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Gunpowder Plot brought to life in gripping novel

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Everard Digby was executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Elisabetta Sala’s novel makes his son the protagonist of a gripping tale. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Everard Digby was executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Elisabetta Sala’s novel makes his son the protagonist of a gripping tale. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Whilst still in primary school I became fascinated by English history and eagerly devoured anything I could lay my hands on, in particular, anything dealing with the period of the English Reformation.

However, the version of history taught in my parents’ and grandparents’ textbooks was that the Reformation was a long overdue and eagerly welcomed relief to the moribund and dictatorial church of Rome, with few people shedding tears for the tyrannical Mary I, aka “Bloody Mary,” who had anyone who dared to stand up for what these textbooks proclaimed to be “the true faith” burnt at the stake.

To my surprise, it was only when I formally studied the English Reformation in sixth form that I discovered a passing reference in a textbook to the fact that there was not only considerable resistance by English Catholics, particularly in the reign of Elizabeth I, but she also executed and punished Catholics in an attempt to stamp out Catholicism.

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I eventually discovered and eagerly read the early 20th century novels of Msgr Robert Hugh Benson such as By What Authority and Come Rack! Come Rope! which explored aspects of the English Reformation from the Catholic perspective.

Ironically—and perhaps because of a more ecumenical outlook over the past half century—comparatively few novelists in recent decades have explored the Catholic experience of this period of history. It is thus pleasing to note that this trend has been reversed by Elisabetta Sala.

An Italian scholar and professor of History and English Literature, with a particular interest in the period of the English Reformation and its aftermath, Sala has written numerous studies and some novels about this period.

I first learnt about Sala’s works a few years ago on an online blog, only to be disappointed by not being able to read them as I do not know Italian. The recent publication of the English translation of her first novel L’esecuzione della giustizia (2017) into English, is thus a welcome development.

The novel begins on 30 January 1606, with the execution of those found guilty of the Gunpowder Plot, with the then standard punishment for treason—namely hanging, drawing, and quartering—being graphically described in such a way as to whet the reading appetite of many a school boy, but to have others reach for a barf bag (warning: this section of the novel is probably best not read on an aeroplane experiencing a certain amount of turbulence).

One of those executed is Everard Digby, the father of the protagonist, young Jack Digby.

The family is reduced to poverty, with Sir Robert Cecil becoming Jack’s legal guardian; however, they are allowed to retain the country estate which has been stripped of any valuable assets such as furnishings, as Cecil has other plans for Jack.

Separated from his mother and siblings early in the novel, and supervised by an older—and sycophantic—follower of Cecil who has Jack raised to become a loyal agent for the government.

He is thus sent to the University of Cambridge, where is taught the state’s line that Catholicism is an evil force bent on destroying the government and the “true religion.”

However, as the son of traitor, he is the victim of bullying.

After graduating, Jack is allowed to return briefly to the country to visit his mother and family, before returning to London where he commences working for Cecil, albeit reluctantly. His real dream of remaining in the country as a landowner, and building up the estate again, is denied to him.

The Execution of Justice, Elisabetta Sala, translated into English by Mary Anne Robertson, Sycamore, Illinois: Gondolin Press, 2022, pp.489, $9.95 RRP (Kindle Edition). Cover: gondolinpress.com
The Execution of Justice, Elisabetta Sala, translated into English by Mary Anne Robertson, Sycamore, Illinois: Gondolin Press, 2022, pp.489, $9.95 RRP (Kindle Edition). Cover: gondolinpress.com

For much of the novel, Jack has little choice but to comply with Cecil’s agenda. Failure to do so would jeopardise his family’s already precarious position. It is in this capacity that he is able to gain access to various documents.

Gradually, he learns that the official version of Gunpowder Plot propagated by Cecil and his satraps is an elaborate lie, with any documents exposing the true account being suppressed and destroyed.

However, in his interactions with Cecil he also meets his daughter Milly. Despite being fully committed to her father’s Protestant cause and frequently criticising Jack’s Catholic heritage, Milly and Jack gradually fall in love with each other, even though both realise that such a relationship is impossible.

Milly also increasingly resents the control her father exercises over her, not relishing the prospect of a loveless marriage that he will ultimately arrange for her, and yearns to break free.

Jack is also fascinated by the world of the theatre, particularly through his friendship with Tim Rice, a young actor with the King’s Men, the company that performs Shakespeare’s plays, whom Jack first met immediately after his father’s execution.

Shakespeare himself appears in the novel, and is portrayed as an enigmatic character whose plays are a vehicle for reflecting upon and critiquing various contemporary events and trends.

The theatres themselves are viewed with disdain by figures such as George Abbot, the Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, who regularly denounces them for being dens of ungodliness.

When Cecil—who is suspicious about the real motives of the players—learns of Jack’s interest in the theatre, he sees this as an opportunity for Jack to gain intelligence on the players, and Shakespeare, to determine whether they are really loyal to the government.

Central to this novel are the themes of truth versus lies, individuals versus an autocratic state, and moral choices and responses. At critical points of the novel Jack co-operates with Cecil’s machinations, only to regret doing so. The recreation and depictions of life in Jacobean England are both fascinating and have an air of authenticity.

The Execution of Justice is an engaging read. Although it is based upon historical events such as the Gunpowder Plot, it is a fictitious novel as it departs from the historical record in key facets.

For example, the novel presumes Jack Digby is Sir Everard Digby’s elder son and heir; however, in reality he had an older brother, Sir Kenelm Digby. Similarly, the real John Digby was born c.1605, making him younger than the protagonist of the novel.

Likewise, the central premise of the novel is generally dismissed by historians of the period: that the Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy theory by government agents in which the accused—including Everard Digby—were essentially framed to marginalise Catholics even further.

However, other aspects of the novel, namely Shakespeare using his plays as a vehicle to question various government policies cryptically and subtly in such a way that that he could not be accused of sedition or treason, as well as the possibility that he may have been a Catholic, have been long mooted various by Shakespeare scholars, most recently Joseph Pearce.

Although a work of fiction, Sala effectively maintains the readers’ interest and suspense, particularly in Jack’s search for the truth about the Gunpowder Plot, and his trying to prove his father’s innocence.

Unfortunately, not being able to read Italian, I am currently not in a position to read Sala’s other works. However, it is to be hoped that they will soon be translated into English so that she will be able to be read by a wider audience.

Hence, notwithstanding the observations about the ahistorical character of certain aspects of the novel above, this is an entertaining read, one which I found hard to put down, one which complements the historical novels of Msgr Robert Hugh Benson.

The Execution of Justice, Elisabetta Sala, translated into English by Mary Anne Robertson, Sycamore, Illinois: Gondolin Press, 2022, pp.489, $9.95 RRP (Kindle Edition).

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