I had never read anything of Ronald Blythe’s before, and The Assassin was one of those serendipitous finds. I’m glad it happened, because it is a wonderful book.
The eponymous assassin is John Felton, the officer who stabbed George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, in a Portsmouth inn, in 1628. In Twenty Years Later, Dumas Père paints Felton as a mad-eyed fanatic manipulated by the wicked Milady – but the story was quite different. A greedy royal favourite and an incompetent military leader, Buckingham was so extremely unpopular that his death was met with much rejoicing, and Felton was celebrated as a hero…
But who was the man, and why did he kill Buckingham? These are the questions Blythe gives to master Wren, a young and zealous archivist of the Tower, entrusted with the task of recording the prisoner’s confession. But Felton is a learned man, a bookworm and an author: not content with telling Wren, he asks for pen and paper, to write his story from the beginning.
So we meet young Felton in his own words – a bookish second son from the gentry, a pupil of translator Arthur Golding, and a fellow student of George Villiers (and John Eliot) in France. A deeply religious, thoughtful and reserved young man, Felton embarks on a military career only to follow his father’s wishes – and never quite manages to distinguish himself, except for his great eccentricity: a love of books. Then again, where could he find glory and advancement, in the string of ill-conceived and regularly botched campaigns launched by his old schoolmate Villiers, the handsome fool with a talent for securing royal favour?
The book chronicles Felton’s growing obsession with Buckingham and his devastation of England’s people, finances, might and royal legitimation – and does it beautifully. It’s all a matter of small observations and great disappointments, of Italian paintings and street ballads, of ludicrous blunders and epiphanies, told in an elegant and wonderfully individual voice. It’s a book you savour, rich in detail but never bogged down by research, cleverly structured and thoughtful. A beautiful glimpse of Jacobean England through the eyes and mind of a complex and engaging character. Add in vivid characters and the power of the written word, and you have a truly lovely read.
Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but second-hand copies of The Assassin
can be found for a song on Amazon.