When Father Thomas arrives to be priest to the parish of Brauntone in Devon in 1349, for some he is a harbinger of hope. The Black Death has reached England, leaving the dead in its wake and spreading fear before it. Thomas is a different kind of priest than the one the villagers are used to. He sweats in the fields alongside them, he resists the lure of churchly riches and vestments, he eats and drinks simply, and he speaks plainly of the relationship between man and God, which, he preaches, if maintained as it should be then God would reward his obedient flock with protection from the pestilence.
Anne is a village maiden in need of a place. If no suitable husband can be found, and it seems that none can, then Father Thomas would make a satisfactory if not entirely respectable consolation prize. Father Thomas needs a housekeeper, a medieval euphemism if ever there was one, and Anne’s parents make it plain that their daughter is the obvious choice. He cannot withstand the assault and Anne enters his house amid celebrations as lavish and domestic as if she were his bride. But Father Thomas is a religious man, a priest who maintains his vows, and his house proves cold and unkind for Anne.
The village is stirred by the discovery of a naked muddy young woman wrapped by reeds in the marsh. She is mute. For Father Thomas, this girl, known among the villages as Vixen – a feral find indeed – becomes the Maid. She is holy, a messenger from God. The Maid will keep them safe from the storm of plague. But for Anne, who looks after and cares for the girl, she at last is given the chance to express the love that lies hidden within. But what about Vixen? Who is she and what does she want?
Rosie Garland writes beautifully. Her prose evokes the world and environment of the small impoverished parish she describes – it is earthy, it is enlivened by the changing seasons, it immerses us in rain and sunshine, mud, forests and grass. The language is as fertile as the village fields. Everyone and everything has its place in this highly organised feudal society but scattered throughout the novel are mysteriously different, eerie passages of prose, the thoughts of Vixen perhaps, and these demonstrate that beneath the order and the routine of the seasons and the church calendar there is something brewing. We have Anne’s need to love, Thomas’s fervour to God and whatever it is that has turned Vixen wild. But above and below all of this is the chaos of the plague. Whether it represents God’s judgement or something more primeval, it is there waiting and it is turning this harmonious order of man on its head.
Vixen is just as much, though, a novel about social injustice. The order of the farming year, the church calendar and services, and feudal society itself might be harmonious but they were by no means just. Garland presents us with a harsh, hypocritical and brutal world, disguised behind the beauty of nature and the word of God. Medieval priests have the best of all worlds, respected and relatively rich while turning their housekeepers into wives and mothers – women who can be cast out on a whim. Sons and brothers die on foreign battlefields. Women are beaten and neglected. Men labour for long hours and for little gain. Malformed babies are thrown into rivers to drown. Paganism and Christianity co-exist in this small, disconnected environment. In Vixen, with the Black Death poised to strike, this leads to madness.
The story is told by three voices – Vixen’s, Father Thomas’s and Anne’s – as we progress through the year of 1349. Each of the voices is very distinct. Anne and Vixen think of each other, not necessarily getting it right, but the two perspectives grow closer as the two young women finally learn to trust each other and themselves enough to risk love. Father Thomas, on the other hand, engages with himself as he undergoes a great crisis. The year 1349 was a landmark year in our history, when the world turned upside down amid enormous suffering and loss and doubt. We see that in the corruption of Father Thomas.
Strangely, I was distanced from the characters by the poetic, at times ephemeral style, which now and again ventures into something ‘otherworldly’, for wont of a better word. It is likely that it is these very qualities that will draw readers to the novel, and rightly so, but I tend to prefer historical fiction that places my feet on firmer ground and I didn’t find that Vixen‘s style was for me. Nevertheless, Vixen is a moving, evocative and hugely atmospheric novel about a small community undergoing the fears and panic that must have been experienced across the land in the mid 14th century.
And what a beautiful cover!