A girl's role in Stuart times

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Curse on the Sea, By Geoffrey Trease, Hodder Pounds 3.99.

At the centre of Geoffrey Trease's latest novel is the unfolding relationship be-tween young actor Rob and a girl called Barbary whom he meets when he is visiting Scotland as a member of the retinue accompanying Charles I to his Edinburgh coronation.

For Rob, the journey represents a significant transitional period in his development. It coincides with his need to move from girls' and women's roles to playing adults; it affords opportunities to trace and come to terms with his father's Scottish origins; and it witnesses the tentative emergence of his sexuality.

Barbary has a part to play in all of these. But, following a dramatic (and powerfully re-created) storm at sea, she is accused of witchcraft and forced to flee with Rob's help. A resolute and resilient heroine, Barbary copes with her trials with an admirable sense of purpose. It is disappointing to see her become a mere orange-seller when we leave her installed in London's theatreland with Rob. Still, as the final line assures us, there will be better things to come.

It is now more than 50 years since Trease's Cue for Treason took his readers back to the earlier world of Elizabethan London theatre. Fashions in historical fiction have come and gone since then, but Trease's strengths remain what they always were: a strong narrative line, bold (if not particularly subtle) characterisation and a convincing blend of the history of the textbook and the history of the imagination. The result is a satisfying and engaging story, even if one which at times has a slightly dated feel.

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