The Stars of Heaven by Jessica Dall

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How wonderful to find a new English language novel set in Portugal.  There are annoyingly few of them.  There really ought to be more.  The Portuguese are our oldest allies. It’s actually the oldest known extant alliance in the world.  They’ve got red postboxes like we have.  They gave us Cristiano Ronaldo.  They gave us pasteis de nata.  They *definitely* deserve more recognition in English historical fiction 🙂 .  The author of this is actually American, but one of the main characters, is, of course, a British wine trader.  And it’s set during a fascinating period of Portuguese history – the 1755 earthquake, which devastated the lovely city of Lisbon, the rebuilding, and the Pombaline reforms which broke the power of the old aristocracy, the Jesuits and the Inquisition, as tradition and the Enlightenment clashed.

The author’s American, as I said, and the language is very American – which is obviously fair enough, but all the “gottens” etc may sound a bit odd to British readers.  And our wine trader from the south coast sometimes sounds very Northern, and the use of first names in the very formal Portuguese court is annoying.  And the ending is a bit bonkers.  OK, moans over!   For the most part, I really enjoyed it.

Our main character is Cecilia, daughter of a gentry (as opposed to aristocracy) family, who’s taken in by her uncle after her widowed mother is killed in the Lisbon earthquake.  Cecilia is rescued by her uncle’s business associate, British wine trader John Bates (named after the character in Downton Abbey, perhaps?!), and there’s, inevitably, an on-off romance.  The uncle is close ally of Pombal … who, as he wasn’t the Marquess of Pombal at that point, but plain old Senhor Carvalho de Melo, is referred to here as Senhor Carvalho.  Quite correct, but it did throw me for a bit, because I think of him as Pombal.   Like when you read a book set during the early period of the Napoleonic Wars and it refers to “Arthur Wellesley”: it just takes you a minute!

Cecilia’s younger sister also survives, but her mental health is affected and she just keeps praying, leading people to say that she’s a miracle child.  That’s all a bit odd, especially as the sister then goes into a convent and plays no further part in the story, but presumably it’s to show the contrast between the “estrangeirados”, the pro-scientific/Enlightment faction led by Carvalho, and the faction of the Jesuit Malagrida, who said that the earthquake was a punishment for people’s sins.  A brother, who’s a priest, also survives, and is in the Malagrida camp.

Pombal, as he became, did a vast amount of good culturally and economically.  His reforms to the wine trade weren’t that great from a British viewpoint, but, OK, they were from a Portuguese viewpoint.  That isn’t mentioned, curiously, and nor is the Seven Years’ War: the focus is all on the factions at court.

But he was ruthless, and we see that here – one of Cecilia’s suitors is an innocent victim of the Tavora affair, which saw a large number of powerful aristocrats executed rather than only the small number of people linked to an attack on the king, and Cecilia herself, now living at court, is drawn into his network of spies.

There’s a rather bizarre ending in which the brother is broken out of jail by Cecilia and the wine trader, and everyone escapes to France: it’s not the best of endings to an interesting book, but I suppose it was the only way to get Cecilia out of the spy network.  Daft ending and a few other moans besides, it really is a very interesting book.  As I said, Portuguese history deserves a lot more attention in English language fiction than it gets.

3 thoughts on “The Stars of Heaven by Jessica Dall

  1. mrsredboots

    Have you read any novels by Ann Bridge? One of the Julia Probyn novels is set in Portugal. They are very dated now, with views that we don’t hold and I highly doubt modern Portugese (or “Ports” as she sometimes calls them) would hold, but not in a bad way, and I recommend them!

    Liked by 1 person

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