Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Book Review: The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

- 'The Lady of Shalott' by Lord Tennyson

The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry is set in London 1876 and centres around two main characters; Amos Roselli and his muse Daphne. The title subtly hints at, haunting parallels between their lives and that of the famous Tudor Queen Anne Boleyn and her assumed consort Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The book opens with Roselli having been commissioned by an Archaeologist to record their recent findings at the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula at Tower Green where they have discovered an arrow chest, with what they believe hold the remains of none other than Anne Boleyn. It is here that Roselli finds himself alone, sketching away in the dark by lantern until he is later joined by a presence of the past…and so the story begins.

The mutual love shared between the two main characters is evident, although, like Daphne’s 16th Century counterpart she is tempted by a life of extravagance when introduced to one of Roselli’s new clients, an industrialist, Oliver Ramsay and within months, wed. Daphne’s new found life of luxury is but short lived, and Daphne realises what a brute her husband really is knowing only too well how easily it is for men to cast their wives aside, having already seen that Ramsay  has cast his eye elsewhere and Daphne having produced no heir.

Roselli having been commissioned by Ramsay to execute a self portrait to hang ostentatiously in his stately manor is reminiscent of Henry VIII’s famous pose, is also asked by Ramsay, to paint a likewise portrait of his wife, Daphne (enticing Roselli with the forbidden fruit). The theme of Daphne’s portrait changes from that of self portrait to that of the Greek Nymph who was pursued by Apollo (who in retrospect shows characteristics in parallel with Ramsay & Henry VIII) is shot by one of Eros’s arrows, a blunt lead arrow which dampens her desire to ever fall in love. Apollo on the other hand is hit with a gold tipped arrow, infusing lust and pursues poor Daphne. It was a stroke of genius having this legend entwined with that of the arrow chest, the books sense of history, mythology and past ghosts seems to entwine, pulling all the parts together but ultimately to the same tragic end.

This is a beautifully written novel set in Victorian England and parallelled alongside Tudor England, glimpses of which are perceived through Roselli’s fleeting encounters with spectres and dreams. It is also filled with the beauty of the Victorian artists; with Roselli’s aspiration to achieve what the Pre-Raphaelites achieved and earn a place at the Royal Academy. The novel is also filled with beautiful poetry, the haunting ‘Lady of Shalott’ read by none other than Lord Tennyson himself and shadowed by ‘My Lute Awake’ written by Sir Thomas Wyatt. The historical authenticity of the novel is engaging with the author having a beautiful sense of place, capturing both Victorian and Tudor England incorporating aspects of the attitude, lifestyle and landmarks of both periods exceptionally well. This novel was an absolute delight to read and I would recommend it to anyone who has a soft spot for Anne Boleyn, Victorian England and an appreciation of the arts.

Now cease, my lute; this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute! Be still, for I have done.

- 'My Lute Awake' by Sir Thomas Wyatt


  1. Ooh, this sounds good! A Victorian novel with Tudor parallels is too good to pass up - onto the wishlist it goes! ;)
    ~S. xo

  2. What a great review of this book. You have captured the essence of it so well - thank you.