Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo

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Translated from the French by Roland Glasser and Louise Rogers Lalaurie.

Reviewed by Jean Morris

The year is 1649 or thereabouts. In a verdant Swiss valley, a tall, bearded old man with bright blue eyes – ‘piskie eyes’, they used to say when he was a child and stories were told of a spell cast on his grandmother – sits deep in thought on his favourite bench beside a rural crossroads. As two travellers approach on foot, he’s shocked to realise they’re speaking English, rarely heard in these parts and his own native language, though almost no one around here knows it. An even greater shock is learning from their conversation of King Charles’s arrest and Cromwell’s new regime. His quiet village life interrupted and his mind in disarray, François Cousin, who was once Francis Tregian, thinks back to England and his family’s estates in Cornwall… and thus begins a big, fat, absorbing historical novel that is by turns swashbuckling and tender.

Tregian’s Ground is the name of a keyboard piece by William Byrd and the Tregians were a noble Catholic family whose Cornish lands were confiscated by Elizabeth 1 – so the ‘ground’ of the novel’s English title has a poignant double meaning. Historical records show that Francis Tregian the elder, our protagonist’s father, was a militant defender of his faith and, having lost his estates, spent many years in prison, while his son of the same name, born around 1574, led a life marked by insecurity and exile, but also by travel, culture and rich connections, especially (perhaps – the evidence is fleeting) with great composers and musicians of the age. A long-lasting hypothesis had Francis Tregian the younger as the copyist and compiler of some famous musical manuscripts and in particular of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book – a beautifully copied and preserved volume now held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. While scholars now point to evidence against this view, the Tregian connections, both religious and musical, make a plausible peg for a rich, vivid story that ranges across Europe in a brutal age of religious wars that also, of course, saw great socio-economic development and cultural flowering.

Francis Tregian, linguist, swordsman, diplomat, cloth merchant and – through it all, above all – musician, is a compelling figure. As imagined twenty years ago by the Swiss novelist, journalist and film-maker Anne Cuneo, who sadly died earlier this year after a long and successful career, he’s neither fiery nor intransigent like his father, but a thoughtful, creative type, with great inner strength – even as a boy, his character is clear:

My father had been a turbulent child… I am different. As if by instinct, I keep my passions to myself. The general zeal for correcting me with physical punishment has passed. A fixed stare is enough to dissuade my mother… But I do little to expose myself to the risk of punishment. I pray when necessary, I am well behaved and polite, I study hard. I speak Latin at home and – without waiting to be asked – I have taken charge of my frail younger brother.

This is very much an action-packed historical novel that sweeps us along excitingly and paints a series of vivid pictures: the wild, beloved beauty of the Cornish countryside where Francis is born and which he loses, partially regains and loses again; Elizabethan London where he goes to school and later meets composers like William Byrd and Thomas Morley – not to mention Shakespeare, who often used their music; Rome and the papal court where the young Tregian collaborates on an English translation of the bible and, as a talented keyboard player, comes to know Palestrina and Monteverdi; Amsterdam, with scenes of commerce and domestic life straight out of some Golden-Age painting; and war-ravaged France and the Low Countries, through adventures leading finally to the peaceful Swiss valley where the much-travelled, multi-lingual cosmopolitan of his age takes a new name and lives quietly for many years as a player, repairer and builder of keyboard instruments.

I arrive [at the Globe] early in the morning. No one is there but William Shakespeare himself. The weather is fine and he is sitting on the very front of the stage. His legs dangling over the edge. He is reading Montaigne’s ‘Essays, and so concentrated on his book that I hesitate to disturb him. Eventually he senses my presence and looks up. … ‘My profound respects, Master Shakespeare. You cannot place me, but…’ ‘Wait, yes I can, Master Tregian!’

All this is strongly cinematic, owing something no doubt to the author’s background in film. But between the rapid succession of places and events are equally strong evocations of mood, character and relationships. The narrative voice is believably that of a quiet, dignified old man looking back, and avoids a too-modern tone and vocabulary while equally avoiding pastiche. There are shades here, surely, of Montaigne, much loved by Tregian, who shares the great French essayist’s humane and tolerant views – and loved by Anne Cuneo, who also wrote a novel about Montaigne’s first English translator, John Florio.

The portraits of cities, landscapes and battlefields are based on a massive research effort, reflected in the Bibliography and Afterword. The London chapters, for example, reminded me of the second book – my favourite – in the All Souls Trilogy by history professor Deborah Harkness, where the heroes time-travel to a powerfully depicted Elizabethan London (reviewed here). The English translation of Tregian’s Ground does full justice to this long book with its finely calibrated tone and many historical, literary and musical allusions, and it reads beautifully throughout.

It’s a lovely, engaging novel that really is a song for tolerance and culture, especially music, and for talented, creative individuals thriving even in the most brutal of times.

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Jean Morris translates, edits, and escapes into books from the general election.

Anne Cuneo, Tregian’s Ground, trans. Roland Glasser & Louise Rogers Lalaurie. (And Other Stories: London, 2015). 978-1908276544, 521 pp., paperback original.

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