Short Story Review:
The Stone-Worker’s Tale
Margaret Frazer, The Stone-Worker’s Tale, Kindle edition, Dream Machine Productions, 15 April 2011
The Stone-Worker’s Tale is a short story by Margaret Frazer, featuring her medieval sleuth Dame Frevisse. Gail Lynn Frazer, wrote a series of novels under the name Margaret Frazer. The majority feature Dame Frevisse, a medieval nun, while several books have Joliffe, member of a troupe of travelling players, as the protagonist. Unfortunately Ms Frazer passed away in 2013, so there will be no new encounters with either Dame Frevisse or Joliffe to look forward to. Therefore it is even more rewarding to return to the old favourites.
The Stone-Worker’s Tale describes fictional events surrounding the construction of the real tomb of Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk (granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer), at Ewelme in Oxfordshire. Margaret Frazer’s novels have been among my favourite medieval mysteries for some time now (they are right up there with the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters, real name Edith Pargeter). Having visited Ewelme and seen Alice Chaucer’s monument, I was very interested to read Margaret Frazer’s take on it. And I was not disappointed.
The Stone-Worker’s Tale evolved out of a short mystery story of 800 words, The Sculptor’s Tale, the author had been asked to write for a Swiss magazine. After having finished this story (it is also included in the Kindle version), she felt it was too short in some ways. When a few years later she was asked to write a story for an anthology, she returned to her notes and expanded the original story and The Stone-Worker’s Tale was born.
In The Stone-Worker’s Tale Dame Frevisse is visiting her cousin Alice Chaucer, duchess of Suffolk at her manor of Ewelme. Dame Frevisse is a fictional relative of the historical Alice Chaucer, who features in several books of the series (another favourite of mine is The Widow’s Tale, which takes place in Broxbourne, Herts.). At Ewelme, the local church is teeming with all the activity surrounding the work on Alice’s tomb. Alice, still very much alive, is keeping a close eye on the project. She explains: “Given what it will cost when done, I thought I’d have it to enjoy while I was alive, rather than leave money for it in my will and never see it.”
One morning Simon Maye, the gifted young sculptor of the angels on the canopy of the tomb, cannot be found. Also missing is one of Alice’s ladies, Elyn, and as Simon and Elyn had been in love, everyone assumes that they have eloped, while Alice suspects that Simon had been bribed away by a jealous rival. However, once Frevisse starts asking some questions, she realises that this is an unlikely scenario. Of course she is right and finds out what really happened.
While the story is interesting and keeps the reader guessing, the best thing for me was the description of tomb. We are told that Frevisse had admired these angels every time she visited the church. It is obvious that the author did, too:
They [the angels] … were half-length, rising from their waists, framed by the curve of their wings behind their shoulders, every fold of cloth, every feather delicately detailed. Some of the angels were crowned and some were not; some had their hands folded on their breasts, others had them raised in praise, others held them palm to palm in prayer; and their faces differed, too, so that each was more than simply the same again, and all in all they were as masterful a piece of work as Frevisse had ever found herself smiling at for the plain pleasure they gave.
Later we are told that Simon’s work “went past ordinary skill to the something more that came to some craftsmen, but only some, as if God had touched them and let them see and do beyond what others saw and could do.”
Other features of the tomb are also described in detail, like the impressive cadaver effigy, “in its ghastly way that figure of decay was as much a masterwork as the angels”. It is obvious why the author felt that her original The Sculptor’s Tale was too short. That was just a straight forward mystery, while The Stone-Worker’s Tale offers so much more, not only in the description of the sculpture, but also in exploring the characters, the major ones like Alice Chaucer and of course Dame Frevisse, but also minor ones like Alice’s ladies and the master mason Wyndford and his son Nicol. If you have an ebook reader (I believe it is also available for other ebook readers than Kindle), I can only recommend this highly enjoyable short story.
In the story the monument is made in the church itself, however, in reality it was probably carved in London. It has been dated to the last years of Alice Chaucer’s life (1470-1475), so it is very much likely that she did “enjoy [it] while [she] was alive”. The monument is made of alabaster. Above it is a canopy, along the top of which is a parapet decorated with eight angels (the angels Simon carves in the story). Underneath is the actual tomb, which consists of two parts. A conventional tomb chest with a full-length effigy of Alice Chaucer. However, the chest has been raised above floor level and in the cavity underneath there is a cadaver effigy of the duchess (carved by Nicol in the story). The impressive monument is rated as one of the “most important surviving late-medieval funerary monuments in England”. [Goodall, p.175] Definitely worth a visit, as is the church, the almshouse and the school of Ewelme.
Archer, R.E., ‘Chaucer , Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 [last accessed online 9 Dec. 2015]
Goodall, J.A.A., God’s House at Ewelme: Life, devotion and architecture in a fifteenth-century almshouse. Ashgate Publishing, 2001 (especially ‘The monument of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk’, pp.175-193)
Higginbotham, S., ‘The Indomitable Duchess: Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk’, History refreshed by Susan Higginbotham (7 Sept. 2013). URL: http://www.susanhigginbotham.com/blog/posts/the-indomitable-duchess-alice-chaucer-duchess-of-suffolk/ [last accessed 9 Dec. 2015]