For anyone who loves to spend the weekend being whisked back in time to an entirely unfamiliar world of intrigue – steeped in history, romance, and conspiracy – this is the weekend read for you.
The house of the title is on the outskirts of early 17th Century London; the reign of Elizabeth I is over, James I is on the throne and London is expanding by the day. Merchant Paul Pindar has returned from the Middle East with his wife Celia, a sea captain’s daughter whose past is shrouded in mystery. Before she and her beloved Paul were to marry, Celia was captured on a voyage and spent years in captivity at a Turkish harem. Though Celia was eventually rescued and returned to Paul, nothing can be the same between them and there are unspoken events that cloud their marriage. On leaving Syria, they each cling to the belief that soon all will be well in England.
But life in England is not what Celia expected. She misses the rich life of Aleppo, the warmth and the chatter of the women on the rooftops, even the easier dress code of loose-fitting clothing and sitting on soft floor cushions. In London by contrast, the current fashions are stuffy and over the top, and Celia is regularly visited by women supposedly of high rank, who mutter behind their fans about the strangely clad Celia, her previous life in a Turkish palace the talk of fashionable London.
Not helping matters is the widow Frances Sydenham who joined them on the journey home and who has insinuated herself into life at Bishopsgate, making herself indispensable to both Celia and Paul, but clearly with other plans. Celia longs for her own true companion from her previous days, the straight-talking, former nun Annetta, who almost died of the Plague and is reported to be returning too. Meanwhile Paul’s younger brother, the bullying Ralph, is plotting over their ageing father’s lands in Wiltshire and, having heard that Paul has returned with a stunning and legendary – but cursed – diamond, Ralph, along with many a merchant in London, is left to scheme.
The House at Bishopsgate is a delightfully absorbing read, replete with rich historical detail so that we’re immersed in more than one world – from the rooftops of Aleppo with its richly perfumed air, to a wretched winter in Wiltshire, to the bustling, stinking streets of Jacobean London. The tension builds steadily and the characters are so vividly drawn that we are entirely with the heroine Celia as her awful past catches up with her and her strange marriage is threatened by forces not fully in her control.
As well as the quest for vengeance and justice in this novel, there’s romance and poignancy in the rebirth of Celia and Paul’s almost-dead marriage and between the outsider John Carew and his lost love, Celia’s nun friend Annetta. It examines a world where double standards for women abound, and women can be burned for witchcraft. A deeply satisfying novel, The House at Bishopsgate celebrates the true values of life and is one that you’ll be happy to neglect all your weekend social plans for. While it’s the third of a compelling historical fiction trilogy that started with The Aviary Gate and The Pindar Diamond, The House at Bishopsgate is definitely a standalone read, though it will make you want to go back and read the others too.
Katie Hickman is the author of six previous books, including two bestselling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia. She has written two travel books: Travels with a Circus, shortlisted for the 1993 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon, about a journey on horseback through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. She was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year award for her novel The Quetzal Summer.