A book by Judith Merkle Riley
With Heresy, S.J. Parris has constructed a splendid, unputdownable whodunnit.
In 1583, England was approaching one of the greatest crises in its history. Queen Elizabeth, excommunicated by the Pope for her refusal to return the Church of England to Rome, was under threat from all the Catholic powers. Her spymaster Francis Walsingham had his own army of informers searching for conspiracies against the English crown. Everyone was on the lookout for trouble.
Yet in May of that year, amongst the quiet and dreaming spires of Oxford University, a public debate took place that was nothing short of revolutionary.
On one side, John Underhill, an unpopular figure, forced upon Lincoln College as their Rector by his powerful patron the Earl of Leicester. On the other, Giordano Bruno, a wandering Italian scholar-monk, in trouble with the Inquisition, and in the story (and probably in fact) serving Walsingham as an anti-Catholic informer.
But what is truly amazing about Bruno is that he believed not like Copernicus and Galileo that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of the universe, but that the cosmos did not have a center at all. The stars in the sky, he claimed, were other suns, seen from vast distances, quite likely with their own planets, in an infinite space. In short, this monk-philosopher was a modern man. Sadly, he lost the Oxford debate.
Against this well-researched background of real events Parris has added a few characters, including Underhill's lovely and educated daughter Sophia, whose presence in Lincoln College seems a happy invention. On the eve of the debate there is a murder in the college. Then another. And another. Sophia disappears. A Catholic conspiracy seems to be afoot. Also a romance. As the plot thickens, I was absolutely gripped, nor did I even guess at the ending until it came.
The descriptions of Elizabethan Oxford are wonderfully atmospheric and vivid. The characters are believable and sympathetic. The plot is fast-paced. But there is also a subtle message for us about the human condition. Just twice, the author allows her characters to make use of modern words--"paranoid" and "propaganda"--in their reported speech. This isn't a mistake. Parris knows exactly what she is doing. She is gently reminding us, almost subliminally, that Bruno and Sophia--and who knows how many other of our ancestors--were actually modern people like ourselves, with free minds, trapped in a dangerous medieval world. --Edward Rutherfurd
(Photo © Jeanne Masoero)"Discovering Giordano Bruno: A Note on My Research" by S.J. Parris
I first encountered the character of Giordano Bruno when I was a student at the University of Cambridge writing a thesis about the influence of occult philosophy on Renaissance literature. I was immediately captivated by his multi-faceted career (philosopher, proto-scientist, magician, and poet) and the drama of his life during years of exile on the run from the Inquisition around the courts of Europe. All the accounts I read of him suggested that he was extremely charismatic, the sort of person everyone wanted at their dinner parties, and that he possessed the ability to offend and charm in equal measure--in the course of a few years he went from fugitive heretic to close friend and confidant of kings and courtiers. But he was also a man fiercely committed to his ideas, even when that meant deliberately provoking the received wisdom of the day and courting a death sentence from the Pope.
At the time I thought Bruno would make an intriguing character for a novel, but other ideas intervened and for a while I forgot about him. More than ten years later, I was reading about the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and came across his name again in a book that suggested that Bruno had added the profession of spy to his already crowded resumé, providing intelligence to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, from inside the French embassy where Bruno lived during his time in England. At the time, the English court was rife with rumors of plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth with the blessing of the Pope and the backing of Europe’s two great Catholic powers, France and Spain, in order to replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, thus bringing England back under the influence of Rome.
I’d always been fascinated by this complex period of history, where religious and personal allegiance was in a constant state of flux and no one, including the Queen and her Council, quite knew who to trust. When I discovered the theory that Bruno had been a spy, I knew I had the material for my story. I chose to begin the series with Bruno’s real-life visit to Oxford in the spring of 1583; it was on this trip that he came into contact with many of the influential figures of the court, including Philip Sidney. Bruno hated his time in Oxford and wrote very unfavorably of it; I tried to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have befallen him there to make him take against the university so vehemently.
Oxford (both the university and the town) provided a perfect setting for my novel. It was a significant hub for clandestine Catholic activity during the 1580s and 1590s, and an Oxford college is a closed community, the perfect setting for the classic murder mystery. I’ve loved detective fiction since I was a teenager and wanted to try my hand at writing one of my own. I spent a bit of time in Oxford, and I was shown around Lincoln College by the present Rector. Fortunately the late sixteenth century left behind a rich trove of documents and records, so there are a number of very thorough biographies and histories of the period available, which made it very easy to research.
I hope you enjoy reading Heresy as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. --S.J. Parris
(Photo © Chris Perceval)