There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth in Hatfield House Hertfordshire. It is called the Ermine Portrait, after the stoat which sits on the Queen’s arm. It is a political portrait in the old style, the Queen surrounded by her treasures. A show of potency to the powers across the water. In this picture the Bretheren is the brooched centrepiece of the Queen’s black jewelled skeleton…
The Virgin Queen(‘s) eyes are small and quite hard, like those of the ermine poised on her sleeve. It is nearly three decades since she gained the throne, the assassins sent for her from Europe finding themselves, inexplicably, assassinated…
When Elizabeth gained it, the Three Bretheren was 150 years old. It took this time, five generations, before a woman owned the jewel.
observations: In this recent Ayelet Waldman entry, the protagonists of the book were looking for the owners and history of a precious piece of jewellery: in this one they’re looking for the jewellery.
The whole of Love of Stones is about the jewel above, clearly visible in the picture as described (though not sure about ‘skeleton’). The story starts with the commissioning of the brooch by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, and then mostly concentrates in two particular periods in its history: the lives of two Jewish men from Baghdad, who end up in Victorian London, and a modern-day search for the jewels by a partial narrator, Katharine Sterne.
The details – of jewellery, precious stones, goldsmithing, the creation of a crown – are fascinating, and Hill convincingly describes a kind of mania that overtakes some people who become obsessed with collecting (in the case of one character, just pearls, nothing else.)
Does the jewelled brooch really exist? Hard to tell – it doesn’t seem to exist under the name Hill gives it, though there it is in the picture.
With the two main strands of the plot, you have inklings of what is going on, and they seem to be carefully structured to echo each other. The Levy brothers sections is real historical fiction – including lots of research, a look at mudlarking and a meeting with Queen Victoria. Katherine Sterne’s part is a contemporary thriller: she is following clues, moving on, staying one step ahead of others. The main criticism of the book would be that it is hard to understand her obsession with the brooch: it is just a given that she is spending her life trying to find it, sacrificing everything to it. But we are not given any glimpse as to why.
It is an intriguing read, though I suspect a forgettable one. It’s well-written – ‘his feet were full of anger. They walked by themselves’ – and has odd moments of humour. But it is quite repetitive, the same things keep happening to the characters (they are knocked out and knocked down quite a lot), and it’s hard to care much what is happening to them, there are too many plot devices, too many roads to take. It’s 450+ pages long, and could have done with losing a third of that.
Two of the Amazon reviews give strange reasons for reading it: one is from author Sally Vickers, who says Hill gave her own Miss Garnet’s Angel a nice review, so she thought she’d return the compliment. The other is from someone who was entering a writing contest of which Hill was a judge, and who thought it might be helpful to suss him out.
The picture is the Elizabeth I portrait from Hatfield House – the photo came from Wikimedia Commons.