Bruce Holsinger‘s mystery, A Burnable Book, sees the poet John Gower brought vividly to life…
Crime, corruption, international conspiracy, deadly prophecies and missing manuscripts, English prostitutes and Italian mercenaries: A Burnable Book is a historical thriller that tells a big story with a lot of moving parts. While writing the novel I often felt that I was scripting an episode of Prime Suspect or The Wire—but setting it in medieval England rather than the present! At its heart, though, A Burnable Book tells a more intimate story about a real-life friendship, and it was imagining the dark sides of this particular historical friendship that inspired me to begin sketching out the larger tale told in the novel.
John Gower, our deeply flawed protagonist, was an English poet who lived in the late fourteenth century—the age of Richard II, John of Gaunt, and Henry Bolingbroke, whose lives are so vividly recreated in several of William Shakespeare’s history plays. This was also the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, and generally regarded as the greatest English writer before the Bard. Despite his prolific career and his featured role in Shakespeare’s Pericles, though, Gower has always suffered by comparison to his more illustrious contemporary. Yet Gower and Chaucer were close and perhaps life-long friends. We know about this friendship from several sources, including a document granting Gower power of attorney during one of Chaucer’s mysterious trips to Italy. They both lived in and around London (Chaucer over Aldgate, Gower across the bridge in Southwark) and must have swapped poetry and discussed their writing on a regular basis.
There are also several fascinating moments in which the two men speak to one another within the lines of their poetry. One of these is an intriguing stanza that comes near the end of Troilus and Criseyde. It begins like this (and I’m modernizing the Middle English):
Oh Moral Gower! This book I direct
To thee, and to thee, philosophical Strode,
To approve, and where there’s need, to correct…
In calling his friend “Moral Gower,” Chaucer portrays his friend as the morally upright fellow that tradition has assumed him to be. This is a view seemingly validated by Gower’s own poetry, which can tend to be rather plodding, severe, and, yes, moralistic. (“Philosophical Strode,” incidentally, is Ralph Strode, a medieval London bureaucrat who also plays an important role in the novel.)
The protagonist of A Burnable Book is a more…let’s say compromised Gower. We all have at least one difficult friendship, full of petty jealousies and unspoken resentments. One of the guilty pleasures of writing this novel has come in portraying the darker sides of Gower’s character and of his friendship with Chaucer. The story begins as Chaucer sets Gower on the trail of a lost book of prophecies—a book with explosive implications for the realm, but also for the complicated relationship between these two old friends. As the bigger story plays out in the arena of city politics and international intrigue, Gower must confront the more intimate balance of loyalty and betrayal as it bears on his closest friendship, his family, and his own life.
I suppose all of this explains why I love writing historical fiction—and also teaching it to college students (in my day job I am a professor of English). Historical fiction allows you to tell big, sweeping stories about the past, yet forces you to ground these stories in the difficult intricacy of human relationships and rivalries.
No one understood these tensions more deeply than John Gower. As he put it near the end of his greatest work, “I know not how the world is went.”
Bruce Holsinger, for Waterstones.com/blog
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