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The Fire and the Rose

by Robyn Cadwallader

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England, 1276. Forced to leave her home village, Eleanor moves to Lincoln to work as a housemaid. She's prickly, independent and curious, her prospects blighted by a port-wine birthmark across her face. Unusually for a woman, she has fine skills with ink and quill, and harbours a secret ambition to work as a scribe, a profession closed to women. Eleanor discovers that Lincoln is a dangerous place, divided by religious prejudice, the Jews frequently the focus of violence and forced to wear a yellow badge. She falls in love with Asher, a Jewish spicer, who shares her love of books and words, but their relationship is forbidden by law. When Eleanor is pulled into the dark depths of the church's machinations against Jews and the king issues an edict expelling all Jews from England, Eleanor and Asher are faced with an impossible choice.… (more)
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HistFic that explores injustice in the past can shine a light on pernicious effects that persist to this day. Robyn Cadwallader's latest novel The Fire and the Rose isn't just a novel of star-crossed lovers frustrated by religious differences, and it isn't just an independent woman confronting barriers to her ambitions. Even if you know something of the long history of anti-Semitism, it's a confronting exposé of its prevalence in England in the medieval period, from the role of the church in perpetuating an untrue historical record to the king's expulsion of all Jews in 1290. Most powerfully, as it says on the back cover blurb:
... it is also a novel about what it is to be made 'other', to be exiled from home and family. But it is also a call to recognise how much we need the other, the one we do not understand, making it a strikingly resonant and powerfully hopeful novel for our times.

Readers of The Anchoress (2015) will remember Eleanor, the child who is taught to read and write by Sarah, the anchoress. Twenty years later in The Fire and the Rose, the orphaned Eleanor is working as a housemaid for a wool merchant in 13th century Lincoln. She has hopes of getting more satisfying work as a scribe, refusing a patronising offer from marriage from Jevon, a man who tells her he's prepared to overlook the birthmark on her face.
Eleanor steps back. 'I live well enough here. I like it.'

'You like cleaning someone else's house for him, digging in someone else's soil, tending a feeble garden?'

She glares. 'I can write, Jevon. I have skills I want to use for more than estate accounts.'

He steps closer. 'Ellie, don't be foolish. You're a woman. You won't get work as a scribe. You either scrub Stephen's pots and dig his garden, or you marry me.' He pauses and gestures to her face. 'And there's not many men as will see past that.' (p.29)

Unsurprisingly, Eleanor decided she was better without a man at all.

But then there's Asher, a Jewish spice merchant...

Initially, Eleanor shares some of the prejudices she hears all around her, but her regular visits to buy spice piques her interest in the Hebrew script. He's intrigued that she can read and write, and despite the prohibitions — social and legal — a covert relationship eventually results in the awkwardness of a pregnancy. When her pregnancy is known, her employer sends her packing, leaving Eleanor without an income or a home.

The friendship of other women supports Eleanor through this difficult time. Because I take an interest in the way that older women are represented in fiction, I particularly liked the dynamic characterisation of Marchota, an older Jewish businesswoman reviled for her alleged part in the kidnapping and torture of a boy called Luke. Her dignity and resilience in the face of persecution is impressive, and she becomes Eleanor's mainstay despite her own troubles. During the real-time chronology of this novel, there were mass imprisonments of Jews, arbitrary executions, punishing taxation and the humiliating requirement forcing Jews to wear a yellow badge, and these statutes affect the Jewish characters at different times.

Asher, Marchota, Chera and Milla are all impacted by restrictions on how they can make a living, measures intended to pressure them into conversion. The looming forced expulsion of all Jews from England forces Eleanor to consider whether she should convert so that they can marry and leave England together. But Cadwallader doesn't romanticise things...

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2023/05/03/the-fire-and-the-rose-2023-by-robyn-cadwalla... ( )
  anzlitlovers | May 3, 2023 |
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England, 1276. Forced to leave her home village, Eleanor moves to Lincoln to work as a housemaid. She's prickly, independent and curious, her prospects blighted by a port-wine birthmark across her face. Unusually for a woman, she has fine skills with ink and quill, and harbours a secret ambition to work as a scribe, a profession closed to women. Eleanor discovers that Lincoln is a dangerous place, divided by religious prejudice, the Jews frequently the focus of violence and forced to wear a yellow badge. She falls in love with Asher, a Jewish spicer, who shares her love of books and words, but their relationship is forbidden by law. When Eleanor is pulled into the dark depths of the church's machinations against Jews and the king issues an edict expelling all Jews from England, Eleanor and Asher are faced with an impossible choice.

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