Friday 3 January 2020

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea reviewed by Richard Tearle

"Two things make good historical fiction; sound research and excellent storytelling. Katharina: Fortitude has both"

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Biographical fiction
early 16th Century

Two things make good historical fiction; sound research and excellent storytelling. Katharina: Fortitude has both and, I am delighted to say, the degree of 'excellent storytelling' promote this book from 'good' to 'great'.

We begin where Katharina: Deliverance left off with the wedding of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora. It is a wedding that is not fully approved of either by some of the townsfolk of Wittenberg or the various different Christian religions, most notably the Pope and the Catholics. Yet, perhaps strangely, their marriage proves to be a perfect match, Katharina's calming influence of great benefit to her sometimes volatile husband. She establishes herself as the domestic head of the household whilst bowing to Martin's fervent religious convictions. As Martin is several years older than Katharina, she manages to organise him and he loses many of the bad habits of a middle-aged bachelor.

Their ups and downs are chronicled faithfully – the births (and loss) of children, visitations of the plague and, latterly, the threat of war - and are well spaced out so as not to make it a chronicle of events. As Martin ages and ill health strikes, Katharina worries about him all the more until the inevitable happens.

The strength in this book is Ms Skea's ability to make her characters – major and minor – so very real. The Martin Luther I had always envisaged was a dull man; not so here. He proves to be a loving husband and devoted father. He listens to Katharina and defends when others disapprove, he plays the lute well and writes hymns as well as pamphlets. And, above all, he has a sense of humour, often poking fun at himself – his looks, his weight and even his illnesses. Katharina is organised, forward thinking, and forthright in her domain. Yet she retains her shyness and lack of confidence. Her friends are human too – most especially Barbara – and Katharina lives through their tragedies with them. 'Fortitude' is a good subtitle for this book.

In addition to this, the narrative is broken up by the thoughts of the sick and dying Katharina. She is often delirious, but her fancies whilst in this state link the previous and following sections very neatly indeed. There are not too many of them so they are never intrusive.

There are only two points I should make and they are not criticisms in any way. The main narrative and the 'interruptions' are both written in the First Person and the Present Tense – some readers may find it off putting, though I did not. And the second is to urge the reader to read the previous volume first as some of the  characters may need clarification as to their relationships with both Katharina and Martin, this was not always made clear as 'back story' in this second part of the duo. Aside from that, when something is good it is always worth starting at the beginning!

© Richard Tearle

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  1. Thank you so much for such an encouraging review - but just to clarify - this is the second of two books which together tell Katharina's story (not 3).


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