A monumental undertaking by the author, who was working from original materials, to bring light to a forgotten period in English history immediately prior to the Civil War.
When Janet opens her late father’s trunk, a whole world of intellectual and spiritual adventure is revealed behind the taciturn façade he presented to her and the world in his later years.
The story revolves about a young man’s almost accidental quest to understand the world he lives in, which is imbued with spirit and fermenting with new and forbidden ideas.
When Matthew takes a job with his namesake, Brierley, a minister, he is exposed to Brierley’s radical notion that man can commune directly in mystical union with God with no intervention from ecclesiastical authority to achieve a perfection which will lead to the attainment of both paradise on earth and a meaningful afterlife.
To be near Brierley and learn from him, Matthew takes on menial work and is exposed, not only to forbidden texts, which will expand his worldview, but to Brierely’s lovely young wife for who he harbors a subdued but very real passion.
The novel follows Matthew through his initial infatuation with all things that pertain to the Brierleys through his inevitable disappointment in their all too human failings, to his passion for the knowledge found in forbidden texts to his sojourn in London, where he is exposed to clandestine groups meeting to discuss new ideas coming from the continent. In time, seeing through their corruption, he will turn his back on them as well and return to Brierley in order to make amends. He will, however, meet his own destiny in Janet, Brierley’s clever and resourceful servant who will become his life partner as they forge a unique way of living in a remote and isolated spot in the far north of England.
CMoP in many ways is a genre defying achievement. On one level it is a purely historical work, one in which the author strictly and bravely adheres to documented events, reverting to imagination only to fill in the lacunae in the historical record. It can also work as a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s education and progress, or an exciting intellectual mystery, with an inter-textual historiography, and finally a mature man’s assessment about the influences in his life; his mistakes and misunderstanding of so many factors which had shaped his life for better or worse.
I had no knowledge of this historical period when I was given an advance copy of this book to read in exchange for an unbiased review, and found it fascinating. However, in as much as I understand that the background to Brierley’s development, his sermons, the author’s reconstruction of events, and the books which inspired Brierley will be the main draw for most readers, I loved the intimate, small details in the book even more. The pages spring to life with the female characters: strong and determined Anne, Brierley’s wife; his mother, a fiercely independent and violent woman; the highly intelligent and loyal Janet, and her namesake, their daughter, a woman who is making her way alone in a harsh and remote corner of the world. Likewise the author’s descriptions of intimate, and occasionally claustrophobic domestic scenes contrasted with the wild unforgiving landscape of the north, which is imbued with a spirit of its own, are most remarkable and quite beautiful, as is the motif of interior darkness suddenly illuminated by light, as Matthew himself is gradually enlightened.
Among those who are interested in the period, this will be hailed as an important work, since Brierley’s influence, though he is long forgotten, shaped the character of the North of England and had an influence in the Quaker communities beyond England’s shores. It’s not the easiest book to read, given the wealth of detail and insistence on historical accuracy, but, I think, given its exposition of the influence of an obscure minister during a little known period, an important one.