Source of book: I own this.
including myself, are familiar with Edith Pargeter under her pen name, Ellis
Peters. While a few literary friends and relatives have recommended the Brother
Cadfael books, I have only read the first one. This is primarily because we
only own the first one, not the next few in line. I like to read things
in order, which means I will need to seek out the next installments. I did, in
any case, enjoy A Morbid Taste for Bones.
The Heaven Tree is one of Pargeter’s earlier books, written under her own name. It is the first in a trilogy set in the 12th Century, like the Cadfael books. Also like the Cadfael books, it centers around churches. I received a hardback edition of the three books in one from my brother, who has a knack for finding good books. I intend to read the others in the series eventually.
This book is all about Harry Talvace, the younger son of a minor aristocrat on the Welsh/English border. He was, it appears, born in the wrong century, as he has strong and revolutionary ideas about universal human rights, which gets him into trouble. It starts when his foster-brother Adam is accused of killing a deer. Because Adam is a Villein, not a freeman (well, kid, actually), he is sentenced to have a hand cut off. Harry, incensed at this injustice, and feeling that it is partly his fault (which is true), flees with Adam, first to the local monastery, then eventually to France.
Harry had been previously apprenticed to learn stone cutting, and he is a true talent, a transcendent artist. His further training in France leads to his coming to the attention of Ralf Isembard, an enigmatic and proud noble from the area around Harry’s hometown. Isembard makes Harry an offer: if he is willing to devote the next half decade or so of his life to the task, he can build a great church on Isembard’s property - and have a free hand in its design and construction.
It is no picnic working for Isembard, however, as he is the epitome of the ruthless nobleman, used to treating his serfs as his own property - or as pawns in the power games played by the increasingly incompetent King John.
But the politics are not the only thing going on in the book. There is a fascinating “love quadrilateral.” (Related to the love triangle, but with one more person.) Harry is madly in love with Gilleis, the plucky and rather forward young woman who (as a girl) enabled his escape from England. Fortunately, Gilleis loves him back. Also in love with Harry is Benadetta, a former courtesan. Harry loves Benadetta, but not in that way at all. Finally, Isembard is in love with Benadetta, who agrees to be his lover, as long as he understands that she won’t marry him, doesn’t fully love him, and will leave him if the man she loves summons her. So, basically, one requited love pairing, and two unrequited loves thrown in.
I’m not sure I can really say more than that about the plot without giving too much away. I’ll try to discuss some of the really great lines very carefully to avoid major spoilers.
But first, about the writing and characterization. Pargeter’s books aren’t true literary fiction, but they are a solid cut above typical genre fiction. These early books aren’t as polished as her later ones would be, but they are still quite well written.
In particular, the main characters are well drawn and psychologically complex. Even though Isembard is more or less the villain, he is a sympathetic one, more along the lines of a Tragic Hero undone by his own hubris than a force for evil like, say, Iago. He is a truly compelling character and thoroughly memorable. Harry is also complex, but more likeable. His impetuosity gets him in trouble, and he struggles to read important social cues at times. He is good hearted, but not always wise.
In contrast to these two flawed men, you have the two women, who are decidedly the smartest characters in the book. Gilleis is missing for much of the book, which makes her an important but secondary character. Pargeter doesn’t develop her that much, although I believe she gets a bit more play in the sequels. It is Benadetta, though, who is a force of nature in the book. Pargeter doesn’t indulge in the typical “feminine” stereotypes at all. Benadetta is sexual without losing one ounce of dignity, she is the opposite of catty, making Gilleis into an ally rather than a rival. She is open, honest, and refuses to emotionally manipulate others. She and Gilleis make their own decisions and plans throughout, without feeling the need to kowtow to males. It is this characterization that really reveals Pargeter to be both psychologically astute and free from the blind spots many male writers show when writing female characters.
On a related note, I do want to mention the scene when Benadetta meets Gilleis. This seals Benadetta’s fate, as she understands that she can never have Harry. But her response is more complex than grief, because Benadetta pictured the future Mrs. Harry as some sort of shy, submissive, pretty sort. Gilleis is none of these except pretty after a fashion. Rather, she is forward, assertive, exuberant, and - as Benadetta realizes - a true match for Harry.
This scene stuck with me because it really resonated with my own life. My mom always assumed (and told me so) that she was worried that I would pair with a timid, submissive woman and run roughshod over her. That...didn’t happen. I married an assertive, strong, opinionated, and thoroughly competent woman, who doesn’t play games, and doesn’t take shit. Alas, unlike Benadetta, who finds comfort in the fact that Harry made a good match, my mom has never really reconciled herself to my choice. It is one of the sorrows of life I have had to live with.
So, some interesting quotes and ideas from the book. A key historical plot point is the interdict Pope Innocent III placed on England over the dispute with King John about who would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Pargeter astutely notes that the burden of the wars of the powerful always fall on the most vulnerable in society.
It was always on the lowest and least that the weight came down in the end, just as debt found its way down from king through his barons, through their tenants-in-chief and their sub-tenants, to the free cottagers and the bound villeins on their poor little yardlands of earth. Innocent struck at John, John struck at Innocent, and both blows fell on the poor man in his field.
This theme returns at various times in the book - like Harry, Pargeter intends to call out injustice where she sees it. Isembard is fascinated by Harry’s ideas, but cannot bring himself to embrace them. The problem with being open to new ideas is, of course, that you find yourself questioning those things you take for granted. I particularly liked this line, which is so true.
The habit of questioning everything can be dangerous, for sooner or later it will surely bring a man into head-on collision with the unquestionable, and he will not be able in conscience to draw aside.
That is pretty much why I am no longer part of organized religion. I have always questioned authority and tested “truth” to see if it is really true. I mean, I have been that way since my earliest memories. It hasn’t endeared me to the religious hierarchy, to say the least. The problem, as Pargeter notes, is that if you do start asking questions, it leads to challenging assumptions that are the third rail of organized religion. (For me, gender roles and sexuality were big ones…)
Harry doesn’t just challenge Medieval orthodoxy when it comes to his compassion for lower-class people. His very life is an affront to the values of the time. As Isembard says to Benadetta, when Harry marries Gilleis:
“This marriage is a strange matter! How often I have seen my friends wedded and bedded, and never been stirred to feel anything but pity for them, that they should have to submit themselves to such tedious embraces with such unpleasing partners, to add a few fields or one more manor to their honours. Only a landless man can afford to plunge into marriage like this boy, without a single furlong to gain. What’s to become of our morality if young men are to marry for nothing more substantial than love?”
What indeed? And, it is strongly implied in our own time, “what is to become of our morality if young women are to marry for nothing more substantial than love?” There’s the “problem” with feminism. Without needing to marry to avoid starvation, women can choose to marry for love. And what then? How will the hierarchy of control survive? It won’t, and you end up with egalitarian expectations. Harry and Gilleis embody this egalitarian ideal, as it were.
Harry also exemplifies a dangerous approach to religion. His act of worship is to create beauty - the church he builds is a monument to God, not man, and thus the changing political alliances of the Pope are irrelevant to Harry.
“What has Innocent to do with this? Often and often I have caught myself wondering about these same things. But always, when I felt my work growing beneath my hands, I wondered no longer. I build, and I feel no intervention of pope or priest between myself and God, and no doubt in my mind that this act of praise and faith is justified. King John may have failed you, but England has not. Innocent may shuffle his little blessings and bans without scruple, like loaded dice, but I swear God does not. I have not been building for pope or bishop or priest. The house is for the archangels.”
That right there is as good a description of my relationship to God as any. I do not feel any intervention of priest or pastor or theologian between myself and God, and indeed I resent the arrogance with which those sorts attempt to thrust themselves in between. And my own acts of worship, of whatever nature, are not done to please the religious powers.
For the last two bits, I will try not to spoil the plot. There is a scene in which Isembard gets as much of a comeuppance as his power and privilege will allow, and the way Benadetta orchestrates the scene is fantastic. Pargeter wrote the whole scene so perfectly, I’ll just say that you need to read the book for this scene alone.
The final one comes after Isembard has basically taken his revenge on everyone he can. He has sought to humiliate others, but in reality, he has humiliated himself. The shame and the disgust falls on him. And more than that, in his violence, he has destroyed everything that gave him joy.
He rode in a desolation without limit in space or time; he had depopulated his world.
Dang. That’s one of the finest lines I have ever read. (And also a perfect use of a semicolon.) There is still one more chapter to follow, in which the final stuff is sorted out. But that line is what really ends the book. Isembard has sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. His desolation, of his own making, is limitless, and he has depopulated his world.
The book does have a few weaknesses. The secondary characters aren’t as well developed as they could be, for example. The plot is well thought out, but relies on a few improbable occurrences. But really, these are minor faults, particularly in an early work. What is good in the book is really good: memorable and complex characters, compelling story, philosophical and psychological depth, historical accuracy. I quite enjoyed it.
Fun biographical notes:
In addition to her popular mysteries, Pargeter was well respected for her translations of Czech works. She visited Czechoslovakia in her mid-30s and taught herself the language. That’s pretty badass.
Pargeter may have written herself into The Heaven Tree just a bit in the character of Benadetta. She too was in love with a man who did not reciprocate, but married another woman. She remained friends with him after the marriage.