First published in 1970, The Lark and the Laurel is a historical novel, a romance, set in England at the end of the fifteenth century, just after Henry VII had become the first Tudor king. It’s the story of sixteen-year-old Cecily Jolland, who is sent away from her home in London to stay with her aunt at her house, Mantlemass, not far from the Kent coast when her father finds himself on the wrong side of the political fence and is forced to flee the country. Cecily has been pampered and hidden away, kept as her father’s treasure until such time as he can give her away in marriage for some particular gain of his own. At first, she is horrified by the noise and smells and easy ways of the countryside and desperate to get back to her father’s side but gradually she comes to realise the freedom she has gained in her aunt’s house. But of course, it can’t last, and one day her father arrives to claim back his treasure.
There’s nothing like a historical novel when it’s well done and Barbara Willard is a master. The history’s all there, the details presented in such a way that you scarcely realise how much you’re being told about the Tudor world. I do hate to make a book sound worthy, because obviously you’re going to read this for the sheer joy of the story, but you can learn a lot of English history from this and the other books in the Mantlemass series.
Like many YA novels of this time before there was truly a ‘YA’ or ‘teen’ category, The Lark and the Laurel is short, and to a modern reader may even feel rushed. The tone is different too, a little more heavy on the authorial voice, a little less in Cecily’s head than you’d anticipate today. A little more like a children’s book, perhaps, and with reason, since back in the 1970s that is exactly what this was considered, even though it’s about a sixteen-year-old falling in love and her father who wants to marry her off. Don’t let this put you off! This a fabulous historical novel set in a fascinating period with all the best stuff you get in romance – gorgeous hero, some misunderstandings, near disaster, happy ending (oops, probably shouldn’t have given that away!) – without being at all cheesy. Not only that, but you’ll find a strong note of feminism running through the novel that should satisfy any modern reader.
More to Read!
The Lark and the Laurel is just the first of the Mantlemass books which follow the same family over the centuries that follow. Although each book is an entirely separate story, the lives of the generations overlap and each book is set at some pivotal moment in English history and brings home what that moment meant for the family. A Cold Wind Blowing set at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries is probably my second favourite!
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