slaughters captives, and is responsible for the death and mutilation of legions his own men and his enemies. At what point, Lofts seems to ask, are the great deeds of great men not worth the horrible price that accompanies them? It is a timeless question, and we are no closer to an answer now than was Lofts, nor even Richard the Lionhearted.