ON MY travels I am often asked “Where are you from?”, and this can be difficult to answer. I don’t mean the border official who will grant safe passage on sight of the right travel document: I am, rather, thinking of the numerous encounters with fellow admirers of architecture, music, and local food.
“Where are you from?” There is more than one answer I could give, more than one place I could identify with. What does it mean to be “from” somewhere? Each answer could open doors of conversation, of encounter, of initial judgement — and close them, as well. This is where I find the 17th-century musician and occasional merchant Francis Tregian an unlikely and yet congenial companion, and Anne Cuneo’s historical novel an enjoyable read.
Writing a historical novel is a challenge to balance and combine imagination and conjecture with historical accuracy — to the extent that it can be achieved — to invite the reader into the world of another time, and to make the reading timely for our time. The novelist, filmmaker, and journalist Cuneo, who grew up in Switzerland and England, masters this admirably.
Tregian lives in a time of old alliances breaking up, and new orders being forged. It is the time after the Reformation, both in his native England and on the Continent, around which we follow him on his travels — not least in pursuit of his beloved music, much of which is preserved in the only historical document we have of his existence: the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a collection of the music of his time.
Tregian becomes a master of reinventing himself. His musical ear enables him to learn the languages of the countries in which he lives, French and Dutch, and thus to avoid speaking in his native English when this could betray him, or is not expedient.
It is music that throughout his life becomes the lingua franca that enables him to cross borders, and receive and give hospitality, and that becomes his legacy. “I feel the company of my departed friends and companions close about me, reading over my shoulder. I am writing for all of us. And for us, French, Latin, Italian, Dutch or English — what difference does it make?” From his childhood, he has learnt to live in several worlds at once.
Through Tregian we meet some of the greats of his time: musicians still part of cathedral repertoire, such as Morley, Gibbons, Byrd, and Monteverdi, and the Dutch masters Jan and Dirk Sweelinck. He is not himself a composer, but his abiding legacy is his ability to collect, transcribe the music that he finds, and take it to new places.
We also meet Master Shakespeare; and the characters and plot of Hamlet, then a work in progress, become a device by which Tregian is able to read and interpret his own story. This is most obvious in the ghost of his own father, a recusant, betrayed and incarcerated for much of his life, who is unable to envisage a future other than a Roman Catholic England.
Tregian, on the other hand, looks for a Europe where different faith groups and different world-views can exist alongside each other. He remains a Roman Catholic throughout his life, but his faith is moderate and understated, much between him and God. “Why must people die for believing in God in a different way from their neighbours?” He is disillusioned with those whose minds remain in an imaginary past, and hopes that, one day, someone will invent religious freedom.
Although Tregian’s travels across Europe are extensive, there are moments in the book that slow the reader down, often in the form of a haunting question asked by a child. His daughter Adrienne, on bidding her father goodbye, asks him: “What if I never see you again?” On his return, he finds Amsterdam and his own family devastated by the plague. The book is a story of farewells and welcomes, of having no abiding city, and of seeking the welfare of the city when living there.
What would Tregian have replied if someone had asked him where he was from? This is, perhaps, a question he would not have asked, or one that he would hesitated to answer. What matters for him, a man, as Shakespeare observes, caught between two worlds, are the people he meets, the music and ideas he learns from them, and the worlds that they open up for him. He is not nostalgic for his Cornish childhood home, but is true to himself: a man made by the people he meets and the friendships he makes.
Originally published in French, this is, indeed, a timely book for the days of Brexit; a book that shows that there are deeper bonds between England and Continental Europe than are dreamed of in our philosophy.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian and writer and lives in Peterborough.
Tregian’s Ground: The life and sometimes secret adventures of Francis Tregian by Anne Cuneo is published by And Other Stories at £10; 978-1-90827-654-4.
TREGIAN’S GROUND — SOME QUESTIONS
- Francis writes that he “should have liked a casuistry class on the question of whether a man’s religion should indeed come before loyalty to his country”. How might you advise him?
- “One may be a soldier of Christ as much by playing the organ as by saying Mass.” Do you agree? Does music transcend religious politics in this novel?
- A “ground” is a piece of music with a repeated harmonic progression that remains the same while other elements of the music vary. In what ways is the title Tregian’s Ground relevant to the book?
- “These are bad times for well-meaning men: they are persecuted even more than heretics.” What does Tregian’s Ground suggest to us about tolerance?
- What does it mean to be a gentleman at this time? What does it mean for Francis when he gives this up?
- “I grasped an expressive form corresponding precisely to my deepest feelings.” How can music help us to communicate?
- “My father repeats the litany of my obligations, again and again.” What do you make of Francis’s relationship with his father?
- Francis Tregian’s father spends most of his life imprisoned for his faith. Is he too extreme in his views?
- In what ways, do you think, are the issues raised in Tregian’s Ground relevant today?
- “Subjects . . . require moral certainty. Paradise assured.” What does Cuneo suggest to us about our desire for moral absolutes?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 May, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout. It is published by Simon & Schuster at £8.99; 978-0-7434-6228-0.
In a small New England town in the late 1950s, a young Congregational minister, Tyler Caskey, is suffering from profound loss after the death of his wife, Lauren. Besides struggling with personal grief and anger, he struggles with his faith. Preaching, which had once been a joy, becomes difficult. Alongside this, his congregation, who once held him in high esteem, begin questioning his position, respectability, and ability as a father. Gossip grows and spreads. Abide with Me brings the threads of the town and its inhabitants together in a subtle exploration of relationships, community, and faith.
Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, in 1956. Her father was a deacon, and she was brought up in the Congregational Church. She has degrees in English Literature and Law, and worked variously as a waitress, a lawyer, and a community-college lecturer before publishing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. She has since written five further novels, including Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into an Emmy Award-winning mini-series. She lives with her husband and divides her time between Manhattan and Brunswick, Maine.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS:
June: Knowing Anna by Sarah Meyrick
July: Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore