Grappling with the Light and Dark of James VI and I
Before we left Scotland for Canada, my mother took me to Edinburgh so that I could carry away a strong memory of the capital. I had never been farther from Glasgow than nearby West Kilbride for seaside holidays so the train trip across that narrow band of Scotland from east coast to west was a great adventure in itself. But it is the memories of my first sight of Edinburgh Old Town, with its cobbled Royal Mile and the mighty castle rooted on its crag of volcanic rock, that have stayed most alluring over the decades. These were powerful enough to draw me back to Edinburgh to attend university there, and fall in love with that city, as I have with no other.
My mother splurged on the fairy-tale conveyance of a horse and carriage tour of the Old Town. On our way, the driver pointed out a small tower where he said Mary Queen of Scots used to go to bathe in wine. I think now he may have invented this story, or perhaps Mary’s clandestine wine-bathing was part of the rich mythic lore attached to this most tragic of Queens. When I told my ever-practical great-grandmother about Mary’s bath on our return to Glasgow, she retorted: “It would have been gey (very) sticky, child.” I have clung to the more glamorous associations of Mary’s fondness for exalted luxuries, and have searched in vain for the little tower, where she came via a tunnel from Holyrood Palace, to bathe.
It was in Mary’s apartments at Holyrood Palace that I had my most indelible and shaping encounter with the past. The climax of that guided tour focused on the murder of the lutenist David Rizzio, Mary’s beloved secretary and trusted friend, stabbed to death in her supper room as she was forced to watch, heavily pregnant and helpless. The murderers, envious of Rizzio’s influence with the Queen, included Mary’s husband. I can see still the elderly guide in his navy-blue uniform showing us the red spot on the floor reputed to be Rizzio’s bloodstain. At age five, I understood that a terrible wrong had been committed in that opulent room, with its brocade and velvet-covered furnishings and wine-coloured tapestries. Something exquisite had been broken, and the young queen’s suffering, and the musician’s cruel death, lodged in me, unforgettable.
What I had not considered until I began my research on Mary’s son, James VI and I, for my new novel-in-progress, was how deeply that traumatic event would have touched him, then an unborn child in his mother’s womb. That trauma in utero might well account for his lifelong neuroticism and deeply contradictory character. Erudite and moralistic, yet uncouth and self-indulgent, he was throughout his life plagued by fear and a paranoia that influenced his often disastrous decisions. His reign was marked by reckless, self-indulgent spending, dangerous infatuations with gorgeous, grasping young men, and above all, a willful self-blindness rooted in his unshakeable belief he held within his royal person actual “sparks of divinity.” Nevertheless, he achieved his goal to be the peacemaker king, and gave us what is often called the greatest work of English prose ever written: the King James Bible.
In grappling to understand the light and dark elements at war in James’s personality, I am returned repeatedly to the supper chamber in Holyrood Palace where Mary Queen of Scots saw her friend and comforter stabbed again and again, and her unimaginable terror struck like lightning through the child she carried.
Imagining the character of Piero di Cosimo, Renaissance painter
For too long, the Italian Renaissance artist Piero di Cosimo had a reputation as a neurotic, self-defeating eccentric, unwilling to curb his fantastical urges to paint bizarre creatures: tusked sea-monsters, satyrs in bizarre headwear and mermen with crab legs. This warped appraisal of di Cosimo’s extraordinary creativity and character was due largely to the 16th-century artist/historian Giorgio Vasari, who described the painter in his History of the Artists as a crotchety reclusive, subsisting on a diet of hard-boiled eggs. To Vasari, we owe the image of a Piero di Cosimo who lived in squalour, hated the sound of crying babies and church bells, and wasted his talent through a self-indulgent pursuit of fantasia.
This sour, wayward curmudgeon in no way resembles the di Cosimo I imagined for my novel, Hunting Piero, which is inspired by his enigmatic narrative paintings with their sensitive depictions of animals and animal-human hybrids. For me, these remarkable works speak of the painter’s deep and empathetic connection with the natural world and all its life forms. I first became aware of di Cosimo’s unique vision through Robert Duncan’s poem “The Fire – Passages 13,” in which he describes the painter’s masterwork, “A Forest Fire,” held in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford: “From the wood we thought burning/our animal spirits flee, seeking refuge wherever, as if in Eden.”
In this magnificent and moving painting, scores of animals and birds flee the towering flames ravaging their forest home, and exploding at its core. In the foreground, di Cosimo has placed a diverse company of beings who show a wide range of emotions, from the panic-stricken ox and crane, to the perturbed lion and anxious female bear, attempting to lead her three cubs to safety. Two of the animals in the foreground have human faces: one a roe deer, whose profile is a bearded Florentine youth’s, and the other a wild boar, whose gentle eyes look out at us from a countenance that appears both serene and philosophical in the midst of danger and destruction.
An abiding mystery of Piero di Cosimo’s “A Forest Fire” is why this painting has such power to delight and console the viewer, despite its setting of a conflagration that should give rise only to terror and despair. In my reading of the painting, di Cosimo is celebrating the animal kingdom as a profound source of joy, and even emotional and moral salvation for humankind. By bringing us face-to-face with these creatures in their extreme peril, he encourages us to perceive anew, and truly value, the incomparable gifts they bestow. The animals he portrays in this and other works have a beauty, grace, directness and innocence that bring us closer to the world of the spirit: the Anima Mundi, or World-Soul, that Robert Duncan perceives in the sfumato, or softened glow around the figures’ outlines.
My novel’s female protagonist, Agnes Vane, a student of di Cosimo’s work, believes he may have been a kind of instinctual shaman, able to understand and converse with animals. The highly individualized animals in his paintings do indeed appear to speak to us, urging us to learn from their innocence, grace and beauty, and see how all species might engage together in the deep work of soul-making.
Queen Jane and Purgatory
The summer I was ten, I found a great treasure in an old magazine at a lakeside cottage my parents had rented for the week. This was a full-colour, full-page reproduction of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour, Queen of England and third wife of Henry VIII. At that time, I yearned to become an artist, and attempted a rather incompetent pencil drawing copy of Holbein’s masterpiece. What impelled me to take up my pencil was the young woman’s expression of quiet self-containment beneath her starkly geometric, ornately embroidered gable hood. Despite all the trappings of wealth — the pendant necklace thick with emeralds and pearls and the brocade and damask gown with massive, scalloped cape-like sleeves that dwarfed her figure — there was no trace of arrogance in her face.
Holbein depicts Jane in three-quarters profile so that we see clearly her large nose, pursed lips and small, slightly receding chin. To my child’s eye, she looked kind and mild-natured. The way she had hands folded decorously above her waist suggested a person determined to keep some part of herself private, and this too appealed to my own solitary nature. At 10, I did not catch the hint of wariness in her dark, narrow eyes. Nor did I know then that she was married to a king who was often in a state of rage, worsened by the pain of incurable suppurating leg wound: a tyrant who had divorced his first wife, had his second beheaded and both his daughters declared illegitimate. Jane had ample reason to be wary.
Jane Seymour entered my imaginative life again in my late teens through Joan Baez’s passionate rendering of the Old English Ballad that tells of the Queen’s death. After an agonizing protracted labour of “six weeks and more”, Queen Jane demands that her “side be pierced open” to save her baby, a self-sacrifice that leaves King Henry devastated, forced as he is to accept her decision. The powerful imagery of the young Queen’s transfiguration, after yielding up her own life to save her child’s, evokes a place of sublime peace that is Jane’s reward after her long suffering: “How bright was the morning, how yellow was the room, how costly the white robes Queen Jane was wrapped in.”
Decades later, when my friend Rod MacIntyre asked me what I knew about Jane Seymour for a collaborative novel-in-letters he wanted us to work on, it was therefore this plangent ballad and the Holbein portrait that came immediately to mind. Rod’s premise for our new epistolary novel was that his character — 17-year-old Richard MacNeil of northern Saskatchewan — would write to mine (Jane Seymour) for an English class assignment. To Richard’s amazement, he receives a reply, in immaculate Tudor script, tucked inside an envelope fastened with red sealing wax.
The idea that I would write Jane’s letters from the point of view of her spirit in Purgatory came to me as I was walking, thinking about her life, sorely confined by duty and a difficult, if not dangerous marriage, and so soon curtailed by the ordeal of childbirth. I saw too, that Jane must have been to some degree complicit in the downfall of her predecessor, Anne Boleyn. She would have known that the charges of incest and treason against Anne were falsified; on the other hand, had she spoken out on Anne’s behalf, she would have written her own death warrant. In my imagined Purgatory, Jane would have a chance to purify herself of that wrong and undertake a rigorous three-fold penance in earthly form.
In my research on Jane and her 18-month marriage to Henry, I learned that she kept to the old feast days and rituals of the Catholicism in which she was raised, despite Henry’s break with Rome. She would therefore have believed in Purgatory, a concept her own son, Edward VI, was to reject in his extreme embrace of the Reformed Church. Revealingly, Jane incurred Henry’s wrath in full view of the court only once: when she begged on her knees that he aid the elderly nuns and monks made homeless by his dissolution of the monasteries. On that occasion, he told her sharply to remember the fate of her predecessor.
In Purgatory, my imagined Jane Seymour has the latitude to seek redemption, and experience a freedom she never knew in life, except as a girl on horseback, riding through Savernake Forest near her family’s home of Wolf Hall. The letters of support she and Richard MacNeil exchange over the years, as they undertake their respective trials of purification and maturation, bring her solace, and joy in a loving friendship between equals. This is a relationship she is unlikely to have enjoyed in her severely hampered adult life under the strictures of her personal motto: “Bound to Obey and Serve.”