SEVEN STARS AND ORION (1934)
1934 Michael Joseph. [Published under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby.]
Sister Marie Louise taught [Isobel] reading, writing, French and Latin. The French nun had her brother's brilliance, both as a scholar and a teacher, and Isobel was quick to learn and very retentive of knowledge when she had gained it.
“I see,” said the Sister jokingly one day, “that it will not be necessary for me to beat you.” Isobel took the remark seriously.
“If I could learn more quickly,” she said, “I would. No amount of beating would improve me. It would only spoil my temper, and then, being angry, I should kill you. And to kill you,” she continued, pursuing the train of thought in the reasonable manner inculcated by Sister Marie Louise herself, “would be a deadly sin, since I know that in all respects you are both good and beautiful.”
“To kill anyone would be a deadly sin,” said the nun gently. Isobel shook her head.
“You must see for yourself that that is nonsense,” she observed. Afraid of what might be coming next, Sister Marie Louise allowed the conversation to languish.
The Brakeland family had once owned its land and prospered, selling its bounty to the monastery of Targe. An unwise decision by one Brakeland ancestor, however, reversed the family fortune when much of their land was sold to the monks to fund a crusade, making the current family at Brakelands tenants of Targe. Headstrong, clear-eyed Isobel, frustrated by the circumstances and angered at her father's complacency, makes immediate and long-term plans to define her own fate and purchase the land back from the monastery.
As a young woman trying to act independently in the first half of 14th century England, she faces many challenges. The estate and grounds are her brother Geoffrey's provenance, even though Isobel is three years older. She receives little support from her sister Modwen, who has fully embraced the obsessions and dramas provided by the nuns at Seawake as she becomes a novitiate. Her younger sister Judith comes to greatly resent Isobel, in part because she is in love with Edward Ralleyne, the nobleman's son who Isobel views as a means to help reclaim Brakelands. Brothers Simon and Adam, being born after Geoffrey, are destined to study at Targe and eventually become monks themselves.
Isobel's plans – which are often at odds with the wishes of her father, Roger – include building a pay toll station on the river to collect a tax from the traders that appear in boats and barges during the spring; monitoring whether intellectual, saturnine Simon or good-natured Adam might be chosen as the Abbot of Targe; and forming an alliance with the Ralleyne family to persuade Edward to restore the land of Brakelands as a gift. As she pursues her goal through the years, Isobel faces many hardships and setbacks with an admirable stoicism. She and her siblings must contend with crusades that remove Roger and Geoffrey for months at a time, unrequited relationships, childless marriages, and a horrific plague that decimates the castles, abbeys, and homes of nobility, clergy, and peasants alike. Throughout these events, the Brakeland family members never lose their humanity and complexity as they each create their own path and destiny, whether or not it is dictated by the times in which they live.
Over the last decade, I have read Seven Stars and Orion five times. I keep returning to this subdued but spellbinding chronicle of the fortunes and fate of one family in England's Late Middle Ages because author Gladys Mitchell (writing as Stephen Hockaby) has crafted a brilliantly realized world worthy of her great characters. Mitchell's fiction from the 1930s and 1940s is always specific and evocative, but this tale might be her most successful: every action and observational detail is simultaneously vivid, compelling, and very believable. From the matter-of-fact narrative that presents child Isobel's plan to orchestrate the accidental decapitation of a goose (thus providing an excuse for an early feast) to the clear-eyed descriptions of the plague's toll on the nuns and monks at their abbeys, the story that is told carries the fascinating, convincing ring of truth.
In addition to the Brakeland family at center, dozens of supporting characters are introduced and create colorful impressions, often through just a few lines of exposition or dialogue. It's a novel whose aspirations are both hugely ambitious and also practical. Through Isobel's goal to make Brakelands independent of Targe, Gladys Mitchell brilliantly uses her strong plot and characters to explore the societal perspectives and prejudices of 14th century feudal England. Admirably, she is never critical but instead reports the cruel realities of the era by showing its effects through the mindsets and fates of her characters.
And what amazing, complex characters these are: while Isobel is the likeable, strong figure at the center, Geoffrey, quick to argue with his sister but generous and well-meaning, and little Judith, jealous of Isobel and resentful of having her life consigned to the nunnery, are full-bodied, important creations. I love, too, that the years bring a change in personality for many characters, which is another detail that seems particularly attuned to the psychology of real life. Thoughtful, loving patriarch Roger becomes irritable and close-minded as age and his experiences in the crusades color his judgment; time transforms Hildegarde Ralleyne, the noble-born Abbess of Seawake, from an indulgent sensualist to a severe disciplinarian as she punishes young nuns for indiscretions that she herself had committed decades earlier.
Seven Stars and Orion also includes the author's most forthright exploration of same-sex relationships of all her books. Through its historical setting, this novel – dedicated to Winifred Blazey, a fellow author with whom Mitchell would share a home for years – seems to have allowed the writer to more directly address the subject than she could in the contemporary Mrs. Bradley mysteries. (Late titles Nest of Vipers and Here Lies Gloria Mundy feature lesbian characters, while the murder victim of Mitchell's very first mystery, 1929's Speedy Death, is a woman passing herself off as a man and engaged to another woman.) In Seven Stars, middle sister Modwen takes “a little nun” to share her bed at the convent, and their relationship, while not overly detailed, is clearly that of an emotionally connected couple in love. And the teenage Isobel, who will master the ability to subvert passion with pragmatism, feels flushed and shy around the beautiful, worldly Hildegarde Ralleyne. If these examples don't sound exceptionally bold, within the story they are revelatory, accurate and true to the characters who are affected by these attractions. And as with every other detail presented in this incredible book, they contribute powerfully to create a world and characters that feel honest, realistic, genuine, simple, and profound.