|Abbess Helewise & Josse d'Acquin
(creator: Alys Clare)
|Abbess Helewise was the fourth abbess of the recently-completed Hawkenlye Abbey near Tonbridge in Kent. She had been abbess for five years when we first meet her. She had been appointed by Queen Eleanor in 1184 at the age of 32, and had "made up her mind that she would be the most efficient, most effective abbess that Hawkenlye had ever had". She "knew she suited the Abbey - false modesty was not one of Helewise's character traits - and she also knew that the Abbey suited her." She was well aware that "pride had no place in a nun" but, "if pride led her to doing the job well, Helewise concluded, then proud she would be."
She had red-gold hair and a face with "strong features, with well-marked eyebrows, large grey eyes, and a wide mouth that looked as if it smiled readily". She was "one whose wide brow and penetrating eyes spoke so clearly of intelligence" but who usually looked "calm, controlled, slightly aloof". She was tall and broad-shouldered and had "a surprisingly square and strong-looking hand". She was very shrewd and "was very good at looking at things practically". She "did most things quietly but with a serene grace of which she was unaware", but she could be stubborn too. She had once been happily married with two sons, but had lost her husband, Ivo. "She is a good woman, honourable, hard-working, devout."
Alys Clare is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Harris (1944- ), who has published some twenty-five novels. She grew up and still lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, but spends part of each year in a remote cottage in Brittany, from where she can find and research French settings. She graduated from Keele University with a degree in English and pyschology, then took a Certificate in Archaeology at the University of Kent. She became a full-time writer after her first novel was published in 1990.
Fortune Like the Moon (1999)
He joins with Abbess Helewise in tracking down the murderer, but soon another nun meets her death, but in a very different way, so Helewise is sure that it isn't the work of the one murderer. She has to stay at the Abbey, but Josse is free to do the legwork. It is he who works out who the two victims really are, but she who understands the reasons behind trhe crimes. One of them, before she entered the convent, had been put off by the idea of physical love. "The realisation," explains Helewise to Josse, "that, from the very day they join us, they will for ever more sleep alone, comes to some women I assure you, as nothing but a vast relief".
Although the nun's wounds are realistically described ("I may not know much," the infirmarer Sister Euphemis tells Josse, "but I do know the female genitalia. I was a midwife, afore I entered the cloister, and I've seen more vaginas than you've had hot suppers... Nobody'd raped her, not then, not ever"), it sometimes reads read more of a romantic novel than a who-dunnit, as in conversations like:
Josse soon forms a good working relationship with Helewise, Indeed, by the end of the book, she has even started calling him Josse rather than Sir Josse. And he begins to realise "what a good place Hawkenlye Abbey was". It all falls well short of Sister Fidelma or even Brother Cadfael, but makes quite an interesting, if undemanding, story.
Ashes of the Elements (2000)
Characters who appear include King Richard I's mother, Queen Eleanor, who has a (not altogether convincing) gossipy chat to Helewise about her son, the King, who has just got married: "I knew as soon as I saw Berengaria (his new wife), that she was not for him ... Richard has been King of England for almost two years, and, but for four months he has been out of the country .... Crusading, always crusading!"
Then there's the rather stock figure of the incompetent Sheriff of Tonbridge, and there's a mysterious robed woman called Domina, who has frightening supernatural powers, and is one of the Forest People. When she looked at Helewise, Helewise felt as if "her very brain were being penetrated. By two thin beams of white light, which seemed to emanate drom the Domina's extraordinary eyes and pierce through Helewise's pupils. It was a ghastly sensation". It is she who had held a girl down in a weird forest ceremony in which the girl seemed to have been raped in quick succession by five different men. But, as Domina pointed out, this was their way of limiting their numbers. Every two hundred moons, "a ripe virgin is chosen, who is the recipient of the seed of the tribe". For the girl, in her sixteenth year, it is a great honour. Josse "could scarcely believe that here in this forest .... an ancient people still lived who worshipped the old goddesses and gods, whose lives were ruled by the moon and the sun. Who had not, it seemed, been touched by the least fingertip of late twelfth-century civilisation".
The forest itself is frighteningly described. Josse, alone there, comes across two trees. He "was hit with a devastating sadness, a mourning, almost, for the vast dying thing (a tree) that lay at his feet". Then he moved over to a smaller oak: "This time there was sorrow, there was anger. Someone had killed this tree deliberately. And the forest was furious .'... He stood in awe of some vast natural power, but it was not an evil force". And there is strange music: "a humming sound, rather lovely at first, sweet, like singing. Or chanting perhaps. But then as if the strange music had slid into a scale that no human ever used, it began to chill the very soul", and Josse began to feel that "there were people out there, watching him from their hiding places, deep-set eyes penetrating the shadows, lighting on him, knowing him ...." All this is well done.
Relations between Josse and Helewise remain strictly formal, except for one night when he has to keep the injured abbess warm while they are out in the forest. So "he gently turned her on to her right side, the front of her body to the fire, and lay down beside her. She was well wrapped-up ,,,, nevertheless he felt that he was committing a sin. 'I've got to keep her warm,' he said aloud to no-one in particular. 'I'm doing it the best way I can, by building the fire and by the heat of my own body. But I -'
Recommended as quite a good read - but you don't have to take it too seriously.
The Tavern in the Morning (2000)
He wakes up to find he is being hidden away and tended to by a 7-year-old boy, called Ninian. Then, right at the end of the chapter, he looks up to find that someone else had arrived: "The figure standing at the door wasn't Ninian. it was a woman." End of chapter. Then the next chapter starts: "A very beautiful woman". As you might expect! Her name turns out to be Joanna, and he later learns that she and her son (?) are fleeing from that same nobleman, Denys de Courtenay.
Jesse rides off to get medical help from Hawkenlye Abbey (where Abbess Helewise is struggling to recover from a fever) and to seek Helewise's advice. While he lies ill, Courtenay himself comes to see if the girl whom he calls his niece has taken refuge at the abbey. Helewise was not impressed by his unctuous charm, and, for a split second, "saw something infinitely sinister and cunning in his dark eyes". She discovers that Joanna was in fact his second cousin - not his niece, and so would be free to marry her. So what is his real motive for pursuing her?
Jesse follows in his trail, helped and encouraged by Joanna with whom he forms a close (and very explicit and convincing) sexual relationship. It all makes an engrossing story, made all the more so by a horrific flashback to what had happened to Joanna at the Royal Court when she was only sixteen.
The story holds the interest throughout and is enlivened by some nice moments of humour as when the dastardly de Courtenay finds that the two thugs he has hired cannot stand up to Josse: "What has become of the honest serving man?" he asks.
The ending is not entirely convincing, but it all makes an enjoyable, if quite undemanding, read.
Chatter of the Maidens (2001)
Meanwhile, Sir Josse has been taken seriously ill with blood poisoning, and is carried to the abbey for treatment. Then a dead body is discovered and Sister Alba escapes from her cell. Helewise, feeling it is her responsibility to find out more about Alba's background, sets out on a long and dangerous journey to Ely and the surrounding fen country, where she visits a lonely, desolate convent with only four nuns left. The abbess there tells her, "We receive few visitors, as you will readily understand. Those who do persevere through the marsh, the mists and the biting flies all say the same thing. How do we cope with living out here? .... We always say the same words, That God has called us to this lonely, desolate place in order that His precious light shall illuminate the darkness, and that when He calls, we obey". It is here that Helewise discovers there is much more to Alba's background than she could ever have supposed. It makes for an engrossing story with plenty of action.
It's all written with a gentle sense of humour, as when an embarrassed Josse finds himself trying to explain the Immaculate Conception to inquisitive 14-year-old Berthe, or when Helewise, unused to riding long distances, arrives at a small convent for her first overnight stay and realises that "it wasn't going to be easy to be dignified, when the only way she could walk was with her legs bowed out wide enough to circle a beer barrel".
In this story it is Helewise who gets out and about, and Josse who has to be left back at the abbey, trying to work things out. As he modestly points out, "The Abbess is the brains, I am merely the brawn .... On this occasion, I fear she had to be both brain and brawn". As another character tells them, they make a good team. Even so, they do not always agree about everything. Helewise is shocked when she and Josse come across two teenagers, one of them her charge, young Meriel, making love, but Josse "saw them again in his mind's eye, that handsome. loving pair. There was love, right enough, he thought". But Helewise could only grunt, "Humph!"
It makes an enjoyable story. Recommended.
The Faithful Dead (2002)
The Eye had, we are told, originally been given to Nebuchadrezzar, King of Judah, by the Persian King Cyrus! The crusades are realistically described, so all this might have made quite an interesting story in itself, but it is told at such length that it distorts the shape of the narrative and distracts attention from what is happening to Josse and the abbey, where Josse's younger brother Yves had unexpectedly turned up.
Then, when Josse himself gets possession of the Eye, its magical powers present the author with considerable problems if she is stop the whole story sounding like a fairy tale. In the end, Josse hands over the Eye to Abbess Helewise. She tries reducing its evil emanations by placing it under the altar, but finds that it still "lived up to its reputation. It lowered fevers. Or, of course, it might have been Sister Euphemia's endless efforts, her patience and skill. Sister Euphemia, that was, guided by and acting for God." Earlier on, though, it had been clearly described as having strange and wonderful powers of its own. Of course, if it really had these powers, it would reduce abbey life and its (less effective) healing spring to nonsense. So, in the next three books, we get no further mention of the Eye. Indeed when the few outstanding treasures of the abbey are listed, it does not even get a mention. The author seems to have found it more convenient to forget all about it, until she eventually finds a need to resurrect it in Heart of Ice.
A Dark Night Hidden (2003)
His main victims are a group of Cathars from the continent. One of these, a badly tortured woman, her forehead branded and her back covered in infected weals from a brutal flogging, takes refuge at the abbey. Sir Josse d'Aquin is one of those who wants to help them flee the country. Helewise appreciates "what a fine figure of a man he was. Stop it, she ordered herself firmly. Stop looking at him like that". And she does. But she finds it hard to agree with him about helping heretics: "Heretics say terrible things, Sir Josse, They claim that Christ is not divine! .... They scorn the clergy and say that each and every man and woman may address the deity personally .... Heresy must not be allowed to spread. Because it will lead directly to men and women dying in a state of sin".
Life inside the abbey is well described, but a whole section is devoted to the forest people and their pagan rites, and tells how newcomer Joanna (who was the mother of Josse's child, although he did not know this) is initiated, after being visited by a man in a bear mask who had a "strange face that was sometimes a muzzle thickly covered in dark brown fur, sometimes the features of a man with delight in his dark eyes that sparkled with firelight. Which was peculiar, she thought afterwards, since he had stood with his back to the flames."
The forest people lack credibility. In addition, the narrative unfolds in a disjointed sort of way. and the episodic treatment does not always hold the interest. Then, right at the end, there is an incomprehensible map, attempting to show the spread of heresy in Europe. Not one of the best books in the series.
Whiter Than the Lily (2004)
Josse feels compelled to investigate, even though this involves more than one visit to the dangerous marshes where, at a place known by outsiders as Dreadfall, a savage and brutal pagan race still survive, led by a violent chief. with the help of a seer with strange frightening eyes: "Silvery, luminous, as if they were lit from within by some unearthly radiance". It is not too obvious why Josse risks his life there: "He was beginning to think he had made a bad mistake in coming", but then discovers a drugged and chain girl who (of course) he feels he must rescue.
But, as the plot gets more and more convoluted, Josse thinks, "I am fumbling in the dark. There is so much that I do not know - that I believe is being deliberately obfuscated and kept from me". Then he finds he been suspecting the wrong person of being a murderer.
Interestingly, for the first time, we get some information about how Helewise came to be a nun: "When I was widowed," she confides in Ambrose, "the options were few and little to my liking. I had not thought to take the veil, for I had no desire for the limited life that I believed would be my lot behind convent walls. But then I heard of Hawkenlye Abbey, and I learned about the principles upon which it was founded, and I thought that it was where I wanted to be. I was admitted to the congregation, I grew to love the place, I learned the meaning of a truly satisfying day's work, I discovered that God had a plan for me all along, and ever since I have done my utmost to follow it". But what were those principles that so attracted her?
There is quite a lot of action in this story, which begins well, but the latter part, where the emphasis is on Josse rather than Helewise, gets rather drawn-out.
Girl in a Red Tunic (2005)
Helewise and Josse set off to the Old Manor, Leofric's house and her old home, but there is no sign of them there. Helewise is reminded of her own past when she first met and married her late husband, Ivo. She was only fourteen at the time but very much in love with him. This is another of those long flashbacks (36 pages) that really do break up the flow of the narrative. It includes not only some essential information, but digressions such as an explanation that when Helewise's younger sister Aelis, then aged ten, grows up, her "big-hearted and apparently endless well of love (for animals) will be turned to humans when, after giving birth to her one and only child, she will set about opening her home to foundlings and proceeding to give food, warmth and the hope of a chance in life to many who would otherwise have died young". What, surprisingly, we have not yet been told is how Ivo died. Now that is a flashback that would be interesting. As is a later flashback of only four pages, when we hear how the murderer's past provided his motivation.
The author can be very gritty and explicit, as when she describes a man's dead body being fed to the pigs, or an attempted rape scene, but when Helewise and Ivo make love, "she finds the sight of his hairy chest, flat belly and obvious strength very arousing ... but Helewise is unafraid and she stares at his manhood, reaching out her hand to touch. As her fingers begin to caress, Ivo lets out a moan of desire ...."
Jesse's favourite expression "God's boots!" was a new one on me, but the author is a historian, and usually gets this sort of thing right. Similarly, Helewise is given what sounds like genuine contemporary contraceptive advice by her old nurse, Elena, just before she gets married: "It's said that a poultice of hemlock applied to a man's testicles prevents the shedding of fertile seed, but I've known that fail and in my opinion it's not to be relied on, besides being a mite unconfortable. For the man, anyway!" Other "suggestions are reasonably acceptable: wearing a crown of myrtle to delay conception, or chewing raspberry leaves to make the womb 'clench', whatever that means, and thus render itself unwelcoming. Secreting walnuts in her bodice, one nut for every month that she wishes to delay conception".
In the end, Helewise herself gets kidnapped, and there is an exciting rescue. However, the explanation that after a wicked old philanderer had been "robbed of my manhood" in a riding accident, he did not want to lose face so always arranged for his faithful servant to take his place at the critical moment so that "the girls were not heard to complain", does not sound too probable.
Heart of Ice (2006)
Searching desperately for help, Helewise has "a snatch of memory, nothing more, from, what, a year and a half ago?". She has remembered that on a hidden ledge behind the altar she had placed the Eye of Jerusalem, that amazing magical healing jewel given her by Josse, that had already been successfully tried out "when there was that ourtbreak of fever a year ago last autumn". Why on earth she had never given it a thought since then is not explained.
Helewise herself sets about helping to nurse the victims, then she too goes down with the plague. The Eye, though, does not seem to help her - or indeed anyone else. Sister Euphemia, the experienced old infimarer (with particular expertise at nursing old men, examining murderered bodies, and advising on women's troubles) finds her energy and talents stretched to the limits. But she can't do anything for Helewise, so young Sister Tiphaine, the herbalist, sets off back to her old home ground in the forest to enlist the help of Joanna, who had made her new home there and been initiated as one of the forest people..
Joanna herself had been away, with her toddler daughter Meggie, on what sounds a highly organised and demanding sort of mystical training course for pagan healers that had taken her over the sea, first to "Mona's Isle" then on to Brittany. It all gets very weird and mysterious, and comes complete with tribal ceremonies in which the people re-enacted their past and "screamed their defiance and their pride". Joanna is given a new name, Beith, and is solemnly told: "Our great task is to search for the sublime, to delve into what is secret and arcane and, by so doing, achieve the uplifting that is our destiny."
Some of the pagan ideas sound strangely modern, as when she was taught "the extraordinary concept that a person's body may be made ill because their mind is in distress'. But she is also taught the use of magical drugs "that give insight and, in a lucky few, open the window on the future and bestow the gift of prophecy". She ends up on her first "soul journey", floating above the land of Lyonesse and seeing what happened in the past. All this is described at great length (42 pages), and the author obviously takes it very seriously. Indeed even Abbess Helewise hears an inner voice telling her: "All gods are one god and behind them is the truth."
Josse had been told that a female descendant of his would have great powers with the Eye, so Joanna is eventually persuaded to let her 6 month old daughter (whom Josse had fathered) to dip the Eye in healing water when "the water began to shine. As if a miniscule fragment of a bright star had fallen into it - or perhaps was reflected in it - for the space of a few heartbeats the water emitted a brilliant light. It faded, quite slowly, but when it had gone the water had changed; it was purer, clearer and brighter" - and it's magical powers had been restored. Sister Euphemia later "often asked herself whether that mysterious draught really had anything to do with their (the victims') recovery or whether it was simply that that the illness had run its course and at last left their racked bodies .... Rational thinking was all very well, however; the other part of Sister Euphemia, the one which knew that she had observed not one, but several miracles, put logic right out of mind and prompted her to go down in her knees and thank God for his mercy".
But it needs the help of Joanna herself to save Helewise, "She sees herself as just a channel through which people can be helped. "It is we who heal." her voices told her.
So "standing in the recess where the Abbess lay dying. Joanna drew on all that she had been taught and sent out a silent cry to the spirits clustering around her to help her find the swiftly receding soul and bring it back". And you can guess what happens. "The power came in waves; one at the start was so strong that she felt as if a great jolt had flowed through her, jerking her like a puppet dancing on its strings. She heard them, sometimes she though she could see them. They chanted - quietly, hypnotically, continuously - and they wore white. In their hands they held rods tipped with quartz that looked very like her own. But the mighty strength that came pulsing out from them was as far removed from anything she had yet achieved as a puddle is from an ocean". All this romantic fantasy makes a strange contrast with the very down-to-earth descriptions of plague victims.
The murderer, a professional assassin, is identified, and even Prince John seems to have had a hand in it all. As the author admits in a postscript, there is no evidence to support this - but it is the sort of thing he might have done! Meanwhile, King Richard is welcomed back home again, and he and his mother, Queen Eleanor (Helewise's old friend), attend a special thanksgiving service at Hawkenlye Abbey.
This series of books seems to have run its course, and it's difficult to see where any further episodes could take us, unless either Abbess Helewise elopes with Josse (and they are both far too much in control of themselves to do this) or the pagan Forest Folk take over the Abbey with Joanna as the Great One in charge (you can't help feeling that the author might quite like this, but what would happen then to poor Helewise?). But it seems that at least three further Hawkenlye novels are in the pipeline, so presumably there'll be yet more of the same.
The Enchanter's Forest (2007)
As she explains to Sir Josse d'Acquin, "We need the funds, you see ... If our benefactors choose to support a rival foundation, then with a huge and unfillable hole in our income and, far more crucially, without the needy, the lost, the sick and the desperate to care for, we shall no longer have a reason to exist and we are lost." They could, of course, have tried living a life of prayer and praise, but that is not what interests Helewise. She seems little concerned with such pious activities. She does not even seem to spend time caring for the nuns in her charge. She does not do all that much detection either.
Most of the story is taken up, not by her adventures, but those of Josse who sets off for Brittany in order to see what he hopes will be the true tomb of Merlin. Then he can come home and tell people that the newly found tomb in the forest near Hawkenlye must be a fake. It does not seem a very convincing motive for such a long and dangerous journey, as there is no possible proof that he could bring back with him.
However he is very happy to be accompanied by his one-time lover Joanna (who is now one of the magical "forest people") and Meggie, their two and a half year old daughter - and it is not long before they are having romantic nude swims and making love again. She admits to him that she has "lain with another since I lay with you", but as this was a bear man, perhaps it does not count. Josse reflects, "A man who could turn into a bear! No, no, no, it was just not credible.". How right he was! But odder things than this happen before the story ends.
Meanwhile Helewise, back at the abbey and missing most of the action, "realised that, a considerable time spent in deep thought notwithstanding, she didn't seem to have come up with anything very helpful. Also that she had absolutely no idea of what to do next. I have spent far too much time on this already, she rebuked herself strongly. In order that my musings shall not be entirely wasted, I must worry my thoughts to a conclusion and then leave the matter alone and get on with my work." It all sounds very stilted.
There is some occasional exciting action, but it is difficult to feel involved with such unconvincing characters and unlikely events. And the ending of the book is quite ludicrous. Josse does not quite appear as King of the Fairies - but it is almost as silly as this. It's no wonder that Hodder & Stoughton decided against publishing any more books in this series, and the author had to find another publisher.
The Paths of the Air (2008)
Unfortunately much of the interesting action is set in the past in crusading times at Outremer (that, according to the map provided, stretched all the way from the Dead Sea to Tarsus and included Cyprus) and, despite some lethal work with arrows, it does not make a very exciting story. All the emphasis is on Josse, with Helewise playing a very minor role, and the plot, complete with wandering Saracens as well as Crusaders, gets very confusing with the monk being hunted by as many as three different groups.
The author's historical research is put to good use when Sister Celise and Josse have to help a badly injured man who has an arrow sticking into his chest. "What should I do, so Josse?," she asks him. "I have never extracted an arrow before, although I did once deal with a spear wound."
When Josse's horse returns to the abbey with blood on his neck, Helewise thinks, "Was Josse too hurt? Was he - oh surely not! - was he dead? No, no, he can't be!" How right she was! But it was a pity that his adventures were not a bit more gripping.
The books are now published by Severn Press, a niche company specializing in small print runs of hardbacks for the library market (not all the titles necessarily appear in paperback) - and you cannot help feeling that they are increasingly aimed at perhaps not-too-demanding library readers.
The Joys of My Life (2008)
As Helewise heads for home, Josse follows the trail of the leader of the errant knights to Chartres, where at night in the shadows of the new cathedral he meets the last person he expects to find there: Joanna, the mother of his six-year-old daughter. She is one of the "Forest People" who fear that the building of the new cathedral may interfere with their Well of the Strong which "poured out its vital earth energy. To Joanna's people, this precious holy spot was the dwelling place of the Mother Goddess and for countless generations they had honoured her there, setting up her image in the form of a beautiful dark-wood statue of the fecund, heavily pregnant goddess." In the end, this statue finds its way to Hawkenlye, where Helewise decides to have the best of both worlds by hiding it in the crypt of her new chapel!
However, the emphasis at first is very much on Josse as he tries to uncover who the devil worshippers had been and what they had been up to. This is quite dramatic and certainly holds the interest, although, as Josse admits, "Richard might have had his faults, but descending to the level of a devil worshipper and child molester was surely too much to believe."
However, as soon as Joanna (who, we are told, had "received notification" that she was return to Chartres as she was one of the "Great Ones") appears, the plot becomes totally implausible, building up to a really absurd climax in which it is explained that Joanna "and the entity known as the Bear Man (the supernatural part-man part-bear with whom she has been sleeping when not making love to Josse !) gave up their essence .... and merged themselves in the come of power. It rose up to the heavens and drove deep down into the ground in that place that has always been sacred to us (the forest folk). The force that lies within the earth answered and opened up to admit them. Power is now great - greater than it has ever been- and nothing can destroy it. Now and for ever we and what we believe will stay there .... it will be there as long as the world lasts, even if the cathedral falls, the power will remain."
The very last chapter jumps 10 years ahead to a time when Helewise has not only given up being an abbess but abandons monastic life altogether. Instead she goes off to live with - guess whom?
This is mercifully the last book of a series that began so much better than it finished.
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|The book cover design was radically changed with The Girl in the Red Tunic (below). It looks much more inviting now.|