When I started out with my foreign reading challenge I had ideas. I knew some things I’d be interested in reading, as well as some obvious countries I could pick. And then there are the totally new and unknown. I asked around, and one of the books that fell into my lap almost immediately was With a Sword in my Hand by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs. It’s what I’ve fondly referred to as ‘my’ Flemish book all spring.
I went looking for the original title, but can’t find it in a veritable forest of Flemish. Whatever the novel was first called, it’s been translated by John Nieuwenhuizen.
It’s very good. And it’s good to know there is plenty of unknown stuff out there. The world doesn’t revolve round English language books.
We frequently get some excellent historical novels set on the continent, but written in English. This is the same, only more so, as inevitably Jean-Claude and Pat must be more familiar with Flanders. When they make things up, they make it up the Flemish way.
This novel is about a real person, Marguerite van Male, daughter of the Count of Flanders. It seems very little is known about her, so the authors simply borrowed her and made it all up, apart from her date and place of birth. She lived between 1348 and 1405, which in itself helps the reader, because at least you know she will be alive at the end of the book. There is enough of plague and sword fights that you could easily begin to worry.
Marguerite is a bit of a tomboy and she rides and uses a sword like a boy, if that’s not an un-pc thing to say. Her father is hard to get on with, and she has to learn to live with men deciding what she can and can’t do. There is an arranged marriage and there is a love affair or two.
In a way, nothing much happens, and at the same time an awful lot goes on. Marguerite is an interesting girl, and I now feel I know so much more about Flanders in the mid-fourteenth century. I’m not one for getting atlases out when reading, but seeing as there is no map included in the book, maybe I should have.
There is a refreshingly different attitude to nudity and childbirth, if not to the fighting and the swearing. Very impressed with the lessons in sword fighting. Less keen on the plague. But all in all, a wonderful story.