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This novel, set in seventeenth-century Holland, Restoration London, and Barbados, is the second volume of Jane Stevenson's historical trilogy. The Winter Queen, the first volume, told of the mature passion of Elizabeth of Bohemia and her clandestine lover, an African price and former slave. Balthasar Stuart, the secret child born of their love, is the protagonist of The Shadow King. Now a young doctor, he struggles to come to terms with his rich, difficult, and complex heritage. Neither black nor white, royal nor commoner, African nor European, he is in every sense a pretender, and truly at home nowhere in the world. Race and identity - great human themes, great American themes - are at the heart of this extraordinary work.
Driven out of Holland by the plague, Balthasar makes his way first to the raffish, cynical world of Restoration London and then to Barbados, a colonial society marked by slavery and savage racism. Every stage of his life is informed by the political and religious background of the era, and the rich, everyday human past, too, is brought vividly to life, in people's habits of thought and speech, their food and fashions, their medical practices.
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JANE STEVENSON was born in London and brought up in London, Beijing, and Bonn. She teaches literature and history at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author of Several Deceptions, a collection of four novellas; a novel, London Bridges; and the acclaimed historical trilogy made up of the novels The Winter Queen, The Shadow King, and The Empress of the Last Days. Stevenson lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The mechanisms of our bodies are composed of strings, threads, beams,
levers, cloth, flowing fluids, cisterns, ducts, filters, sieves, and other similar
mechanisms. Through studying these parts with the help of Anatomy,
Philosophy and Mechanics, man has discovered their structure and
function . . . With this and the help of discourse, he apprehends the way
nature acts and he lays the foundation of Physiology, Pathology, and
eventually the art of Medicine.
Marcello Malpighi, De Polypo Cordis (1666)
"And now we come to the heart of the mystery, gentlemen. Come forward a
little, it is a sight you will seldom have an opportunity to see." Delicately he
traced the swollen, ripening curve with his forceps, as they all obediently
craned their necks. "About three months gravid, I should say. She should
have pleaded her belly, poor wretch. But perhaps she did not know the signs."
Putting down the forceps which he had been using as a pointer
since laying aside the mass of the intestines, he picked up a scalpel, and
began to cut. The thin, cold winter sun lanced down on the table, which was
positioned to catch the best possible light. The room was completely silent,
except for the precise, tearing sound of the blade sawing through tough
Balthasar leaned forward with the others, sweating with sickly
fascination, breathing shallowly through his mouth. The meaty stink exhaling
from the opened body was an almost solid thing, though the girl had been
dead only forty-eight hours. Even though he was avoiding breathing through
his nose, it seemed to have coated his whole mouth and throat with a layer of
impalpable foulness. Incense burned in the room, but the delicate, musky
sweetness only intensified the horror of the stench.
The sight before him was profoundly disturbing for a young man
who had never before in his life seen a naked woman. The neck was of
course damaged by the garotte, but since they were clustered about the
lower part of the cadaver and the head was turned away from them it was not
visible; he could only see the line of the cheekbone. The upper part of her
body was pretty. She was very slight, bluish-white and waxen in death, with
pale, maidenly nubbins of breasts that suggested extreme youth; if he had
met her, perhaps carrying a pile of linen or a basket of eggs, he would have
flirted with her, sought a glimpse of those little breasts now so pitilessly bare
to his gaze. Yet the moment his eye strayed below the waist, he could no
longer even think of the body as human, it was something worse than
butcher"s meat. The abdomen gaped open, omentum and bowels laid to one
side to display the womb, like a terrible red egg in the nest of the pelvis. Both
legs had been sawn away just below the point where they met the torso. The
ends were dry and shiny like mahogany, with gleaming rings of paler fat and
ivory bone, and between the great dark-red meaty ovals, her shameful parts
were obscenely exposed in all their meagreness, adorned with a little tuft of
blonde hair. He kept looking at her sex and away again, revolted and excited,
and knew that his fellow students were doing the same. It was impossible for
him to associate the dry and abject tags of flesh that he could see with what
he had touched in his occasional fumblings beneath the skirts of whores,
which had seemed, at the time, a slippery pit fit to swallow the world. Is this
how all women are made? he wondered sickly, but was distracted from this
train of thought by Professor van Horne.
Pinning back the two halves of the womb, now completely
sectioned, he reached into it with the forceps, and brought forth a pale
homunculus attached to a long, bluish cord. "A male, I believe," he
announced, squinting at the tiny object expertly. "Well, perhaps the law has
spared him much suffering. He would not have amounted to much, with such
a beginning." Carefully, he laid the fetus down on a piece of white
linen. "Observe him well, gentlemen, so that his existence will not be
absolutely in vain. The head is well developed, though the eyes are not open,
and the heart is formed, as are the spine and the liver. We now know that his
heart would already have been beating, and it may be that this little creature
lived for some time after his mother met her end. He was not independent, as
the cord which tethers him to the matrix bears witness, but neither was he
wholly part of this wretched girl, any more than he was party to her sins. For
all we know, he was already dreaming when death came quietly into his
small world. So do we all begin."
Turning to the anatomical atlas which lay open on a lectern beside
the table, Professor van Horne began an exposition on the anatomy of the
uterus. Balthasar and his fellow students took notes conscientiously; he was
perhaps not the only one so disturbed by what he saw that he wrote
mechanically and followed little of what the professor said.
At last, the lesson came to an end. Professor van Horne threw a
sheet over the ruin of the girl and her child, while the students pocketed their
notebooks and prepared to leave. Feet clattering, they trooped up the wooden
stairs of the anatomy theatre, a precipitous, funnel-like oval of benches
designed to give students the best possible view of the dissection table at its
centre. Around the outermost set of seats articulated skeletons were placed,
a horse and its rider, a cow; their delicate white bones arrested by an
armature of wires and struts in postures which imitated their natural
movements in life. There were also human skeletons carrying banners, the
gonfaliere of Death: "pulvis et umbra sumus", "nosce teipsum", "memento
"D"you know who she was?" Balthasar asked his friends as they
emerged, shivering a little, into the raw air of February, hands deep in their
"I"ve no idea," said Jan. "Willem, you went to the execution, didn"t
you? Did anyone say?"
"Yes. Well, what she was, anyway. She was a country girl, she
came to the city for work, and didn"t find it. She scrounged and starved for a
bit, maybe earned the odd stuiver on her back, the landlady got tired of
waiting and tried to take her clothes. They had a fight, she pushed the old
woman down the stairs and broke her neck, and the other lodgers caught her
before she got to the end of the street. Lucky for us, really. It"s my tenth
dissection, and only the first woman. It"s wonderful she was pregnant, I never
thought I"d get to see that."
"Luck indeed," said Jan, with passion. "Van Horne was right,
calling it a miracle. It was beautiful. I"ve wanted to see inside a womb for a
long time. He should"ve thrown the book away, sows and bitches are no
guide at all. Hardly anything he told us was supported by what we saw. I was
nearer than you, and I could see there wasn"t the slightest trace of two
chambers. The standard account needs complete revision, based on
"Was she pretty?" asked Balthasar suddenly.
The others looked at him, surprised. "Who?" said Willem. "Oh,
yes. Pretty enough. Pale as a cheese, but she was on the gallows, wasn"t
she? She might"ve looked all right, smiling. It was just an ordinary face."
Balthasar swallowed. Jan was incandescent with technical
enthusiasm, but he could not help thinking of the girl. His mind was bumping
around the unpalatable effort of imagining what it could be like to be so poor
that one could die in defending two or three guilders" worth of old clothes. At
the same time, he was uncomfortably aware that if his own ventures failed,
there was nothing to keep him from such an end. The thought of her stirred in
the pit of his stomach, and filled him with a strange nervous excitement.
Jan shook himself, as if shaking off a thought. "Let"s go for a
borrel, jonges. That was wonderful, but I want to get the stink out of my
throat. Anyone got a clove or anything?"
Balthasar had a paper of aniseed comfits, and passed them
round. Chewing their sweets, the three students headed for a nearby inn, "t
Zwarte Zwaan, their usual place of resort. It was not much of a place, but it
was fairly cheap, and the landlord kept a good fire and the news.
"Oh, good," said Balthasar as they pushed open the door, "this
week"s Courant. I"d better take a look. I want to see if Thibault"s been up to
anything, back home."
"You"ve had a lot of trouble down in Zeeland this last year,"
observed Jan sympathetically. "It"s a long way away, when there"s property to
think about. Have you got family down there – maybe your mother"s people?"
"No," said Balthasar hastily. "I"ve got no relatives. There"s just a
couple of old servants."
"Tough luck, Blackie. Something more to worry about. What"re
"Brantwijn, please." They sat down together, Balthasar taking the
seat nearest the window, the better to see the dirty, poorly printed pages. All
three immediately began filling their pipes, and Willem began to tell Jan one
of his long, rambling dirty stories, leaving Balthasar in peace to scan the
paper. While his fingers filled and tamped the pipe with automatic skill, his
eye, running down the columns, was alert for a few specific
words, "Middelburg", "Zeeland", "Thibault". Thus, when his gaze passed over
the words "konigin van Bohemen", he did not at first register them; only a
strange double-thump of his heart. He looked again, and this time, saw what
was said. "The queen of Bohemia is dead in London." A strange, cold
sensation began in his stomach and diffused through his body. His mother
was dead, and he was completely numb.
"So, what d"you think of that, then, Blackie?" Willem"s voice broke
into his paralysis.
"You didn"t hear a word, did you? Is there trouble at home? You"re
a funny colour – you look as if you"d have gone pale, if you could."
"Oh, it"s nothing." Balthasar forced a smile. "I"m tired, I think, I was
working late last night." He put the pipe down unlit, reached for his brandy,
and gulped half of it in one swig. "God. This is terrible stuff. What d"you think
he puts in it?" As he had hoped, that turned the conversation.
Later, walking alone to his lodgings, he wondered what to do. The
obvious answer was to stay where he was and get on with his degree, but he
had an appallingly strong impulse to run for home which he knew to be futile:
his father, the only person he could possibly have talked to, had been dead
for five years. But he had brought none of his mother"s letters with him, since
he did not care to risk them outside the house, and he wanted very much to
Once he was in the privacy of his own room and his mind was
working once more, he realised there was one thing he could usefully do, and
that was to write to Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen, who, since his father"s
death, had been his only link with his mother. The old German had been a
court painter in England under both James I and Charles I, but had fled in the
early years of the Civil War, when Balthasar himself had been only a baby,
and settled in Middelburg. Pelagius, Balthasar"s father, always interested in
English exiles, had become acquainted with him, and had secured him
Elizabeth"s patronage. The portrait he had painted of her, which Pelagius
displayed in their small house in Middelburg, had launched him on a second,
modestly successful, career among Zeeland burghers and their wives, and
Jonson had been duly grateful.
It was Jonson"s image of a strong-featured, middle-aged woman
with hazel eyes, fabulous pearls and a low-cut dress, holding a white rose,
which was, to Balthasar, practically all that he knew by the name of mother.
When she had come to Middelburg for a week of sittings, he had been only
six, and he had not known anything of their relationship; try as he would, he
could remember nothing she had said to him, and his memory of how she
had looked was overlaid by the portrait itself. All he was sure of was the
lustrous, rustling folds of her silken skirts, and the scent of amber and orris
which they gave off; she had been exotic and awe-inspiring. His only real link
with her was the letters, which had begun only after his father had told him
who he was.
Due to the extreme secrecy of his birth and bringing-up, a
discretion that his father had imposed upon him so strongly that it felt like a
physical lock upon his tongue, when she wrote to him, as she occasionally
did after Pelagius"s death, the letters were sent under cover of notes to Mr
Jonson, and his replies, brief as they were, went the same way. In the course
of writing his letter to Jonson, he made up his mind. He would stay where he
was; he had neither money nor time to spare.
The packet-boat Dordrecht was making its way up the with the sun lying low
on the horizon and making them all squint as they looked towards their first
sight of the town. Balthasar, at last, was going home. Chilled from the long,
cold journey threading through the islands of Zeeland, and uncertain in his
mind, he looked from Walcheren Canal towards Middelburg on the last leg of
its journey, up as the familiar defences of the Oostpoort came into view. He
longed for home, and yet the thought of it appalled him. In the depths of the
hold, roped and corded, were all his books and clothes from Leiden, together
with his certificates of graduation as a doctor of medicine. His life as a
student was now a thing of the past, before him was a house, and the two
servants who had brought him up, Narcissus and Anna. All the security he
had ever known. He longed to see them, and memories crowded in his head,
Anna"s warm lap, riding on Narcissus"s shoulders, the alarms and
excitements of childhood, how strong, wise and potent they had once
seemed to him, especially Narcissus. Now, their dependence terrified him.
He must succeed as a doctor to keep food in their mouths, coal in the cellar,
linen in the press. The death of his mother, so far away, had removed his last
point of resort beyond his own abilities, and she had left him nothing. The
servants were his to command, but also his to care for, and he was infuriated
by the assumption of helplessness in their confiding, painfully written letters.
If he failed, he thought grimly, they would all three beg on the streets.
Narcissus and Anna could, and would, do nothing to help him, or themselves.
The thought stayed with him through the protracted business of
tying up at the Oostpunt, hiring a handcart and porter for his luggage, and the
short walk home down the Spanjardstraat. When he came within sight of the
small, rosy-brick house called De Derde Koninck, the sound of the porter"s
cart rattling on the cobbles alerted the household, and Narcissus looked out.
In the slanting evening light, the round, dark head peering round the jamb of
the door seemed strangely creased and distorted; the familiar keloid scars of
ancient burns on Narcissus"s cheek and neck, traces of an accident which
had happened long before Balthasar was even born, seemed to pull his face
into grotesque lopsidedness; for a moment, he looked like a monster. The
next second, he recognised his master, and his face split in a wide...
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Book Description Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0618149139
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