Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Someone you should know: Dame Frevisse

Margaret Frazer, The Apostate's Tale (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2007)

By the time I was reading book 3 in the now 17-book Dame Frevisse Medieval Mystery series, I was hooked. Mr Neff quickly followed suit, and you can be sure that when Mr Neff and I both like a book, it’s really good.

The books

Frevisse is a 15th-century nun at St. Frideswide’s priory in Oxfordshire, England. As the niece-by-marriage of Geoffrey Chaucer’s son Thomas and cousin to his daughter Alice, Countess of Suffolk—actual historical characters, by the way—Dame Frevisse rides out of the nunnery surprisingly often, inadvertently getting involved in affairs of state, church politics, and even smuggling. Some of the best tales, though, take place at the priory itself. Practicing hospitality as enjoined by the Benedictine rule, the nuns open their gates to all comers, providing them with food and a place to stay. In turn, the guests offer gifts, adventure, and sometimes mayhem.

In 1431, when the series begins (The Novice's Tale), Frevisse is a thirtyish no-nonsense good-hearted woman who loves tradition and tends to get involved in other people’s problems—a lot like our other favorite heroine, Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Both series stretch the definition of mystery: the crime rarely happens in the early chapters, and in some books nobody gets killed at all. Both are full of local color. And though both protagonists are intensely practical, both also think a lot about moral and ethical questions. In The Apostate's Tale, Dame Frevisse butts heads with a shameless narcissist.

The story begins during Holy Week 1452. Cecely, a runaway nun, has returned to St. Frideswide’s with her young bastard son in tow. At the same time, the ailing mother of one of the sisters arrives. In quick succession follow a businessman and two servants, several members of Cecely’s late paramour’s family, a mother and daughter who differ as to the value of the monastic life, and eventually the Abbot and his retinue. With few winter food stores remaining and not many provisions available in the nearby village, the nine resident nuns wonder how they will manage to accommodate so many guests. And then a would-be murderer strikes—and strikes again. No wonder the prioress has a nervous breakdown.

The authors

Margaret Frazer is the pen name of two women who began the series, mystery writer Mary Monica Pulver and amateur archeologist/historian Gail Frazer. They met at the Society for Creative Anachronism, became friends, and wrote the first six Dame Frevisse novels together. Then Pulver went on to other pursuits and Frazer continued the series on her own—while repeatedly battling cancer.

With Frazer as the sole author, the books have moved closer to the thin line separating period mysteries from historical fiction. Frazer loves research. One of her pet peeves, she said in an interview, is writers who rely on clich├ęs about life in the middle ages (“streets deep in filth,” constant “lawless violence”), “who play fast and loose with facts to make their story-telling easier.” Frazer takes pains to make the Priory of St. Frideswide historically accurate, and Frevisse’s participation in the Benedictine life of prayer rings true.

Soul and body

More than any of the previous books in the series, Apostate slips into Dame Frevisse’s soul as she prays, sings the daily office, and goes about her work. Book 10, The Squire's Tale, foreshadowed this book's spiritual sensitivity with this lovely paragraph about the liturgical hours:

Frevisse ... sank into her own familiar place, made sure of her breviary and Psalter in front of her, then slid forward to kneel in prayer until everyone was in place and the Office began, continuing the unending weave of prayers and psalms begun years into centuries ago and never ceasing, prayed and sung by so many women and men in so many places, their lives given to the prayers and petitions and their lives lost to all memory but God's, that sometimes it seemed to Frevisse that here and now this hands-count of nuns no more made the prayers than someone made a river: they simply stepped into the endless flow, to be carried by it the way a river carried whatever came into its way. (41)
In Apostate, Frevisse’s theological and mystic musings take center stage as she enters the church and joins in the prayer of the church:

Here was the reason for all else. All the duties and rules and limits of her life were for this—these times of prayer when she could reach beyond life’s limits toward God and joy and the soul’s freedom. (35)

Despite her mysticism, Frevisse is realistic and unsentimental about the religious life. She explains to another sister that she hasn’t been given the gift of holiness, and that she doesn’t expect to achieve it in this life:

My hope isn’t for holiness, only that I grow enough—can set my roots of faith and belief and love deep enough—that like a deep-rooted plant growing taller than a shallow-rooted one, I finally come as near to God in my mind and soul and heart as I can, no matter how much in the world my body has to be. (125)

Not that she discounts the importance of her earthbound body. In typical medieval fashion, she values asceticism rather more than we do today, but she also accepts her body’s needs. Up for prayer in the middle of a cold night,

shivering as she went, she thought wryly of how strongly the body fought to prevail over the mind’s soul-longing. Whatever her mind’s intent, her body did not want the cold church and more prayer; it wanted the warm kitchen and more sleep, wanted them very badly. . . . Only for a saint, she supposed, would the desire for God be so great they could not only forgo but even forget the body’s desires. She also thought, equally wryly, that if that were the way of it, she was assuredly very far from sainthood. (54–55)

Such practical realism is typical of most of the sisters at St. Frideswide’s, with the exception of the maddeningly ethereal Dame Thomasine. Eventually even she admits to fatigue. “You haven’t been kind to your body, you know,” the ever-direct Dame Frevisse tells her.

And yet our bodies are God’s gift to us. Shouldn’t we treat them with at least a little pity, with a little kindness, in what little time they have to be alive? . . . Our flesh is the vessel that carries the fire of God’s love. You have no right to break your body, either on purpose or through plain carelessness. (233–34)

Still, these are not books of theology. The characters are well developed, and the stories are entertaining even after a hard day’s work. At first I thought Dame Frevisse would be a pale imitation of the hearty Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century Benedictine monastic who similarly pursues murderers and hangs out with a herbalist. The more I read, the more I preferred Dame Frevisse. Simultaneously flawed and virtuous, she’s believably wise and delightfully opinionated, and she deserves her own TV series. Thanks to the Britain’s ITV, Derek Jacobi is Brother Cadfael. I’ve always thought Queen Latifah would make a fine Mma Ramotswe. But who should be cast as the forthright Dame Frevisse--it's a mystery. Nominations?

Learn more

News article about Gail Frazer: http://erstarnews.com/content/view/2618/141/f

Interview with Frazer: http://jeriwesterson.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/08/interview_with_.html

Frazer's own website: http://www.margaretfrazer.com/index.html

Plot summaries with spoilers: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/philipg/detectives/frevisse.html

Book descriptions:



Anonymous said...

I have read all the Dame Frevisse novels and all the Joliffe books as well. I think they've left the mystery realm pretty firmly, but the last book was so excellent on liturgy. I think Frances de la Tour should play her.

Ancient Future Evangelical said...

Emma Thompson could play Dame Frevisse to perfection!

Anonymous said...

Brenda Blethyn or the older Dame Frevisse, Helen Mirren.