Rose Tremain (1999) – Music & Silence


It is an odd experience to read a novel set in Denmark in the years 1629 and 1630 that has only the slightest tinge of historicity about it.  Music & Silence is not much concerned with conveying what it would have been like to live at that time and place.  While I was reading, I didn’t know which of the characters were modeled on historical figures.  I took for granted that King Christian IV of Denmark did exist and that Denmark had major financial difficulties at the time, but as for his mother Queen Sofie, his consort Kirsten, and the court musicians he hired, I formed no strong opinion.  It doesn’t matter to the story.  In that sense, Music & Silence reminds me of a science fiction or fantasy novel.  What is important is the story the author wishes to tell, and it is only to the extent that the setting constrains the characters that the author takes any notice of it.


The novel is character-driven, that is, it is about who the characters are rather than about what is happening around them.  It feels like a play in which most of the speeches are soliloquies.  The narrative jumps from grammatical tense to grammatical tense, from viewpoint to viewpoint, and from first person to third person and back.  For the first fifty or so pages, this is both interesting and disconcerting because the threads that will eventually interlink the characters are yet to be revealed and developed.


There does seem to be a central character, one Peter Claire, an English lutenist.  The story’s focus at the beginning is on his relationship with the King who takes a peculiar liking to him, using him not quite as a confidant and not quite as a sounding board.  It is a special challenge to imagine the King asking for advice or seeking comforting philosophical support from a court musician, and the author has Peter Claire deal with that challenge in a plausible way.  But there is not enough in that to support an entire novel.  Eventually the story broadens to a more prosaic treatment of issues of deceit and frustrated love.  Will deceit triumph or will it be love?  Will Peter Claire ever be united with his love, Emily, a maid serving the King’s consort Kirsten?  You get the picture.   


Kirsten is a nasty piece of work.  She is vain, selfish, and contemptuous for the most part—understandable traits once we meet her mother—but not totally without human and humane instincts.  When we meet her, Kirsten is mean to all of her servants, but when Emily joins her retinue, Kirsten finds her to be a satisfying companion and treats Emily with respect.  This does not in any way alter Kirsten’s unpleasant behavior towards her other servants.  When Kirsten realizes that Peter Claire is smitten with Emily and Emily returns the feeling, Kirsten schemes to prevent the would-be lovers from communicating with one another so that Emily will belong solely to her.  Kirsten’s scheming takes the form of a campaign of disinformation.  She advises Emily that men are not to be trusted; she intercepts letters and prevents them from reaching either Emily or Peter.  The novel has now taken a hyperventilative, melodramatic turn from which it really never recovers.    


In the meantime, Emily’s new stepmother, Magdalena, has been sowing disfunctionality within the family consisting of Emily’s father and Emily’s five brothers.  Magdalena has Emily’s father wrapped around her little finger.  Magdalena comes to hate the youngest brother, Marcus, who is only four or five years old.  Marcus is the only member of the family that Magdalena has not been able to win over—in fact, he hates her.  Magdalena convinces Marcus’s father that Marcus is a Bad Child and institutes a cruel program of isolation and restraint (Marcus is strapped into his bed at night) to break his spirit.  Of course, Emily, who is at the royal court in Copenhagen knows nothing of what is actually going on in Jutland where the rest of her family lives.  Kirsten finds out what is going on, but keeps the information to herself with the idea that she may eventually be able to use it to maintain control over Emily.


By the middle of the novel, Kirsten is a sort of universal antagonist.  She schemes against the King.  She has been having an affair with a German count named Otto, by whom she becomes pregnant while the King is away for many months on a desperate and ultimately ill-fated project to develop a silver mine in Norway.  When the King learns of Kirsten’s condition, he confronts her, she smacks him, and in the sequel, he instantly orders her to be sent back to her mother in a fish seller’s cart.  As I said, melodrama.  Kirsten could have a long run as a soap opera villain.


At this point, about halfway through the book, I was sufficiently hooked to want to know how it all comes out, but not willing to wade through every word, so I read the second half in fast-forward mode, skimming and skipping to get the plot points, but sparing myself from the details of what had come to feel like self-indulgent, slow-moving narrative.


Well, I won’t give away the ending.  On second thought, yes, I will.  The only real question the story poses is, “Will there be a happy ending?”  I will tell you that things work out for Peter and Emily.  That Magdalena’s reign of terror comes to an end.  That the King finds happiness in a new mistress, Vibeke Kruse, one of Kirsten’s former servants, apparently proposed to the King by Kirsten’s mother.  That Kirsten, when push comes to shove and it doesn’t really matter any more, isn’t all bad. 


There are a lot of women behaving badly in this novel: Kirsten, Kirsten’s mother, Queen Sophie, Magdalena, and Peter Claire’s former lover the Countess O’Fingal.  Only Peter Claire’s sister Charlotte and Emily are nice.  Many of the men are dense, but they don’t seem malicious.  I’m not sure what to make of this, but it seems worth noting.


After finishing the first draft of this essay, I did a little research on the historical King Christian IV.  I learned that Kirsten and her affair with Count Otto are documented, as is the King’s subsequent cohabitation with Vibeke Kruse, whose Wikipedia entry reports that she was his “official mistress” and that “it has been suggested” that Kirsten’s mother encouraged the liaison.  So at least that part of the plot is historically-based melodrama. 


If there’s a theme to the novel, it is that unequal relationships are incompatible with friendships and that class and power differences have their own logic which leaves no room for the unconstrained give and take necessary when true friendship is involved.  I can maybe understand why Music & Silence won the Whitbred Award.  A historical novel without didactic or pedantic overtones is, indeed, novel; the characters are passably engaging (I did want to find out what happened to them); and the multi-narrator style is handled deftly.  On balance, I don’t recommend seeking out this book, but faut de mieux you might want to fast forward through it.


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