The Time Before You Die

by Lucy Beckett, Ignatius Press, £13.99

This superb historical novel, first published in 1999 and now reissued in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, is set between the years 1518 and 1559. It tells the story of Robert Fletcher, a Carthusian monk, one of the many hundreds of monks expelled from their monasteries, “frightened old men turned out of their homes into the winter world”, forced out of his charterhouse of Mount Grace in Yorkshire during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Fletcher’s subsequent tragic life – marriage, the death of his wife after childbirth, his conversion to Lutheranism, his imprisonment and later series of conversations with Cardinal Reginald Pole – is not the usual stuff of novels of this period, dealing as they do (Hilary Mantel’s historical novels are a case in point) with major figures such as Henry, his daughter Elizabeth, Thomas Cranmer and St Thomas More. This is what gives the book its originality and interest, as the reader is led to ask himself what might have happened to such a man as Fletcher, born into the old faith, caught up in the brutal winds of change in the new religion, wrestling with agonising theological questions.

Beckett is not tempted into turning her protagonist into a martyr, as Robert Hugh Benson does in Come Rack! Come Rope! Fletcher is an ordinary man, not especially likeable but worthy of the reader’s pity, struggling with scruples and doubts, trying to follow his conscience as the Church falls about his ears, yet courageously prepared to argue his case with the highly educated, aristocratic archbishop, Reginald Pole, as the latter lies dying in Lambeth Palace.

Indeed, Beckett’s portrait of Pole is one of the best things in the novel. His theological beliefs, his sympathy with some of Luther’s complaints, his long exile from England and his ill-treatment at the hands of his fellow cardinals at the Council of Trent are all beautifully conveyed, either through the author’s device of letters sent back and forth by papal legates and imperial ambassadors at the Tudor court, or in his debates with Fletcher himself.

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