The Illuminator

Written by Brenda Rickman Vantrease
Review by Sarah Johnson

It is 1349, a time of religious unrest in England. While John Wycliffe works for Church reform under John of Gaunt’s protection, his followers enjoy no such luxury. Lady Kathryn of Blackingham Manor in East Anglia, a widow, doesn’t share these Lollard beliefs; she simply hates the Church’s greed. To please the local abbot, she agrees to let an illuminator and his daughter lodge with her, but this adds to her problems. A priest’s body is found on her property; her bailiff is cheating her; and Finn, the master illuminator, conceals the manuscripts that Master Wycliffe had asked him to illustrate (and much more besides). Finn soon wins over Agnes, Lady Kathryn’s cook, and he wins over Kathryn as well; their love affair parallels that of Finn’s daughter Rose with Kathryn’s gentle son Colin. But reality interrupts these romantic interludes. When Finn reveals one of his deepest secrets, Kathryn’s world unravels, and with it, the lives of everyone around her.

The author’s characters, from Kathryn and Finn to Agnes to Julian of Norwich, are all flawed and genuine, their relationships honest, their language not sugar-coated, their thoughts and feelings appropriate to their time. This is not a book that romanticizes the Middle Ages, but one that vividly describes the reality of feudalism, religious expression, and daily life in 14th century England. Little details, from the meals cooked for supper to the prejudices and jealousies that make us all human, breathe life into the era. If you appreciate historical fiction that can “take you there,” you’re sure to love this novel.