I came to that conclusion even
before the heroine studied to become an actress and played Ophelia in the most famous of revenge tragedies. There’s an adjustment to modern taste: the body count at the end isn’t as high as
the Jacobeans liked it, and the hero doesn’t wander around with his sister’s heart on a dagger – well, only metaphorically, anyway.
I’ve enormously enjoyed other books by Linda Gillard, such
as Emotional Geology and House of
Silence, but I think this moves up through several gears. It’s an impressive and powerful book.
But, if I’m honest, I was
troubled by doubt as I read it. I did wonder: Isn’t it all a bit OTT?
Then I asked myself, is the
story believable? Do things like this ever happen?
And also, being honest, the
answer to both questions is,Yes. More often than most rather pallid novels of modern life – which a friend once summed up as, ‘Unmarried mothers and unmanned lovers’ – would lead you to
think. The characters of A Lifetime Burning are
fully imagined and vivid. I could see them, and hear them, and their motivations and emotions are such that you never doubt them. They could, would, do no other. And the
book is beautifully written, the narrative controlled with great skill as it shifts between decades, covering a whole lifetime of burning, constantly giving us new perspective on the
characters and events.
But we’re thinner blooded
than the Jacobeans, and usually prefer our drama to be more low-key. Then we can call it ‘realistic.’ But in fact, real-life is not only more multiple than we think it, it’s
frequently more OTT. I remember as a child being told about a family friend, who was such a disaster magnet that, as catastrophe piled on catastrophe, I started to laugh, and was
told off for being unsympathetic. An acquaintance has a love-life resembling an annexe of Bedlam, and I’ve known people who, if their lives did happen to be calm for a moment,
immediately took actions that any cool observer could easily predict would create havoc. The only conclusion is that they craved uproar and couldn’t bear calm. Drama queens,
in fact. In that sense, the Jacobeans had a more accurate idea of 'realism' than us, and so
does ‘A Lifetime Burning’. In fact, come to think of it, in comparison to the aforementioned real lives, it’s far more credible, perhaps because we know the people from the
If you want a sweet love-story, tied up with a pink bow, and
happy-ever-afters, then A Lifetime Burning isn’t for you. Jacobean tragedies are never sweet, and never end happily. They are vivid and
I do wonder that the heroine plays
Ophelia, instead of taking part in the play which would have supplied the most apposite quote, from the Jacobean tragedy to beat them all:
O my sister! there's the cause on't. Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.’