It is a hundred years since Baroness Orczy gave us her splendid swashbuckler The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). One great admirer of the book is Peter Vansittart, who has himself written many well-received historical novels, and others with contemporary themes. The Sir Percy Blakeney type – insouciant, raffish, always liable to turn up unexpectedly in tight corners – is one he much admires. Yet, though relishing the Baroness’s work, he was also determined, as an emerging author in the 1950s, to do some something new with the historical novel, to move it on from ‘gadzookery’, or what Robert Louis Stevenson called, half-affectionately, ‘tushery’.
This Vansittart first succeeded in doing with his fine novel set in a (lightly disguised) medieval Burgundy, The Tournament (1958). His great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we
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