November 9th, 2008


Forgotten Favourites

lady_schrapnell wrote a post the other day about how so many books about Roman Britain are bad unless written by Rosemary Sutcliff. In a comment, I recommended Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence, and was reminded not only how charming that book was, but how she's a subtle and often overlooked author (not to be confused with the Ann Lawrence who pops up if you Google the name - that one's the writer of bodice-ripper romances).

The lightest, and most amusing, of her books is Tom Ass or The Second Gift, which tells the fairy-tale story of young Tom, convinced he was going to Make Good, but too lazy to do anything to make it happen. A Fairy Godmother with a somewhat astringent sense of humour, gives him the magical gift that whatever he starts doing in the morning he will do until sunset. When he complains, after finding himself housekeeping all day long, he ends up in the form of a donkey. How he makes his fortune anyway, with the help of a sensible and enterprising young woman, makes a most enjoyable tale for middle readers.

Dealing with much more serious themes is Mr Robertson's Five Hundred Pounds in which a young apprentice loses the titular amount to a confidence trickster and then travels with his master to try to retrieve it. Set in Elizabethan Europe, it concerns itself much with the religious intolerance of the period; Mr Robertson and his apprentice travel to Spain, where the apprentice's drawing skills become useful in the service of the Queen. It raises many important questions and doesn't provide any easy answers, but does give insight to the complicated and complex loyalties of the period.

My all-time favourite, and one of my most reliable "comfort" novels, is The Half Brothers in which Ambra is the Duchess of a tiny kingdom adjacent to one ruled by four half-brothers. If one of them marries her, he will gain enough power to become the High King; which one will she choose? Each of them visits her; each presents his suit; each one offers her some new interest: music, learning, intrigue. And then there's her own delight in gardening... It's a lovely book, with a charming romance at its heart but full of thoroughly _nice_ characters. If you get a chance to read it, try it.

Ann Lawrence sadly died in 1987 at the age of only 45. In the great Heavenly Library that we'll all get to some day I'm sure there are many more of her unwritten books. But she has left a collection of subtle, humane and charming books that are well worth seeking out.

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