“The Tutor” by Andrea Chapin – review

Lancashire, 1590.  A flamboyant tutor by the name of Will Shakespeare turns up at Lufanwal Hall, country seat of the de L’Isle dynasty, to educate the family’s youngest boys.  Katherine is the widowed niece of Sir Edward de L’Isle, returned to live with her uncle and cousins following the death of her husband.  Preferring her own company to the prospect of a second passionless marriage, Katherine seems destined for spinsterhood….until the non-conformist, enigmatic tutor sparks an interest in her the like of which she’s never known.

Great historical fiction should transport you back in time and immerse you completely in another world, but it needs to wear its research lightly, otherwise it can feel as if you’re in the middle of a history lesson rather than a novel.  “The Tutor” gets this balance absolutely right.  Details of everyday living, such as the food, the dances and the costumes, are brought to sumptuous life (and what girl doesn’t enjoy wallowing in the description of a breath-taking period frock?!)  The religious complexities of the day, which form a crucial part of the backdrop, are explained very clearly without weighing the story down.  Rather, we get to share the deeply personal feelings that would have been experienced by individuals at the time, who were forced literally on pain of death to either relinquish their faith or go to great lengths to keep it hidden.

But what I loved most about this book was that the author made me believe every heartbeat of the love story.  What made it so authentic was the acknowledgement that falling in love is not necessarily a joyous experience; feelings that start out as an exciting antidote to the mundanities of everyday life can quickly degenerate into something unhealthy.  Katherine behaves exactly how many people would behave when faced with uncertainty as to whether their love is returned: she neglects her family and friends in favour of her lover, becomes suspicious of others to whom he pays attention and swings from euphoria to anguish with the highs and lows of the relationship.  In fact, every character in the book felt absolutely sincere and true to life, and I believed in every single one, from Matilda, the austere matriarch, to Ursula, a flighty but deeply unhappy young woman who married into the influential de L’Isle family yet never managed to grow up.  Indeed there’s a tinge of sadness lingering behind the whole story – this is a time, after all, when people are murdered for their beliefs, the presence of supposed witches strikes fear into communities and women’s marital choices are by and large not theirs to make.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction like me, then I imagine this book has made its way onto your bookshelves already.  Even if you’re not sure if history is your thing, I would wholeheartedly recommend it for its incredibly convincing love story – this, without doubt, is the truth of love laid bare.

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