The Face of a Madonna by Thomas Armstrong (1964)

A final Thomas Armstrong review. I feel these reviews fall under the ‘we read these books so you don’t have to’ category!

Review by Thecla W:

I found this novel unexpectedly hard going, in fact quite difficult to read.

The story itself is an interesting one. This novel is set in 14th century Yorkshire and tells the story of Ughtred, a young monk and artist at Rievaulx, and Lazelle, a young nun from a Gilbertine convent at Watton.

The opening ten pages are titled “The Immurement” and describe how the pair, who have been convicted of heresy, are walled up alive.

Both the abbot of Rievaulx, Hugh, and his cousin, Philippa, prioress of Watton, are present along with their entourages. Just before the walling up is completed a Franciscan friar, Jerome, looks in at the couple and declares that he sees signs of plague. The walling up is completed hurriedly and the observers leave in a panic.

The main part of the novel then describes the events leading up to this punishment, beginning with “The Eleventh Month before Immurement”.

Ughtred and Lazelle meet by chance when she is swept into a river and Ughtred rescues her. He thinks of her constantly and decides to use her face for that of the madonna in a painting he works on at Rievaulx.

Because of their vows, they may not meet but chance does offer opportunities. Alongside this developing relationship, Armstrong shows Ughtred’s exposure to the ideas of John Wycliffe and the Lollards and his increasing disillusionment, not with Christianity, but with the worldliness of the Church.

There is, however, a happy ending. The supposed signs of plague were the result of a potion given to them by Jerome. When the effects wear off and they come round, they find that everyone has fled and they are able to escape.

But in spite of the story, the novel is somehow lifeless and at times positively dull.

One problem is that Armstrong has clearly done a lot of research. The novel is full of detail about the minutiae of monastic life but it is as if, having done all that research, he couldn’t bear not to use it all. It is established early on that Hugh and Philippa are extremely worldly and good examples of what the Lollards are preaching against; for example, they dine lavishly compared with the monks and nuns and wear robes of rich fabrics. But it feels as though every meal, every outfit has to be described to drive this point home.

Likewise some detail about the monastic Rule is interesting but here there is so much that it overwhelms the characters and the story.

In any case, characterization is not the author’s strong point. His people are two-dimensional and although Ughtred is described as changing there is little sense of this. There are also  too many inadequately differentiated characters, for example, Ughtred’s fellow monks at Rievaulx who are distinguished mainly by a skill, e.g. clock repairing or working with gold.

Another difficulty is Armstrong’s use of language which for me has a distancing, almost deadening, effect. He  stops short of attempting anything too mediaeval but he does use old-fashioned words and phrases, particularly in direct speech, and clumsily structured sentences. Here is Ughtred petitioning the abbot,

‘“If it would please you to allow me to dally in Ripon a short while on the morrow I might obtain from the merchant Mawson a certain Mediterranean oil, to use as an ingredient in the new colour My Lord was gracious enough to allow me to speak to him about after we had visited the abbey of Clairvaux. My Lord may remember I told him that one of the monks there had been generous enough to confide in me what he used.”

“It is well thought of,” the abbot said.’

You might think that this kind of language is used just for the formal speech of a petition to the abbot, but, although the descriptive passages have fewer old-fashioned words, the sentences are similarly poorly constructed.

Here is Ughtred riding through the countryside,

 “In the earlier stages, during which he only used the highway cautiously, to reach the next side-track or bridle path, Ughtred avoided villages and habitations, but on the fourth evening out, confidence increasing with the renewing of energy, he was sufficiently bold, on glimpsing a timber-and-clay, thatched cottage, to seek a night’s lodging.”

Even scenes of cruelty such as the burning of a Lollard or the whipping of a monk for infringement of the Rule don’t have the impact Armstrong must have been aiming for.

Reviews of Armstrong’s earlier works describe his fiction as vigorous and refer to his skill in character drawing. Neither of these things could be said of The Face of the Madonna. I wonder if his creative talents had diminished with age.

I also wonder who would have read this in 1964. No doubt he had some long established faithful readers but given that the bestsellers of that year included You only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, The Spy who came in with the Cold by John le Carre, This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart and Herzog by Saul Bellow I can’t think that this novel would have sold particularly  well.

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