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Alfred Duggan


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Sir William Briwerr is writing about his youthful adventures for his grandchildren to read. He was born in 1233, the third son of a Norman knight who held land on the Welsh March. The family he belonged to had come over with William the Conqueror and had once been great, but now it had fragmented owing to the lack of male heirs and William's father held only enough land for one son. So William, once knighted, sets forth to make his fortune in the Crusader lands (Outremer).

As he makes his way south into Italy he meets a knight who is returning from Outremer. He advises William to go to Romanie, the lands of southern Greece which were captured from the Byzantines some fifty years earlier. William takes his advice and finds himself in Lamorie, which is today the Peloponnese (the Morea). He visits Prince William at La Cremonie, the town at the foot of the newly built castle of Mistra, hoping to be taken on in his service. But the Marshal thinks he would do better to enlist with Sir Geoffrey de la Bruyere; he needs more knights and the similarity in their family names may mean they are related. Neither William nor Sir Geoffrey really believes this but they take to each other at once and go along with the fiction that they are cousins.

Sir Geoffrey is lord of Escorta, a district to the north of Mistra at the foot of the mountains, where he holds the castle of Carytene (Karitaina). William goes there with him and forms part of his retinue. Soon after his arrival he falls in love with Melisande, a beautiful but dowry-less girl of mixed ancestry, and marries her. They are given a room at the top of the castle tower where they live happily. Melisande is astute and well versed in the politics of Romanie, which she explains to the somewhat naïve William.

Much of the rest of the novel is concerned with military affairs. Sir Geoffrey, who has also now married, becomes involved in an unwise civil war which ends badly. Sir Geoffrey is tried and acquitted, although his position is weakened. The Franks next undertake a campaign in northern Greece, in the region they call Wallachia (Thessaly and Epirus). Sir Geoffrey and his knights take part, but the result is disaster and they are defeated and imprisoned. After a couple of years Constantinople, which has been ruled by the Franks for the last fifty years since it was captured by the Crusaders, falls to Michael Palaeologue, who becomes Emperor. He offers peace to the Franks in the south provided they hand over several castles, including Mistra. Sir Geoffrey is released to go to try to persuade them to agree, and he takes William with him.

The Franks do agree to the Emperor's terms, although reluctantly and with strong misgivings. These prove justified and before long they are once again at war. The Greeks, or Grifons as the Franks call them, are in alliance with Turkish mercenaries, but when they are unable to pay them the Turks come over to the Franks and, after helping them to win the war, return to Turkey. All is now well, although the long-term prospects for the Franks are not too good.

Sir Geoffrey should have been prominent in the fighting but he has gone absent without leave, in scandalous circumstances. In Carytene he had become involved in an ill-judged romance with the wife of his constable. This had ended badly and Sir Geoffrey had gone abroad instead of staying to help defend Romanie. William's opinion of Sir Geoffrey, whom he previously hero-worshipped, receives a severe shock.

Eventually Sir Geoffrey returns and once again is put on trial, but for a second time escapes the death sentence that might have been imposed and returns to Carytene. But his status is diminished and he tells William that there is no long-term future for knights like him in Romanie; he should return to England. William does so and finds that he is now the heir to his father's estate, his eldest brother having died and his other brother become a clerk.

This is a well-told tale with plenty to interest the reader besides the fighting. Duggan tells us that the events and main characters are historical; only the narrator and his wife are made up. Both of these are interesting and convincing characterse. Melisande is a strong woman, more intelligent than her husband, who is sometimes pompous; but he comes to love the strange land in which he has settled. His attitude to the 'Grifons' is reminiscent of British attitudes to the natives of the countries that made up their empire. Sir Geoffrey, too, is fascinating: charming, narcisstic, and in love with himself, as Melisande sees clearly.

I found it easy to picture the places and events described in this book, in part because I know the country of Escorta and the castle of Karitaina well.

21 October 2014

%T Lord Geoffrey's Fancy
%A Alfred Duggan
%I Faber and Faber
%C London
%D 1962
%P 254pp
%K fiction

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