Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

published 2016

set in the 1460s

Wonders will Never Cease 1

[Anthony Woodville is riding through London at night]

Anthony thinks that the windows of those houses on Cheapside whose interiors are lit up with a dull yellow light resemble the eyes of goblins and he says as much to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, who is riding beside him.

The Earl’s response is surprising, ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Did I ever tell you that I was once on a goblin hunt? It was in the marchlands of Wales. The whole area was infested with these horrid creatures and they were attacking children. So their numbers had to be brought down. Their glowing eyes used to give them away. Also the hounds found it easy to follow their peculiar smell. The little creatures resembled humans so much, particularly Welshmen, that it seemed cruel to kill them, but we did and we cut off their ears for the tally. Looking back on it, perhaps we should not have held so many meets, for I believe that there are very few goblins left in England or Wales. They may even be extinct.’

Wonders will Never Cease 2

commentary: This is my favourite passage from this book, I think -  though there are many other candidates.

So 2017, whatever it might hold in other areas, looks like being a good year for books. I’ve already read two that I think will be among my best all year – this one, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, on the blog recently.

The trouble with Wonders is that it’s hard to describe it in a way that doesn’t sound off-putting. Whatever algorithm prompted amazon to recommend it to me did work out (and makes it worth all the annoyingly wrong ideas they normally have about what I’d like): I tried a free sample and after reading the first chapter I instantly downloaded the rest, and ripped through it ravenously. It was truly a joy to read.

It’s a historical novel about Anthony Woodville, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville: she was the silver-gilt beauty who married Edward IV. But this is his story, not his sister’s – and it has supernatural elements. But these are side-by-side with the historical facts. They are ever-present, but not overtaking the story. Does that make any sense…? I thought it was going to be a mixture of alternate history (but no, the outline of facts is correct) and much-loved author Terry Pratchett (but no, this is set in the actual world). Is it more like Hilary Mantel crossed with JK Rowling? I don’t know. I just know that I loved it.

It is a very funny book, and I think anyone who reads anything about British history will enjoy this:
‘By the five wounds of Christ! This is the curse of the English aristocracy. We lords and ladies are so brainless that we cannot think of any names for our children except Elizabeth, Anne, Katherine, Henry, Richard, Edward and John. And then again Henry, Elizabeth, John, Katherine, Richard, Edward and Anne. So we are in a constant muddle as to who is who. The lower orders have more sense and imagination, for they take names like Hodge, Poyns, Garth, Alfred, Marigold and Beverley. By God, I am heartily tired of my own name, John, and I believe that I shall have myself called Actaeon, Zoroaster, or perhaps Fabrice.’
The book starts with the grim Battle of Towton, the engagement in a snow storm on Palm Sunday 1461, with the highest casualty figures of any battle on British soil. This is the Wars of the Roses. Anthony is almost killed, or perhaps he is killed and comes back to life. Everything in his life is just a little off-balance ever afterwards. He has a terrific interest in the world around him, and he is not sure what to believe. Life for everyone is a convincing mixture of un-reformed religion, weird superstitions, a whole set of Arthurian myths and legends, and a vague feeling that not too long ago there might have been some very odd creatures and realities and people around, and these matters are just out of memory, just beyond catching.
After much thought and the consultation of old chronicles, the Abbot has succeeded in conclusively demonstrating that most of the centuries between 600 Anno Domini and 900 Anno Domini have been invented by a tenth-century Chronicler…. It has struck the Abbot and the Chronicler of Crowland that it was most suspicious how very little happens in those phantom centuries and, once they have been done away with, the Abbot’s chronology works perfectly. Anthony, reading this, is doubtful, but when he tries to think of anything that happened in those three centuries, he cannot.
There is a scene where Anthony is trying to conceive a child with his wife, and they find themselves surrounded by spirits of the dead: ‘Hell is too crowded. So we have come to live with you.’ It is terrifying: I make notes as I read, and here there is this ‘!!!!!!’

In the book there are Wagner plots, and the Erl-King, and the memory system Mantel mentions in Wolf Hall, and the Red-Headed League, and possibilities of gentle anachronisms. There is a discussion of Noah’s Ark in terms of jousting:
The Abbot found that the top deck alone would be large enough to accommodate twenty-two tilting grounds – not that Noah and his sons would have had time for jousting, since they would be too busy feeding the animals.
When Anthony takes part in some major jousting there is this striking sentence about the men in their armour:
Anthony and the Bastard advance slowly towards each other like silvery lobsters moving under water.
Anthony knows how his story is going to end, because the truly horrifying Talking Head has told him. (I would quite like to forget about the Talking Head, but it won’t leave my mind.)

It’s a book about stories and the way we react to them. It’s about changes in the world, about religion, about knowing what is real and what isn’t. It’s about something in the distance that we can’t explain, something glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes.

Religion features a lot – I liked Anthony’s associate, Ripley, saying ‘I think that the Bible is very badly plotted. I could do better’. It made me think of a historian’s claim that magic, witchcraft and superstition were common in Pre-Reformation England, mixed in with a poor grasp of Christianity.

There is an extraordinary claim about some religious types:
‘What are the Brothers and Sisters of the Blessed Vespers?’ Anthony had never heard of such a group before.
‘They profess an evil heresy…The adherents of the Blessed Vespers are dedicated to coupling in churches.’
‘What do they do that for?’
‘It is not one thing. As far as I can understand it, some do it in hope that such a blasphemous act will put them beyond any hope of redemption in the afterlife and thus thereafter they may worship God without any expectation of reward and that is the purest form of worship there is, for they envisage themselves still offering up prayers and thanks to God from the flaming pits of Hell.’

The reader’s mind really has to fight to get hold of some of the ideas in Wonders Will Never Cease

In a most unlikely way, the book reminded me of George Herbert’s beautiful poem about Prayer, the one that ends:
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

It has the same level of visuals, imagery and mystery. But at the same time it is a most entertaining read. It is a wonderful book.

The pictures show Anthony Woodville. In the second one he is presenting his book to Edward IV – he helped produce some of the first books printed in English, having translated European works.


  1. Oh my goodness, I am going to have to read this, Moira. For this I will have to overcome my prejudice against novels written in the present tense. There is perhaps a hint of Lewis Carroll about it? And thanks for reminding me of the wonderful Herbert poem.

    1. I'm sorry, but you are going to have to read it! I think some people might hate it, but everyone should know it and at least try it. It is such a great book.

  2. Oh, this does sound really different, Moira. Interesting, and informative, as a good historical novel is, but something different, too. Absolutely fascinating! And I do like the wit. Hmmm.....this one hadn't been on my radar before, but perhaps it ought to be.

    1. Keep an eye out for it Margot - it doesn't seem to be widely distributed so far as I can tell, which is a shame because I think if someone picked it up and read the first few pages, they would know at once if it was for them...

  3. Finished Wonders Will Never Cease a week or so ago and greatly admire it.
    I think Geoffrey Hill's sequence Funeral Music https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/48460 is behind the book as well.
    Irwin himself is a fascinating and very varied writer. He's an Orientalist and has written a defence of Orientalism and all of his novels are very different from each other - some are better than others, of course, but they're all worth reading.

    1. Oh that's fascinating about Geoffrey Hill, I've just had a quick look (and will return) and you would definitely see a connection.
      I read one of his earlier novels, Exquisite Corpses, a long time ago, but it didn't prepare me for this (thought might read EC again now, older and wiser). He is obviously a fascinating person as well as a fascinating writer. Is there one of his other books that you would particularly recommend?

    2. The Mysteries of Algiers is a novel set in the last days of French Algeria with another unreliable - and very unpleasant - narrator. He's also written A Companion to the Arabian Nights and For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, a defence of Orientalism and Orientalists against Edward Said and the conspiracy theories he inspired.

    3. OK, I will try the Algiers book...

  4. Oh, this sounds right up my alley!

    And I've always thought the British Royals had a paucity of interesting names -- certainly a lack of variety. I heard a story that Diana wanted to name one of the princes Oliver. Would have been nice.

    1. Such a good book, Paula, I think you would at least like to try it. And yes, more and better names! Oliver not going to happen though - REGICIDE!

  5. Well, there are so many good comments about this here, it is hard to say no, but at this point it doesn't appeal. Maybe time will change my mind.

    1. It's probably not going to turn up at the booksale any time soon Tracy, so you can probably avoid it! I would very much recommend it to anyone who likes non-crime historical novels, but not to a dedicated crime fan.

  6. Hmm.... about as much appeal as a full-frontal lobotomy

    1. If only I had a book featuring a full-rontal lobotomy being carried out by villains in a cellar in a crime setting. That would appeal, yes?


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