A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements: a thoroughly entertaining insight into an extraordinary man – book review –

A Good Deliverance by Toby ClementsA Good Deliverance by Toby Clements
A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements
For anyone who has studied the Middle Ages, and particularly the literature of the particularly turbulent period of 15th century history, one name will always stand out... Sir Thomas Malory.

An English knight during the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, Malory is best known for his highly influential work, Le Morte D’Arthur, regarded as the first novel in English, the first prose fiction in Western literature, and the most comprehensive treatment of the eternally popular Legend of King Arthur, transforming a story based on French romances into an adventure of knightly brotherhood and the conflicts of loyalty which eventually destroy the fellowship.

But the creator of one of literature’s greatest stories has also carried with him down the centuries a mysterious and, some claim, false reputation as not just a brave and courtly knight who took part in some of the famous battles of the Wars of the Roses, but also as a villain who had several spells of incarceration in London’s infamous Newgate Gaol.

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Between 1450 and 1451 a certain Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in the parish of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, was charged with several major crimes, including robbery, two cattle raids, several extortions, a rape, and an attempted murder. At one point, he was jailed but escaped by swimming a moat and resorted to what was for medieval men the darkest of depravities... robbing churches.

So was Malory a literary hero, a villain, or both? Enter stage left, the vivid imaginative power of Toby Clements, the former Literary Editor at the Daily Telegraph and author of the magnificent Kingmaker series which featured four critically acclaimed novels which brought to life the epic Wars of the Roses with breathtaking and brutal detail.

Clements, a once ‘warlike child’ who was long ago inspired by both reading Le Morte D’Arthur and by the mysterious reputation of the man who wrote it, set his sights on a novel that would recreate Malory’s extraordinary world and tell his story using what we know of his life, his groundbreaking literary work, and the myths that have grown up around him.

The result is a suitably thrill-packed and flamboyant adventure, planted firmly in the real and brutal history of this action-packed corner of English history, and offering a thoroughly entertaining insight into an extraordinary man who wrote with flair, fought with valour, and might well have spent as much time incarcerated among the filthy rushes of Newgate as wading through the mud and gore of the battlefield.

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In a delightful opening twist to the tale, we meet the politician, courtier, outlaw and renowned author Malory as an old man in the garden of his Warwick home one drowsy summer afternoon in 1468 just at the moment he is roughly snatched by royal agents and bundled away on the orders of King Edward IV.

Dragged off to Newgate Prison for reasons unknown, Malory is left shivering in the foul-smelling, filthy old cell which he has come to know well over the course of many years. Convinced that he will soon die, for reasons he does not know, Malory cannot help but mourn his misspent life as he awaits the execution bell and the arrival of a priest to hear his last confession.

But when the locking bar lifts, and Malory prepares to ‘greet Death with a smile, with a nod, with a God-give-you-good-grace, sir,’ he is met instead by a boy aged about twelve who turns out to be John Brunt, the jailer’s son, who has come with food and ale for him.

Having spent the previous night regretting that he will die without people knowing of his life and achievements, and longing for a witness, ‘someone to hear his tale, to marvel at his deeds and to hold his truths’, Malory is giddy with relief to see the boy.

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Despite the serving lad’s insistence that his father will box his ears if he is finds out he ‘stood about’ listening to tales, Malory is determined young John will be his ‘audience’ and hear the ‘true tale of the deeds and of arms and gentle acts of valour’ and learn ‘how a man might rise from nothing.’

And so begins a prison confession of the perilously exciting life of a man at odds with his past, the events that led to him penning the first great prose work of fiction in English, and the risks he took that have finally come to roost...

Master storyteller Clements has fun with this rip-roaring, rollercoaster ride through chivalry and shenanigans as the youthful scepticism of the jailer’s spiky young son proves to be more than a match for Malory's histrionics and hyperbole. ‘Oho! It’s not one about how innocent you are?’ he asks Malory when the old man says he wants to tell him a story.

From boyhood in rural Warwickshire and onward to the sidelines of some of the major historical events and battles of the 15th century, we witness Malory at the coronation of King Henry V, the famous siege of Harfleur in France, the great English victory at the Battle of Verneuil in Normandy, and even manfully guarding the captured Joan of Arc.

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And with a nod to the adventures of King Arthur and his Round Table Knights, Clements takes Malory to jousting contests, sea battles, imagines him getting horribly drunk, tutoring a young Henry VI, and falling scandalously in love with Lady Anne Neville, wife of the brutal Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III.

With some of the big names from this bellicose period of history striding through the pages alongside a Malory brought to life with Clements’ vivid historical insight, a playful tribute to the man who inspired the author’s own career, and a rich vein of dark humour, there could be no better way to explore the truths and myths of one of literature’s most elusive stars.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £18.99)

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