Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Memory of Reay Tannahill

Author Reay Tannahill died in England on November 7, at the age of 78.

She became a pioneering author by accident, commissioned by the Folio Society in the 1960s to write a history of food, which turned into the bestseller Food in History - a landmark exploration of the evolution and importance of food through the ages. With wit and style, she later revised the book after new discoveries were made in the field, and wrote her second bestselling book, Sex in History.

She then turned to fiction - historical fiction, to be exact. She wrote several bestselling novels over the years, including my two favorites: The World, the Flesh and the Devil, set in medieval Scotland, France and Rome; and Fatal Majesty, which offers a different view of the events that led up to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Fatal Majesty was published by St Martin's Press in the US. I own a first-edition hardcover. The cover features a blue web with a portrait of Mary in the middle, against a gold-leaf background. It's an odd cover, and the book sat on my shelf for over a year before one day I decided to try it out. I've always been interested in Mary, Queen of Scots; in my teens, I was fascinated by her and read what many consider to be the definitive historical novel about her, Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd. I later read Margaret Irwin's book, as well as Margaret George's, both of which I enjoyed, and this accounted in part for my initial reluctance to immediatly read Ms Tannahill's. I bought it because, well, I buy everything historical, but I felt there wasn't anything more anyone could say about Mary of Scots in fiction that would prove a revelation.

Fatal Majesty isn't about Mary per se, though. It's about the political and religious struggle behind Mary, after she arrives in Scotland from France. When she appears, her perspective is beautifully depicted but the book is bigger than her, with a suspenseful, almost thriller-like element to it. You know the ending, naturally, but it's a great read to get there. I noticed the book got tepid reviews and yet this is one of those occasions when I disagree. I found it to be a compelling novel, offering an unusual take on the drama of Mary Stuart's later life. I treasure my first edition.

I'll miss Reay Tannahill's writing, as I'm sure will many readers. You can read Ms Tannahill's obituary here:


Urraca said...

Ooo, The World, the Flesh and the Devil is one of my all time favourites too. I'll have to check out Fatal Majesty. I loved her voice. What a loss.

Sarah said...

I'm a little embarrassed to say that Fatal Majesty is the only one of hers (besides the newest) that I haven't read. The tepid reviews may have had something to do with it. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll get it back on the TBR.

She had a talent for writing, equally well imho, in a wide variety of styles. I was pleasantly surprised by the lightheartedness of Having the Builders In as her other novels were fairly serious. My favorites - World, Flesh, and the Devil, and Passing Glory.

C.W. Gortner said...

When I read The World, the Flesh and the Devil, I was swept away. It had everything I like in an historical novel. I haven't read her latest ones, but Sarah has recommended them to me before, and they're now in my shopping cart. I agree that she had a talent for a wide variety of styles. I think part of the reason Fatal Majesty wasn't widely praised is that Mary is not a central character in the ways we're used to seeing central characters depicted these days. I heard similiar quibbles about her The Seventh Son, about Richard III, which I've currently got sitting on my TBR pile.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I enjoyed both Fatal Majesty and The Seventh Son. Will have to check out some of her other older novels.