Taken on a journey to Blackfriars

A surprising number of years ago (2008 in fact) I started a series of articles discussing favourite quotations and scenes from the Lymond Chronicles. I had intended further similar articles but life got in the way and other articles were written instead.

A discussion a few weeks ago on social media prompted me to think about one of the most loved scenes in the entire series – the Anvil Scene. I suppose one of the reasons I hadn’t written about it before was just exactly that universal awareness and love – what is there to say about a scene that has been pored over on discussion groups so many times? Yet it reminded me of the techniques she had used in the scene discussed in the second article – “As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…” – so, as one correspondant had requested it, I thought I would discuss it now.

Like other occasions when she is about to hit us with a major relevation, Dororthy sets it up with delicacy and subtlety. We have had numerous tragic and dramatic scenes in The Ringed Castle – the shipwreck, the reunion with Richard followed by the later knocking unconscious, Berwick. And we’ve just had the intriguing meeting with John Dee followed by what seems an innocent invitation to dine with his friends, hosted by Mary Sydney. Instead we get the first unexpected reunion with Philippa since they parted, platonically married, after Instanbul. Their lives have been very different in the intervening time.

Casting an eye around the other people there he spots her. We get a surprisingly long initial reaction with a hint of first-person about it.

It was, of course, the girl he had left at Volos, remarkably tidied, in a square necked gown with a great many chains and medallions, and a brimless black beret and crespin, which was a little alarming when one remembered the brown hair, in Kate’s fashion, sticking to her neck and her cheeks. But she now had the best excuse, naturally, for indulging in all the fashions forbidden to the well-brought up single girl. He smiled at her suddenly, on this thought, because she was staring at him with Kate’s eyes, starkly distended, and because he was aware of how much he had changed, and of the two thousand miles of age and culture and experience which divided them now; and took her hand, and said,
‘I may hold you to your marriage if you continue to make such impressive improvements. Does that terrify you as it should?

Notice that little mention of Kate’s eyes. (Those of us who adore Kate will of course immediately recall them being described as “melting brown”.) It hints at an affection for Kate perhaps beyond mere friendship, and that will become a theme later on in Philippa’s mind, as well as being a subtle misdirection here. It’s such a small aside, easily forgotten in the sweep of the story, but these things matter when you’re dealing with a master wordsmith.

Philippa converses expertly at table, plays harpsichord with great expression, and later surprises him by revealing that she had intercepted letters to him before they reached Bartholomew Lychpole. He discovers she is studying with Ascham, a rare priviledge, which explains her capping his quotes in Latin, and she is now fluent in Italian.

When they talk further in private he finds she has a good grasp of complex politics but has become entangled in a situation that may put her in danger.

However they then argue over the papers and her investigations into his family. She accuses him of cowardice regarding Sybilla – how many people would have the courage to accuse him of anything, let alone that?

He finds her more stubborn than he could imagine and eventually threatens to close off contact with her and Kate if she doesn’t stop. It’s a dreadful threat, yet after Austin breaks in on them with a sword and fights the unarmed Lymond, it is she who holds her would-be protector for him to hit, and when she repeats her refusal, Lymond utters an unexpected line which is not easy to interpret –

‘I don’t think you have changed since you were ten years old,’ Lymond said. ‘How fortunate we all are, in some ways.’

Perhaps, despite his angry threats as he tries to protect his privacy, he sees her courage and intelligence, and is reassessing even in the midst of conflict.

Revealingly he then suffers from one of his worst headaches to date. It has clearly been a great strain.

There is then a gap. There’s a tense encounter with Margaret Lennox where she threatens Kate and Philippa’s lives. During it he tells her that Kuzum is not his son. For readers who were not sure which child was killed that is a major distraction.

Complex trade and military negotiations with many undertones take place with the Privy Council, and, further distracted in trying to make sense of it all, we tend to forget what else we’ve recently seen.
It’s followed by Danny’s report about the Courtney papers – more pieces of puzzle to put together, more distraction.

There is so much here to keep track of and think about. Game of Kings seems almost simple in comparison!

But then we are introduced to Sir Henry Sidney, who requests a meeting with Lymond at Lady Dormer’s house. It’s part of another social event and Philippa is again there and clearly is a favourite of Sir Henry. Lymond and Sir Henry talk of the Lennoxes and concern for Philippa and it’s clear that Chancellor had shared the threats to his own life. Sir Henry is concerned at the possibility of an assassin in the company ranks. He returns the Cicero which he has bought back at considerable cost, in thanks for trying to save Chancellor, and Lymond is clearly moved.

As the conversation turns to lighter matters – a theory of John Dee’s about faster-than-light mirrors showing your history – Philippa shows her sense of humour, social skills, and ability to joust verbally with Lymond, and more of her political acumen and awareness.

‘Philippa, when he returns from Spain, you will have to watch your conduct with Don Alfonso.’

‘I have to watch it already,’ said Philippa gloomily. ‘Don Alfonso is the first thing any mirror would pick out; like a cake with periwinkles on it. Have you noticed my hat?’

‘I have noticed,’ said Henry kindly, ‘that you are wearing a sock with a tassel in scarlet. I thought it better not to refer to it. Spanish?’

‘Spanish,’ said Philippa.

“The Count of Feria,’ said Lady Dormer, ‘has given my dear Jane a diamond.’

The company murmured its approbation. ‘And there you have it,’ said Philippa, turning her brown eyes owl-like to Lymond. ‘Jane Dormer gets diamonds and I receive socks.’

He turned and looked at her, his face perfectly blank. Then he said, ‘Where are you wearing the other one?’

Her eyes, staring at his, were equally expressionless. ‘I keep my dowry in it,’ she said.

He studied the smart little cap below which, for once, she had allowed her brown hair to hang loose. ‘Forgive my scepticism,’ he said, ‘but is it big enough?”

‘My head,’ said Philippa, ‘does not require a large hat. And a Somerville cranium brings its own dowry. Moscow does not have a monopoly of females with compounding assets.’

His blank face is clearly done with some effort – you can feel the enjoyment and the admiration sneaking up on him. That little mention of her hair hanging down, just slipped in, oh subtle Dorothy!

The conversation seems to dance from topic to topic.

‘No. The world is full of them,’ Lymond said. ‘But not usually borne in the head. Robert Best is as good as a play, isn’t he? What else has he told you?’

‘Why?’ said Philippa. ‘Shall I be shocked?’ She reflected. ‘Could I be shocked?’

‘After Suleiman’s harem? I should think it unlikely,’ Lymond said. ‘I was simply afraid you would explain it all too clearly to poor Robert Best. Your wedding night, sweet Philippa, is going to be a revelation to someone.’

‘When I wriggle up from the bottom of the bed? Do they do that in——‘

‘Lady Dormer,’ said Lymond, ‘is listening to you.’

‘She is watching me. She is listening to M. d’Harcourt. Why do you call him M. d’Harcourt? You called Jerott Jerott.’

‘I called Jerott a great deal worse than that. His name is Ludovic. You will like him. He doesn’t like eagles.’

‘Slata Baba? Did you call her Slata or Baba?’ Philippa said. ‘Or was she exempt, since she couldn’t presume on acquaintance?’

Francis Crawford turned to her and laid down his knife. ‘Philippa Somerville,’ he said. ‘Will you kindly take a new sight for your cannon? You see me beaten quite flat to the groundsilling. Try Mr Jenkinson. He may understand Persian love-poetry.’

Astonishingly he seems to be finding her hard to cope with. All the anger at her meddling seems to have entirely vanished. We of course, are entranced.

All of which leads us to the fateful trip to Blackfriars, and a delightful scene.

On the journey by boat there is further political and personal safety discussion with Philippa and then an earnest talk with Ludo, who after swearing loyalty, adds his name to the list of people who have told Lymond how remarkable she is. We wonder how often he needs to be told….

At Blackfriars, amongst the bizzare contents of the Office of the Queen’s Revels and Masques, they all relax and find plenty to remark on and indulge in word-play.

They know you,’ said Ludovic d’Harcourt.
‘She is the model,’ said Lymond, ‘for their dragons.

‘I don’t know how we’d have managed with those Turks, but for Mistress Philippa.’
‘Mistress Philippa is excellent at managing Turks,’ Lymond said.

But pilgrims? Mistress Philippa, could you manage pilgrims?’
She looked up at him, her brown eyes astonished. ‘I start with the Whifflers,’ said Philippa, ‘and work my way up.’
‘Whifflers?” said Ludovic d’Harcourt.

They march in front of the pilgrimage,’ offered Nicholas eagerly. ‘And clear the way with wood wands. The wands striking the air make a——
‘Whiffle,’ said Philippa gently.
To make people buffle,’ said Lymond, even more gently. Unlike hufflers.’
‘Who take umbrage too readily,’ said Philippa

You can almost feel Lymond smiling.

What will Mr Becher’s ducks do?’ ‘Form a harem,’ Philippa said. ‘Like Vladimir, who converted your Russia to Christianity. He had, I am reliably told, three thousand five hundred concubines.’
‘I should think,’ Lymond said, ‘Christianity was his only hope of survival.

More smiling I suspect.

But there is an unexpected reminder of the emotions of a past tragic encounter –

They all came to a halt. ‘Medioxes, stuffed with Hay, Half Death, Half Man,’ Philippa read.
‘Now I do know who that reminds me of,’ said Lymond feelingly.

But even that he seems able to shrug off.

As Lymond and Ludo mock swordfight Nicholas with wooden swords we get:

Philippa, lowering the (wooden) axe, said, ‘I have never in the whole of my life seen you laugh before.’

And we stop momentarily to think if we have. At Watt Scott’s joke on the Kerrs at the Wappenshaw. Can’t think of too many other times.

He is, in such an innocent setting, and amusing company, dropping his guard – perhaps for the first time since he was 16 years old, when another more worldy woman took advantage of his trust.

Dorothy then produces an insane masterstoke – Ludo discovers the manuscript of a play – Love and Life, by William Baldwyn – with all the characters names starting with L. Delighful farce ensues. Philippa pulls on a wig and declares herself Lechery, a Luscious Hore, and Lymond proceeds to dress in an orange costume as Lamuel the Lewd. He’s clearly enjoying himself.

They start to make up lines filled with Ls while Ludo and Nicholas can only watch in wonder. Lymond, used to being an actor with all the best lines, finds to his delight that his young wife is matching him. He’s compelled to say “Bravo” twice (twice!) before they compete to declaim the ending, where she triumphantly finishes the final line, started by Lymond,

‘Ah, Lamuel, lest your Life be Light Lament not for your Lost Delight Beshrew Loose Ladies in the Night OR LANGUISH LOCKED IN L!

to great applause – before the stand collapses.

We have been entertained and delighted and probably laughed out loud. Our own guard is down. Now we’re concerned, as Lymond is, for both the unconscious Philippa and Ludo with a head knock and a broken arm. Dorothy has charmed and (Languorously and Laboriously?) lulled us into forgetting to think about where she might be leading us.

In the boat, with Nicholas still bubbly and Lymond indulgent with him, relaxed feelings continue and the musings begin. After the hilarious preceding scene there is an almost dreamy feel as we head up the river. There’s time to Lymond to think. Not a luxury often available to a Voevoda.

And here Dorothy uses her most powerful trick – having hinted at it on that first meeting, we are now allowed fully into his mind; a place we have hardly ever been permitted before. Yet it is done so gently that we are hardly aware of it until the deed has been done.

Cradling Philippa’s head in his arms he reviews what has just happened and her witty wordplay. Recalls Kate and Gideon and their excellent qualities which he clearly admires and sees handed down to her. He remembers her bravery in running away to find him at St Mary’s when she realised her mistake in not passing on Tom’s warning, and then following him across the Mediterranean in search of the child. He considers her recently displayed musical skills – a subject dear to his heart – the fine expression as well as technical prowess.

Realising it must have taken considerable practice he calculates her age – with evident surprise – and reflects on her intellect, political acumen, kind heart, and that Ascham thought her worthy of teaching. How she was now exceeding even Kate’s achievements, with promise of much more to come.

No longer automatically thinking of her as the child she was, he starts to finally give himself time to see what Chancellor and Ludo and others are so admiring of, and suddenly, without warning, the veil is lifted and he sees her physical beauty as well, perhaps properly for the first time, and in an instant all these threads combine. Her lips…..

And deep within him, missing its accustomed tread, his heart paused, and gave one single stroke, as if on an anvil.

It is done.

We shriek with delight, and gasp at the unexpectedness of our aloof, ice-cool hero, so recently a wounded emotionless shell, taken unawares by a sentiment that we perhaps doubted if he had within him. After all, you cannot love an eagle.

And if we have time to think, we gasp too at the audacity of our author. And yet she has been setting us up for this as only she can. It has moved imperceptibly from unthinkable, through highly unlikely, to intriguing, to the most natural thing in the world – and we scarcely noticed being led.

She’ll do it again, as I’ve discussed in previous articles, but despite knowing some of the tricks she employs we’ll fall for them again because they are far more than mere tricks. They are the sublime skills of a master storyteller. Literary sorcery, again.

And she’s set up not just the conclusion of this book, but tortured scenario of the tour-de-force that will be the final volume. Where nothing will come easily for our favourite characters.


Taken on a journey to Blackfriars — 10 Comments

  1. Lovely to hear from you Barbara, with various medical interference it’s been too long since I’ve seen many of my old friends. Hope all is well with you.
    It doesn’t take much to reignite the spark again, but I’m happy to have helped do so.
    In fact I realised last night that I had forgotten to include one additional insight and have now added it just below the first reunion scene.
    best wishes

  2. Sometime, I don’t remember the date, Lady Dorothy made a trip across the US stopping at the Tattered Cover in Denver, CO. She did a reading for the fans. It was the “anvil” scene at Blackfriars. She read on to the end and the line “too late, too late it had happened”. You could tell that she enjoyed it. We were manipulated but we enjoyed every minute/word of it.

  3. Jennifer and Alan – good to hear from you.
    Olva – ahh that must have been a great experience. Most of the readings I heard her do were from HN as that was what was in progress at the time, but I heard her say that she really liked getting questions and talking about Lymond. I suspect he remained her favourite creation. I can imagine she’d get a little extra satisfaction giving that reading of him falling in love.

  4. Thank you Maureen, that’s lovely to hear – though of course most of the credit has to go to Dorothy. No matter how many times I read these passages they never fail to enthrall and delight.

  5. Hi Bill: I’ve just discovered your Blog. Better late than never…. I got chills reading this as I do every time I get to this scene in the book. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  6. Hi Rebecca, welcome. Delighted you enjoyed the post – I really should have done it years ago. But then every time you read that scene (as with so many others) you see a little more, so maybe it wouldn’t have been quite as good if I’d done it earlier.

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