“Rose Nicolson: A Novel”, by Andrew Greig, ISBN 978 1 78429 298 0 (2021)
This worthwhile book is hard to categorize. Is it simply a well-written historical adventure tale with surprising twists & turns? Or a worm’s-eye view of history as it must have seemed to those living through it? Or an exploration of philosophical and religious issues? Or a story of unrequited love? Or all of the above? It is worth reading the book, and making up one’s own mind.
The author characterizes the story as the “Memoirs of William Fowler of Edinburgh: Student, Trader, Makar [poet], Conduit [emissary], would be Lover in the early days of our Reform”. While this is a novel, William Fowler was a real person and the major events described in the novel did indeed happen.
Scotland in the late 1500s was – like much of the rest of Europe – in turmoil. The Protestant Reformation had divided the nation, with some still holding to Catholicism while others promoted a reformed Christianity; and there were also those who used the cover of the Reformation to profit from treasures looted from Catholic churches. It was a world in which people could be burned at the stake for promoting the wrong religious views, or hung drawn & quartered for getting on the wrong side of the political power game. Although feudalism was long gone, people’s loyalties were still largely to local leading families, and those leading families used the religious conflicts in their struggles to advance their own power. The major contest was for control over the unimpressive boy-king James VI.
In those difficult days, young William Fowler was sent by ship from Edinburgh to St. Andrews to attend university at a time when lectures were given in Latin. Beginning on that voyage, he found himself dragged into events he would rather have avoided.
The eponymous Rose Nicolson hovers in the background of the story, an ordinary person caught in the trials of everyday life during tumultuous times. From a troubled poor fishing family, she was the sister of one of Fowler’s fellow students. Fowler first met Rose on the greens at St. Andrews where she was mending fishing nets. “She appeared deft, quick in understanding, stood so sure on her ground”. He, the college student, felt intellectually inferior to this hard-working young fisher-woman … and smitten.
The Protestant Reformers were in some ways analogous to the Woke of our own times, totally intolerant of any who dared to deviate from their dogma. However, unlike today’s Woke, they actually did do some good. They believed everyone, male and female alike, had to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. Schools were established for all. An intelligent girl like Rose learned much and formed her own ideas – which destined her for trouble with religious authorities.
As Fowler’s education and subsequent career progressed, his skills with pen, crossbow, and finance brought him into contact with key figures of the day, including the young James VI himself. The vicissitudes of his life took him to England and France, where troubles followed him. Used as a go-between by contesting parties, he became a reluctant witness to some of the most important events of those times.
Ultimately, the accidents of lineage and the interests of power players in both Scotland and England led in 1603 to the Union of the Crowns; the still-unimpressive James VI – the Biden of his time – gained the additional title of James I of England. Fowler ended his days in the slums of London, where (in this fictionalized account) he wrote this memoir.
A limited amount of the dialog in the book is in watered-down versions of the many Scottish dialects of the time. This does not interfere with intelligibility – most of us have no problem understanding a statement such as “Every man sits on his ain arse”, or the egalitarian social attitudes that underlay it. And the author provides a comprehensive glossary, raising the issue of whether our language today might have been more vigorous if we had adopted, for example, the old Scots “stushie” instead of the French “fracas”.