Rose Tremain is a historical novelist who latches on to, as one critic has put it, “unglamorous outsiders” for her protagonists. These characters invariably evoke great compassion from her readers. She couples these alienated characters with historical characters. For instance, in Restoration, the young, sensuous, but common doctor Merivel becomes part of the court of Britain’s King Charles II. In Silence and Music, the lovelorn musician Peter Claire plays his lute at the court of King Christian IV of Denmark.
Tremain’s creative method, in conjunction with her elaborate descriptions of religious attitudes, medical practices, social customs, and so forth, helps bring the historical era in question to life. In addition, by destabilizing readers’ assumptions, Tremain keeps them surprised—and thus fascinated. More than anything, she creates highly sensual, and sexual, characters who long for something or someone with great intensity but sadly, with little chance of ever achieving what they long for. For instance, in Restoration, Merivel longs for the king’s mistress, the haughty Celia. Harriet, in The Colour, longs to build a life for herself in the wilds of New Zealand. In Letter to Sister Benedicta, Amanda longs desperately for her brother while her mother, Ruby, longs for reconciliation with both her children. In Silence and Music, the king longs for his boyhood friend and to hear once more an elusive piece of music before he dies.
In addition to compelling characters, Tremain uses fascinating settings such as New Zealand in The Colour and Denmark in Silence and Music, and different times, such as 1660 England in Restoration, to lure her readers into accepting and anticipating that anything can, and will, happen. Tremain also uses humor and irony to heighten readers’ enjoyment of her novels. In The Road Home, the main character, Lev, forgets to turn off his cell phone at a musical performance, and when it rings, the orchestra conductor turns around to glare at him. Ironically, Lev is out of place, and the call is from his home in Eastern Europe, where he belongs and to which he returns in the end.
Perhaps in an effort to separate herself from the label of “historical novelist,” Tremain has tended to set her later novels in more recent times. The Road Home, for instance, tells the story of modern-day immigrants from Eastern Europe and their integration into Western Europe.
Letter to Sister Benedicta
The protagonist of Tremain’s 1978 novel Letter to Sister Benedicta is Ruby Constad. At age fifty, Ruby feels lost and so begins an intermittent letter to a favorite nun she knew as a child in India, Sister Benedicta. The letter turns into a journal in which Ruby juxtaposes the happy time in her life when she knew the sister with her present enormously sad situation. It is the Christmas season, and Ruby’s husband, Leon, a successful divorce lawyer whom she married against her family’s wishes, lies in a nursing home recovering from a stroke. Ruby’s daily visits to him are the focus of her life. Ruby and Leon’s daughter remains out of touch, and their son has left Cambridge and gone missing. Ruby’s only bit of company during this dreary holiday season is her husband’s former partner, with whom she had an affair of sorts, and his new wife.
As Ruby continues her letter to Sister Benedicta (who is aptly named, as the book is indeed a request for benediction), we learn how dysfunctional Ruby’s family really is. After ending an incestuous affair, her children have separated not only from each other but from their parents as well. Undoubtedly, Ruby is writing a letter to a dead woman that will never be mailed, but invoking the spirit of Sister Benedicta enables her to achieve some modicum of serenity. The character of Ruby makes an appearance as one of the residents of the nursing home featured in Tremain’s 2007 novel The...
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