When I first started reading this long book, The Vizard Mask by Diana Norman, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. By the time I reached the 20% mark on my Kindle, I didn’t want it to end – so captivating was the story. The reason for my initial reaction was a combination of the style of writing (which is rich if not dense in detail) and the heroine, a Puritan named Penitence Hurd who, frankly, I couldn’t warm to at all. Not at first. Then she gripped my heart and didn’t let go…
Forced to leave her home in a fledgling colony in America and travel to London to find her Aunt, a woman whose existence her devout family denies, Penitence arrives on English soil the same day as the plague. Discovering her Aunt lives in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, a den of inequity and poverty outside the city walls, Penitence manages to find her house only to learn not only is her Aunt likely dead, but her abode is actually a whore house. The woman in charge, a formidable and harsh woman known has “her Ladyship” takes in the shocked and confused Penitence, protecting her from the usual work of the women under her roof. Much to the other women’s chagrin, Pen is given other duties, and proceeds to cast dire judgements and disapproval on all who come her way as she desperately tries to reconcile her Puritan beliefs with this shocking, disgusting and inappropriate place she has come to.
When the plague attacks in force, Pen finds not only her beliefs challenged, but also her faith in humanity restored and broken over and over. Humbled by what she witnesses, devastated by the losses the disease wreaks, Pen finds allies and enemies in unlikely places. But this is just the beginning of the incredible transformation this young woman must undergo if she is to survive, not just illness, disease, the unwanted attention of lecherous men, and the injustices heaped upon women, but Restoration London.
The days of the Republic are over; Cromwell is dead and Charles II is back on the throne and determined not to waste a day or a woman if he can help it. Theatre is alive and well, women are on stage, and the arts generally are flourishing. The seeking of pleasure is the goal of the classes that can and the envy of those who cannot. Religious dissent bubbles away and gossip and politics are never far from anyone’s minds or lips. If it’s not true, then it will be made up and, as she rises up the ranks of London Society, Pen finds how hurtful and damaging this type of talk and the scandal in its wake can be.
I don’t want to say too much more about this book for fear of spoiling it or not doing it justice. It is stunning. An epic in every sense, it slowly and carefully introduces the reader to this uptight and devout young woman and with flashbacks to her past in the Americas, allows us to come to get to know, accept and finally love Pen and who she becomes. Valiant, loyal, smart and with a difficulty she overcomes with help, Pen is a heroine for any age.
Against a backdrop of Charles II’s reign and beyond; the plague, Great Fire, death of a king, terrible war, religious discord and the rise of another king, his fall and the final reclamation of the throne by William and Mary, we follow Pen’s life and that of those who enter her orbit throughout one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods of English history.
Norman, once a journalist and renown for her historical accuracy has done an amazing job of weaving fiction and fact. Attributing actions and words to her (based on real-life) characters that were actually said by them, recreating known events but also humanising them, this book is so hard to put down. Not only that, but the character of Pen is based on a real life figure as well (I won’t reveal), whose early years are unknown, allowing Norman to colour them in fantastical and vivid detail. Pen is brought to life in spectacular and heart-breaking ways, as is the city she finds herself in and the other places she dwells in as well.
As always with this type of female-centred historical fiction, it’s hard for modern readers to stomach what happened to women in these eras. The notion of women being objects and chattels are lived and shocking experiences for which the women had no recourse. Norman does a terrific job of relaying not only how the women coped with this, but exploring those who were complicit in their subordination and those who learned ways to rise above it. She also portrays how men were also confined but empowered by the rigid gender roles and how both sexes suffered (and some thrived) as a consequence. Norman also offers an unforgiving portrait of class differences as well as prejudices.
But it’s not all suffering and there are some fabulous moments in this book that allow your heart to soar, while others make your pulse quicken with anxiety. Likewise, the language I at first found a bit intense (mainly because Pen has a habit of quoting the Bible so much) became one of the joys of the book. Norman’s turn of phrase, her ability to capture a sensation, a thought, a feeling as well as physical descriptions are just magical and poetical.
There are parts that are slow, but these are the times when Norman allows us breathing space and the opportunity to get to know not just the fascinating and flawed people populating her novel and the period – from kings to playwrights to printers and farmers and soldiers, but the places as well; her descriptions are magnificent and place you firmly in the moment.
So, far from casting the book aside, I immersed myself in it. Read concurrently with Antonia Fraser’s biography of King Charles II, I can attest to the level of research (as well as other books I am reading on the period) and am in awe of Norman’s ability to weave fact and fiction so seamlessly and entertainingly.
I confess, like so many others, I fell in love with the unlikely heroine with the debilitating stutter. She captured my heart, as has Norman’s writing. I cannot wait to explore her other books, including those she wrote under a different pen name. That she died in 2011 was a great loss to literature and lovers of history and historical fiction. I hope someone penned her a deserving epitaph and I am so grateful we continue to gain pleasure from her wonderful imagination and research.