You don’t have to spend much time around here to know that I am a Romantic of the old order. I love the tenderness of a well-turned phrase, the high sensibility of a love letter. My heart plunges and rises and plunges again with the pathos of a Chopin nocturne and I am always the one sniffling in the theatre at the end of a Jane Austen movie.
And I absolutely adored When Knighthood Was in Flower.
It was one of those books that you will always remember the time and the setting of your first reading: I was twenty-one and it was August and I spent several languorous summer afternoons in its thrall, sprawled across my bed with a plate of crisp apple slices and only occasionally coming up for air or a drink of water. I can still recall the breathless page-turning (how often do books really grant that pleasure in this distract-able age?) and the gasp and sob at a particularly poignant turn of events. (I even got choked up merely telling Philip about it the other night, all these years later…)
When Knighthood Was in Flower was written by Charles Major in 1898 and basically instigated an entire generation of historical romantic novels. It was #9 on the list of Best-Selling American novels in 1900, and has been adapted for the stage and several film productions, including Disney’s 1953 The Sword and the Rose.
It is the story of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII and the courtly commoner, Charles Brandon, and is told in a charming first-person narrative from the perspective of a friend to both, Edwin Caskoden, the royal Master of the Dance. (Charles Major even went so far as to have written the book under the pen name of Caskoden, furthering the sense of authenticity to the events portrayed.)
It is truly a beautiful read, gilted with the pure, flashing gleam of chivalry and gemmed with passages fit to pierce the heart.
“…how rich is a man who has laid up such treasures of memory to grow the sweeter as he feeds upon them. A rich memory is better than hope, for it lasts after fruition, and serves us at a time when hope has failed and fruition is but—a memory. Ah! how we cherish it in our hearts, and how it comes at our beck and call to thrill us through and through and make us thank God we have lived, and wonder in our hearts why he has given poor undeserving us so much.”
Charles Major, When Knighthood Was in Flower
Incidentally, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is another title by Charles Major and his second best-seller. It was published in 1902 and tells the story of an Elizabethan heiress, set against the harrowing history of Mary, Queen of Scots.