TITLE: The Verneys AUTHOR: Adrian Tinniswood PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape (March 2007) ISBN: 9780224071557 570pages
Reviewed by Ann Skea (firstname.lastname@example.org). ********* "Sir Francis Verney lay on his bed in the great hall of the sick at Messina. He was thirty-one years old. He was a long way from home. And he was dying". He had been a Barbary Coast pirate, a "sometimes great English gallant", a convert to Islam and, for two years at the end of his life when his fortunes lapsed, a galley slave. All of which makes for a dramatic opening scene in this family saga which has all the ingredients for a gripping television series. And it is all true.
The story of the survival of the Verney family papers, on which Adrian Tinniswood has based this history of the family and the times in which they lived, is an interesting story in itself. Briefly, it hinges on the mass of documents - letters, bills, parliamentary notes, playbills, rent-rolls and much more - which were found "in a dusty old gallery" by a distant relative who, in 1827, inherited what remained of the Verney family's estate. Through these papers, as Tinniswood notes, the family comes to life and the remarkable events (including the English Civil War, the beheading of one king and the replacement of another) which shaped their world and their daily lives become so vivid that "we know the Verneys almost too well, and it is impossible not to care". And he is right.
The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with the life of Sir Edmund Verney who, in 1615, inherited the estate from his piratical half-brother Francis. Death, arranged marriages, re-marriage and the Seventeenth Century laws of inheritance, plus the great importance of extensive and extended family connections, shaped the lives of every gentry family at that time. The Verneys were no exception. Edmund's mother had married three times. So, too, had his father, and Edmund was his second son. At the time of the eldest son, Francis's, death, Edmund was twenty-five years old, a Knight serving at the court of King Charles I, a staunch Protestant, and a happily married man, with two children. Tinniswood lays out the many and various family relationships in an easy, confident way so that the reader is only occasionally lost amongst them all. He is equally good at filling in the historical and social context of their lives without getting overly academic. So, we get to know Edmund and his wife Mary, and we are drawn into their close, loving relationship as they live through good and bad times, deal with the births and deaths of children and relatives, and face disasters, debt, war and also the constant more (and less) trivial demands of their relatives and friends.
Of Edmund and Mary's twelve children, we get to know three of the boys very well. Ralph, the steady, serious, eldest son, who became a Member of Parliament and supported the Parliamentarians against the King (to the great distress of his Royalist father and brother) was the one who saved and stored all the family papers. Tom, the ne'er-do-well scrounger of the family, was the second son. When he seemed inclined to run wild, his parents packed him off to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1634, to make his fortune. He returned after only one winter in this new colony in the Americas, "to the exasperation of his father". Mun (short for Edmund), the third son, was a professional soldier in the King's army. He fought Cromwell's troops in Ireland and survived one of the bloodiest sieges only to be stabbed to death in the street two days later. The girls and the youngest son, we come to know less well, but it is clear that all the Verney women were independent-minded and determined, and that they were not inclined to be dictated to by their menfolk in spite of the conventions of the time.