The Winter Queen


An immensely moving account of a strange and magical interracial love affair,The Winter Queen illuminates the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. Amid the dark ambiance of the time, the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and Pelagius, a West African prince and former slave, fall in love and secretly marry. With great erudition and compassion, Jane Stevenson vividly renders both a portrait of an extraordinary relationship and a tumultuous political history. Set against a historical backdrop enriched with the ...

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An immensely moving account of a strange and magical interracial love affair,The Winter Queen illuminates the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. Amid the dark ambiance of the time, the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and Pelagius, a West African prince and former slave, fall in love and secretly marry. With great erudition and compassion, Jane Stevenson vividly renders both a portrait of an extraordinary relationship and a tumultuous political history. Set against a historical backdrop enriched with the art, philosophy, and religion of the Dutch Golden Age, "scene succeeds scene in Vermeer-like richness of color" (Memphis Commercial Appeal).

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Pelagius -- son of an African king, sold into slavery -- is bought and then freed by a mad Dutch botanist, who sends him to Leiden to study theology. It's the mid-seventeenth century, and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, is haggard and mired in debt; ensconced at The Hague, she schemes for the sake of her children and laments her raddled dreams. Stevenson asks us to believe that this unlikely pair not only meet (Pelagius, though a Christian convert, has built up a reputation as a seer, and Elizabeth consults him) but fall in love and secretly marry. That we do, with almost giddy pleasure, is a testament to her astonishing skills. Like the late Penelope Fitzgerald, Stevenson is a meticulous fabulist.
From The Critics
British novelist Stevenson's third book is the first in a historical trilogy. The queen—Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I of Britain—spent only a winter in the early seventeenth century as ruler of Bohemia before being exiled to Holland, where, in Stevenson's story, she meets and secretly marries a former African prince (and former slave) named Pelagius. Freed by the botanist who trained him, Pelagius has received a divinity degree in Holland, but it is through his work as a shamanic healer that he meets Elizabeth. Although the courtship and marriage of these middle-aged refugees is never wholly plausible, Stevenson's knowledge of the period's physical detail is impressive, and her way of mixing religion, science and politics is fascinating. Pelagius is a Protestant theologian who uses botanical medicines and consults African oracles. Elizabeth's political machinations are influenced by apocalyptic theories and an advisor's belief in alchemy. Stevenson probably hoped to draw readers into this world with her unconventional love story, but the ideas and beliefs that influence queen and consort are more compelling. Author—Tom LeClair
Tom LeClair
British novelist Stevenson's third book is the first in a historical trilogy. The queen—Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I of Britain—spent only a winter in the early seventeenth century as ruler of Bohemia before being exiled to Holland, where, in Stevenson's story, she meets and secretly marries a former African prince (and former slave) named Pelagius. Freed by the botanist who trained him, Pelagius has received a divinity degree in Holland, but it is through his work as a shamanic healer that he meets Elizabeth. Although the courtship and marriage of these middle-aged refugees is never wholly plausible, Stevenson's knowledge of the period's physical detail is impressive, and her way of mixing religion, science and politics is fascinating. Pelagius is a Protestant theologian who uses botanical medicines and consults African oracles. Elizabeth's political machinations are influenced by apocalyptic theories and an advisor's belief in alchemy. Stevenson probably hoped to draw readers into this world with her unconventional love story, but the ideas and beliefs that influence queen and consort are more compelling.
Publishers Weekly
The chilly scenery of 17th-century Holland is on display in this curious novel by Stevenson (Several Deceptions; London Bridges), as viewed from the unusual perspective of a former African prince and freed slave. Pelagius van Overmeer begins his life in the Low Countries as a theology student, freed by his master, Comrij, after 20 years of servitude in the East Indies. His studies are interrupted when Comrij calls him to The Hague, where they labor on a catalogue of the plants of the East. Just as Pelagius is about to despair of ever being truly free, he finds himself alone once more, with money in his pocket and a promising career as a seer. An introduction to the exiled Elizabeth of Bohemia, or the Winter Queen, as she is called, truly transforms Pelagius's life. Elizabeth, a widow and mother of 10 children, is well into her 40s but still shrewd and hearty; Pelagius, in his 40s, too, is more reserved and mindful of his ambiguous position. Their shared sense of royal duty and easy companionship lead them to secretly marry, but Elizabeth's pregnancy threatens to expose their union as war menaces Europe. Domestic life in a frigid Holland serves as compelling backdrop to this restrained, leisurely novel, in which theological and political questions are as thoroughly dealt with as romantic matters (Pelagius attempts to reconcile Protestantism and the religious practices of Africa, and Elizabeth monitors her sons' fortunes in England under her brother, King Charles I). Stevenson's pacing can be slow and uneven, but the cool glow the story sheds-like a Jan van Eyck painting-exerts a powerful attraction. (Nov.) Forecast: This is the first in a projected historical trilogy, a promising if quiet start that might be recommended to readers who enjoyed Arthur Japin's The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Exiled in 17th-century Amsterdam, Elizabeth of Bohemia, sister of England's King Charles I and widow of the dethroned Elector Palatine, spends her days in an agony of rumor and worried uncertainty about her children, who are scattered across Europe. Pelagius van Overmeer, ex-slave and formerly a prince of the Yoruba tribe of Oyo, comes to her attention as a learned and pious man whose arcane skill as a seer may give assurance of her sons' safety. Aside from such insights, Pelagius gives Elizabeth his companionship and his love, and when they secretly marry, he is installed in Elizabeth's household. History mentions no royal prince of Africa, no slave lover, and no black physician in the life of the Winter Queen, but readers will be glad to believe that Pelagius existed for her as they read this well-crafted, moody portrait of royal striving and human need. While this novel is not as thickly plotted as Dorothy Dunnett's masterly Niccolo series, fans of Dunnett will enjoy Stevenson's (London Bridges) complex characterization and marvelous rendering of the dark ambiance of the Dutch Golden Age. Readers will be impatient for the second book in a projected trilogy so that they can find out what will happen to the secret harbored in Middleburg. Highly recommended for most fiction collections.-Jennifer Baker, Seattle P.L Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Finely nuanced historical, the first in a trilogy, from Britisher Stevenson (London Bridges, 2001, etc.): a fanciful yet credible and touching tale about the Queen of Bohemia and an African prince. Holland in the 17th century is one of the busiest hives in Europe, attracting merchants, scholars, adventurers, and artists from Europe and beyond. A Calvinist stronghold struggling for independence from Catholic Spain, it attracts a goodly number of Protestant refugees during the Thirty Years War (1618-48). One of these is the "Winter Queen," Elizabeth of Bohemia, who with her husband (the Elector of Palatine) flees the Catholic forces that have prevailed in her native land. After her husband's death, Elizabeth settles into a threadbare widowhood, scrounging funds from princes and relations, attempting to marry off her daughters, and dreaming of raising an army that can restore her to the throne. Romance is far from uppermost in the thoughts of this mature and hardheaded stateswoman, and it comes as a surprise to her to find how easily she falls in love with the theology student Pelagius van Overmeer. The surprise is fully justified, for Pelagius is, in fact, an African prince (named Omoluju before his conversion and baptism) who came to Europe as a slave, won his freedom, and turned to scholarship. Highly educated and fluent in Yoruba, Dutch, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Pelagius is training to become a minister, and his erudition and wit have made him something of a celebrity in Amsterdam. He and Elizabeth are secretly married and have a son, Balthasar, who is kept in hiding for fear of scandal. Secret marriages rarely turn out well, and secret births bring even greater difficulties. CanElizabeth and Pelagius find peace together? In a continent being torn by one of history's bloodiest wars, it may be too much to ask. A bright and engaging portrait of private lives rendered against a broad and vivid canvas of human history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618382675
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 338
  • Sales rank: 1,164,688
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

JANE STEVENSON was born in London and brought up in London, Beijing, and Bonn. She teaches literature and history at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author of Several Deceptions, a collection of four novellas; a novel, London Bridges; and the acclaimed historical trilogy made up of the novels The Winter Queen, The Shadow King, and The Empress of the Last Days. Stevenson lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

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Read an Excerpt



10 February 1639
A woman is sitting in a great chair under a cloth of estate, in a room hung
with black velvet. She is dumpy, deep-bosomed and straight-backed as a
trooper. Her cheeks are doughy with adversity and time, but her hazel eyes
are clear. Dusk is falling outside in the Voorhout, and in the dim, candle-lit
velvet cavern of the presence chamber her face, breast and hands shine
dimly pale against the black behind her and the black of her dress. Of the
tall man standing before her, clad in scholar's black broadcloth, nothing can
be seen but the chaste, starched-linen gleam of his collar and cuffs. The
hand which holds his black beaver hat is invisible: as she peers into the
gloom, she can barely discern his face, let alone his expression. Only a
sudden liquid shifting in the gloom makes her realize, with a sudden qualm,
that she has been staring straight into his eyes. She turns her head away,
settling the black silk scarf around her shoulders against the creeping chill of
the Dutch winter, adjusting her rings.

'Tell me a story,' she says, her eyes downcast. Her voice is a
strangely youthful one to come from so still and matronly a figure.
'What story do you wish, your majesty?' he responds. His voice
is deep and resonant, but husky, like the sound of a bell made of wood.
Still she does not look at him, and when she speaks her tone is
wistful. 'Are there truly men in Africa whose heads do grow beneath their
'I have not seen one,' he says gravely.
'Oh, I hoped it might be true. There is a phrase, is there not –"ex
Africa semper aliquid novi"?'
'It was Pliny, I believe, who said that. And perhaps it is true. There
are many things I saw in Africa which would seem strange here and,
doubtless, many strange things there which I have not seen at all. I have
seen Oyo Ile, where I was born, Igboho, Ifa´, the city of the oracles, and El
Mina, the great fortress of the Portugals. I have seen Bornu and Gao of the
Songhai Mussulmans, where I went to buy Barbary horses for my father the
king. I have seen the jungle and the desert, the plains, and the sea, and
animals of many kinds. But all the men I saw in Africa were shaped like
men anywhere else.'
'What is the strangest thing which you have seen, Dr Pelagius?'
'If anyone had told me, when I was in my father's house, that he
had seen water solid like crystal, burning to the touch, with men walking
upon it, I would have called him a liar. That is the strangest thing.'

27 June 1634. A great day for Amsterdam, daughter of the sea. For it was
on that day that the spring sailing from the East Indies finally arrived in
Holland. The gulls were screaming cheerfully overhead and light dazzled on
the waters of the harbour, broken into a million sparkling diamonds. The
herring fishermen had spotted the tall ships soon after they entered the
Narrow Seas and alerted the port authorities, so an expectant city was
standing on the quays to greet them. They came into the great harbour at
Amsterdam one after another, great ocean-going vessels, three-masters fitted
to fly before the endless winds that girdle the earth in the Roaring Forties,
manoeuvring in that narrow space with all the grace of an albatross in a
duckpond, clawing their way to haven amid a throng of small boats come out
to escort them. As the anchors finally rattled down, a cheer went up from the
thronged docksides and a salute was fired from the Admiralty Depot. The
wealth of the Indies was coming to the city: the journalists from the courants
were there, jostling shoulder to shoulder with wharfingers, investors waiting
impatiently to speak with the captains, and pickpockets, merchants, wives,
whores and simple bystanders.
In the next few days, as the courants triumphantly reported,
326,733 Amsterdam pounds of Malacca pepper, 297,466 pounds of cloves,
292,623 pounds of saltpetre, 141,278 pounds of indigo, 483,082 pounds of
sappan wood; 219,027 pieces of blue Ming ware from China; 52 further
chests of Korean and Japanese porcelain; 75 large vases and pots containing
preserved confections; 600 pounds of Japanese copper; 241 pieces of fine
Japanese lacquer work; 3,989 rough diamonds of large carat; 93 boxes of
pearls and rubies (of miscellaneous weight and water); 603 bales of dressed
Persian silks and grosgrains; 1,155 pounds of raw Chinese silk; 199,800
pounds of unrefined sugar from Kandy; an elephant and a tiger were all
disgorged into the long, waterfront warehouses of the East India Company.
This fabulous hoard, as the papers reported, was put on display; and the
fashionable, the merely wealthy and the dealers descended like vultures. This
is a matter of public record: clearly established, abundantly corroborated
fact – recorded, for example, in the Amsterdam Courante uyt Italien en
Duytschland for 27–8 June 1634, which, since it spoke only to the readers of
its day, can have had no interest in deceiving us.
The activities of Pelagius van Overmeer at this time, on the other
hand, are attested only by a personal chronicle which he wrote almost thirty
years later. His primary concern in this document is to explore the
providence of God as it was manifested in his own life. He records no dates
and material facts are referred to only indirectly, insofar as they illustrate
the subtle directions of God in his affairs. But as far as it can be
reconstructed, this is what must have happened. The precise date can be
established by juxtaposing two facts: that there was only one sailing from
Batavia which could have brought him and that he refers to the curious
coincidence that he arrived in Holland in the year of the Elector Palatine's
death, which would take place on the morning of 19 November 1634, five
months in the future.
Therefore, along with the fabled luxuries of the mysterious East,
an unregarded piece of supercargo must have made his own way, not
without difficulty, down the great wall of a ship's side on a dangling rope
ladder and into a rowing boat. If he had looked up from the uncertain little
skiff, deadly dangerous in its near invisibility among those ighty ships, he
would have seen the quay walls ringed with broad, fair Dutch faces, avid with
an interest which in no way included him. But perhaps his strongest emotion
was relief. For the first time in his life, he will have travelled in the relative
comfort enjoyed by a passenger rather than chained in the reeking hell of a
slave deck, but all the same, after months at sea, he will have been glad to
have land under his feet. Once on the dockside, he will have attracted little
attention. A tall, soberly dressed, middle-aged black man was no unusual
sight in Amsterdam, where the rich had already begun to regard black
servants as fashionable accessories: there were too many for one to be
interesting and not enough to provoke hostility.
It is even possible, though unlikely, that Elizabeth was on the
dockside. The arrival of the fleet was an event, and she was as interested in
orient pearls and silks as any other lady of rank: the news would have
reached her palace in The Hague long before the fleet actually landed. By
June the Elector Frederick had already been away on campaign in
Germany for six long months: she may have welcomed an opportunity for a
little excursion to break the gentle monotony of her days.
Pelagius, then, landed in Europe without attracting public
attention of any kind. He had a little gold in an inner pocket and, sewn into
his belt, a few precious stones, pearls and sapphires; the two sailors he
had paid to act as his porters were carrying his books and his few clothes.
He had a letter of introduction, nearly as precious as the sapphires, and no
idea where he was going.
His narrative is a blank about these first days, though Holland
must have seemed very strange to him after twenty or more years in the
East Indies. It was early summer, so he would not yet have been shivering,
and the style of architecture, the tall, flat-fronted houses with their big
windows and crowstep gables, would have been broadly familiar to him, since
the principal houses of Batavia, the East India Company's headquarters in
Indonesia, were built in the Dutch style. The town had even acquired a
canal system in 1621, which brought the waters of the Ciliwang through the
city in true Dutch fashion, so this would also have been a familiar element in
the townscape before him. Amsterdam's Prinsengracht was bigger than the
Tijgersgracht, of course, the houses which lined it grander than those of
colonial Batavia, but they were essentially similar.
All the same, apart from these meagre points of congruence, the
differences must have been inescapable, crowding relentlessly upon him:
the relative dryness of the air, the tang of tar, coal smoke, drains, horses,
and alien sweat which it carried; the refusal of even the most obviously
menial to carry burdens on their heads; the white faces verywhere. The
background noises: harsh mewing of gulls, the liquid whistle of starlings, the
complacent roo-coo-coo of pigeons, sounds which for some time he did not
even associate with birds, and everywhere harsh Dutch voices, unmixed with
Chinese, Javanese or Malayan.
So: somehow, Pelagius, Mynheer van Overmeer as he was
known, the Man from Over the Sea, got himself a place on a coach bound
for Leiden. It is probable that he was cheated outrageously and that the
colour of his skin drew impertinent comment, but he does not choose to
mention it. For as the slow, unsprung, smelly vehicle rumbled towards
Leiden, that dull, provincial little manufacturing town just inland from The
Hague, he was taking the final steps towards his heart's desire. He was no
longer young and he had been a slave for a long time, too long to be still
dreaming of a life which involved him in great events. The prospect before him
was in itself a hope bigger than he had had since he was taken from Africa.
Having presented his letter to the Rector of the University, a large and genial
man who vaguely recalled Pelagius's patron from his own student days, he
was successfully matriculated as a student in the Faculty of Theology, the
first step to becoming a Protestant minister. He joined the household of
Johannes Sambucus, Professor of Theology and author of De Tertio et
Quarto Regno in Prophetia Danielis, a lengthy and learned commentary on
the Book of Daniel, and began his studies.
His intention was that, having completed a degree in theology and
added Greek and Hebrew to the languages he already commanded
(Yoruba, Dutch and Latin, with a few words each of Arabic, Bantamese,
Portuguese and Scots), he would return to Batavia as a fully fledged Calvinist
predikant. He had been converted soon after his arrival in the Dutch colony
and his faith was the most precious thing he possessed. But it had become
obvious to him that the cause of true religion in the colony was under threat
because of the shortage of educated clergy prepared to serve in a tropical
climate: to him, therefore, and also to his patron Robert Comrij, ordination
seemed a path marked out for him by the finger of God. It also promised him
a future, dignity, independence. No small thing for a man who had been a
slave for more than twenty years.
He was a good enough student to cause no comment whatsoever.
For nearly three years, he appears blamelessly in the laconic notes kept by
the University authorities, but in the third year he disappears. For this, and
how he felt about it, it is necessary to turn to his own account. 'In tertio
anno meae novitiatis, Dominus me probat, et temptavit oboedientiam meam.
Haud voluntate mea, Lugduni exii. Nam patronus meus, subito revertens in
Europam, me vocavit ad Hagiam ut eum adjutaverim . . .' He does not tell
us how he felt about this, but it is easy to imagine from the word 'haud':
scarcely, hardly. It is the sort of word used by a man committed to
understatement, or to classical forms of emphasis by understatement. 'Not
exactly at my own desire, I left Leiden. For my patron, suddenly returning to
Europe, summoned me to The Hague in order to assist him.'
Pelagius, in his neat, bare student's room in Sambucus's house
on Leiden's Herengracht, turned the letter over and over in his hands. It
spelt the death of all that he had hoped to be and to achieve in this second
half of his life. But Comrij had taken Pelagius up from the living death of
slavery, baptized him and brought him to God, made of him something
almost like a son, and, as far as the law went, freed him. But the legal
aspect was secondary: regardless of his legal status, both the Yoruba
morals which had formed him and the European sense of rights and
obligation which he had learned in Batavia told him that Comrij's will could
not be gainsaid. But. But, Pelagius thought painfully, his mind moving stiffly
in unfamiliar channels as the familiar despair of slavery enfolded him once
more, what of the will of God? I hoped, I intended, to return to Batavia to do
God's work. Do I have a clear call to disobedience? He laid the letter aside
and knelt by his bed, letting his forehead rest on his clasped hands. 'If any
man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children,
and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my
disciple.' He knelt for a long time, in silent agony. Were these words of the
Lord the words which should guide him? Jesus's warning tormented him: was
it his will speaking or his duty? Finally his path seemed clear: if God's will
was that he should return to Batavia, then this would, in the end, be
compatible with answering Comrij's call. If not, perhaps some yet inscrutable
purpose was laid up in the bosom of time. As soon as this thought entered
his mind, he knew he was lost.
It took a week to disengage himself from Leiden. He explained the
situation to Professor Sambucus, who expressed decent regret and good
wishes for his future, paid his bills, packed, hired a horse and went to The
Hague. On the level of pure sensation, it was pleasant to be riding again, to
be out in the fresh air, but this was in itself depressing to him: getting what
he could from casual and fleeting pleasures was a habit of mind he had had
in slavery, when there was nothing else to keep him from despair. As a free
man, a man with hope, he had not needed such moments. As he
approached The Hague slowly from the north on a tired old livery hack, the
road was straight and unmistakable in front of him, embanked up from the flat
lands to either side, under a huge, open sky. But at its vanishing point it
seemed to disappear into a wood. Gradually he began to discern church
towers rising among the trees, a windmill, and later, the irregular outline of
great houses and the gleam of water. The impression of wildness was a false
one: the trees turned out to be in regular lines, guarding gardens, market
gardens, the banks of the canals. Once in the town – and it was not even
that, he knew, but officially speaking the biggest village, without the civic
status the Dutch held dear – he left the horse at the agreed inn, with some
relief that he had parted from the poor old beast before it dropped dead, and
asked directions.
They were not hard to follow. Like many houses in Holland, the
place where his patron lodged was distinguished by a sign. He was looking
for 't Groote Vis, near the Groote Kerk, and within less than half an hour he
found himself outside a strange door in The Hague, with a battered copper
whale swinging on a bracket above it.
The door was opened by a skinny Dutchwoman clutching a
broom, her careworn face prematurely aged by anxiety. She curtseyed,
goggling at him with a stupefied awe which seemed to derive in equal
measure from his preacher's blacks and his black skin. When she had
recovered herself and he had enquired after Comrij, she pointed him
speechlessly towards the stairs, steep as a ship's companionway, and
departed in a waft of soap, lye and honest, housewifely sweat with a
breathless ''Dag, mynheer!' He climbed three flights to an attic
tenement and knocked again.
A familiar voice snapped, 'Come in, come in.' At the sound, he felt
the web of old associations close round him like a net. Comrij was working,
as he had always preferred to do, standing, at a tall lectern set in front of
the window to catch the light, which turned his flossy, neglected white hair
into a thistledown halo. More than a head shorter than Pelagius, he keeked
up at him through thick, tangled white brows. 'Aye, so you're here then.
They've not been starving you, I see.'
Pelagius looked around him for somewhere to put his heavy
satchel, but every surface in the room was already occupied: he set it down
beside the door. The rest of his luggage would arrive by carrier in due
course. Clearly, not a word of thanks or welcome was to be expected. Such
things had never been in Comrij's way, but after more than three years of
separation the absence of a greeting struck coldly to his heart. Another
thought struck him suddenly. 'Is Mistress Anna with you, Master Comrij?'
'Dead, poor lass. Dead of a fever. That father of hers was after me
for her poor body for his heathenish ceremonies – it was Soo-Ming this and
Soo-Ming that till I lost my temper. I told him straight, Pelagius, lad. Your
daughter was baptized with the name of Anna, she lived with me as a
Christian wife and died with Jesus on her lips. Devil take me if I'd let her
from my care once she was dead. She's in the Protestant cemetery, with a
decent stone over her.'
'I am sorry, master.'
Comrij, as was his way, rejected sympathy. 'It's all one, lad.
Providence had it that we should have no child to live after us, so there was
nothing to keep me in the East. It seemed to me then that I was called to
return and bring my work before the public.'
Pelagius suppressed a sigh. The great Theatrum Florae Indicae,
aut Panarion contra omnes noxias Asiaticas – Theatre of the Plants of the
Indies, or, Medicine-Chest Against all Asiatic Ills – had been in progress for,
at a conservative estimate, three decades. It had also occupied more than
twenty years of his own life, in which time it had become steadily more
complicated without yielding to any systematic principles, not even those of
Paracelsus, the acknowledged inspiration of his master's life work. The
shabby room, as he looked around it, bore bleak testimony to Comrij's
industry: untidy heaps of paper and herbaria – still more untidy albums of
dried plants – were heaped everywhere. For all his learning and enthusiasm,
which bordered on monomania, the older man was incapable of any kind of
organization. It was only too clear, he reflected as he looked around him,
what his place in the enterprise must be. Jacob came into his mind; Jacob,
who served seven years for Rachel, and, having been tricked by his father-in-
law into taking her sister Leah, was forced to serve yet another seven. In his
middle years God's purpose was fulfilled in him, but how bitter, Pelagius
wondered suddenly, were the feelings of Jacob, as he entered on the second
set of seven years? How did he feel, embarking on renewed servitude, in that
time when he had confidently expected freedom with his beloved? As the
Book tells the story, there was no word from God to comfort him. Hope,
Pelagius told himself. Patience. Trust in the purposes of God. 'Master
Comrij,' he asked, 'where am I to sleep?'
'I was forgetting. Come with me. There is a closet for you.'
In the weeks that followed Pelagius's worst fears were justified.
He had a clear, orderly mind, and after two years of Greek and theology his
capacity for organizing and categorizing information was still further
developed by experience and training. But the scale of the mess which he
faced was enough to daunt the most resolute.
Somewhere, under the mass of details, was, and had long been,
a thesis. Comrij was a follower of the philosophical chymist Theophrastus
Bombastus, called Paracelsus. His hope and intention was to apply the
Paracelsan doctrine of signatures to the alien flora of the East. The wildly
proliferating and mysterious plant life of the Indonesian jungle was to yield
to a European sense of logic. The withered leaves, shadows of their former
selves, which Pelagius turned over in their albums, were preserved as
reminders of their shape and characteristics, for according to the
Paracelsan doctrine of signatures, each plant should bear in its outward
signification its inward virtue, its application to human need. Comrij was
seeking to create a whole pharmacopoeia for the East, based on the
principles he had learned in his own youth in the medical faculties of Leiden
and Leipzig. Mango, with its heart-shaped, reddish fruit, must benefit the
heart, that at least seemed obvious. But the nutmeg, enclosed in its red net
of mace, was – what? In place Comrij associated it with the kidney in its
protecting cocoon of fat, in another with the testicles held safely in the
scrotum. Which was right? Pelagius, who had so often been sent in search
of rare plants in the jungle where the tigers coughed and sang in the dawn –
the jungle which came up to the very walls of Batavia, as if the Dutch and
their programme of orderly colonization did not even exist – found, creeping
over him, a chilling failure to believe in the intellectual basis of the project
which was eating his life.
Searching for plants for Comrij, he had spoken with Bantamese,
slight, shy, fierce people who came up to his chin, explaining in his few
words of their language matched with their few words of Dutch, what he was
looking for, and as far as possible, why. It was evident to him that they had
their own clear sense of what plants were, and were not, good for. In Africa
he had been taught to respect hunters' wisdom about plants and animals,
and he was inclined to feel that the knowledge of the Bantamese was
something to recognize. Comrij's sense of the sufficiency of European
theory outside Europe was a position which, he gradually perceived, was
tenable because he never went beyond the walls of Batavia. Pelagius
remembered all too clearly a conversation, a good ten years earlier, in which
he had ventured to express an edited version of this idea to Comrij. The older
man had been scornful.
'It's a simple matter of logic. Truth is either true, or it is not. God
must set, in each part of the world, the simples appropriate to it: His benign
and fatherly care extends over the whole of His creation, of that we may be
sure. It is certain that our European herbs are not so efficacious here,
where the very water is different and the air brings different influences with
every breath. But there must be equivalents to be found, appropriate to the
airs, waters, places, times and seasons of the East. These poor silly
Bantamese do not know God, so why should they understand His creation? I
grant you they may be right from time to time, but they are right without
science. What had you in mind, boy?'
'Ginger, for instance, master. The men of Bantam set great store
by it. It is heating, they say, and protects the heart against cold and damp.
I believe this to be the case, on empiric grounds.'
'Do they so? Well, well, they may be right. Remember the words
of our master Paracelsus.' The argument was taking place in Comrij's
specimen room on the first floor of his house on the Tijgersgracht in
Batavia, a spacious apartment with an airy balcony, lined with tables of
bamboo and rattan, where plants dried out in presses or jars of fine silver
sand, or stood planted up in temporary pots, waiting to be drawn. Comrij
unlocked the red lacquer cupboard where he kept his treasures, produced a
fat, vellum-clad folio, and leafed through it, setting it on the tall lectern by the
open balcony. 'Consider this passage, from his Liber de imaginibus: "behold
the Satyrion root, is it not formed like the male privy parts? No one can deny
this. Accordingly magic discovered and revealed that it can restore a man's
virility and passion. And now we have the thistle, do not its leaves prickle
like needles? Thanks to this sign, the art of magic discovered that there is no
better herb against internal prickling." If animals can snuff out the herbs
which will heal their ailments, why should not the poor Bantamese know what
is good for them? But for chemiatri, such as we are, it is necessary to
consider the powers and virtues of the ginger plant. We cannot be guided by
their knowledge, which embodies neither science nor divine guidance.
Paracelsus directs us to consider colour as a clue to the nature of plants.
What are the colours of the ginger plant?'
Pelagius considered the question thoughtfully. 'The root is pale,
straw-yellow inside. When it is very fresh, the tips are pink. The flower is of
a pale purple.'
'What are the virtues of yellow and purple?'
'Yellow is the colour of the sun, gold. Purple is the colour of
'So we have a plant of royal influence. Like the sun, it warms and
nourishes; it is sovereign for the king of the body, which is the heart. The
Bantamese are well guided, but now we understand.'
Pelagius sighed, tucking his hands into his armpits to warm them
as he contemplated the mess of paper before him. When he permitted the
thought to cross his mind, he hated the thick, clumsy bundles of fabric in
which his body was encased. The moist heat of Batavia was a memory too
distant to evoke, but in recalling the conversation, he found himself assailed
by a nostalgic recollection of the clean and comfortable loose white robe
and drawers which he had worn at that time. With an effort, he returned his
thoughts to the present. 'Master Comrij, do you still favour organizing the
Theatrum plant by plant?'
'That is convenient, certainly, but is it logical?' said Comrij
dubiously. 'Man is the measure of all things: perhaps it will be better to
follow the antique pattern of homo microcosmus and associate my material
with the human body and its ills, from head to foot.'
Pelagius swallowed another sigh. 'There is the problem of the
engravings, Master Comrij. The engraver must surely make each plate
showing all the parts of a plant together. That is very well when a plant has
a single use, but when it has many where is the plate to go?'
'True, true. Yet it is a basic principle – since there is no member
or part in man that does not answer to some element, some planet, some
intelligence, and to some measure and number in the Archetype or first
pattern, we would be illustrating the correspondences of the greater with the
lesser world. And if I arrange the Theatrum plant by plant, how is order to be
imposed . . . let me see. Perhaps I should arrange them following the
hierarchies of nature. Trees first, then shrubs. Climbing plants, which are
courtiers to the great trees, and parasites of the smaller. Small plants . . .
or wait a while. Perhaps they should be arranged by influence. Plants
governed by the sun, then plants of the moon, and the other planetary
spheres in sequence.'
'Master Comrij,' said Pelagius firmly, 'you have tried all these
arrangements at least once in the pages before me. All of them have value,
but with respect, master, we have come to the time when you must choose
one and set your matter in its final pattern. It must be your choice.' He
looked at Comrij as he spoke with deep misgiving. His master had aged
considerably in a short time: the death of silent, bustling Anna had
diminished him. He had been a spry little cockerel of a man more than
twenty years before, when they first looked into one another's' faces in the
slave market of Batavia. Now, with the thickening of his body and the
thinning of his legs, he had lost the jaunty strut of his younger days and
called to mind stiffer, slower creatures like the chameleon and the toad. The
outward deterioration mirrored an inward reality: the process of decision had
become almost impossible for him.
'Perhaps we could send a few sheets to the engraver. The ones
that are most certain . . . ?' His voice trailed off.
'Master, with respect, that will not do,' said Pelagius firmly. 'We
must have a clear plan of action from the beginning. The plates must be
organized according to a definite principle, or no one will be able to use the
'I am tired, lad. Let us speak of this tomorrow. Meanwhile,
perhaps, we should work on the general essay. Where had we got to?'
'The notes on the uses of distilled spirits are all but complete. We
were to consider tobacco.'
'Tobacco is death to phlegmatic temperaments. In the hot, moist
air of Batavia, it is mere poison,' said Comrij immediately, the beginning of
a diatribe which Pelagius had heard countless times over the years.
'So you have always said, master,' he said patiently, before the
older man got properly under way, 'but how are you to convince the
Dutchmen, who are never without their pipes?'
'Let them keep their pipes,' snapped Comrij. 'When they are in
the East, I would have them smoke bhang, which is cordial and under the
dominion of the sun, and the more sanguine of temperament can smoke
Pelagius, sorting out the many notes on the evils of tobacco, shot
him a very dubious look. If there was one aspect of the indigenous
temperament of which he was convinced beyond any doubt, it was that no
Dutchman was able to contemplate a life which was not viewed through a
drifting veil of tobacco smoke. Rather than accept such a notion, they would
seek to dismiss the book as nonsense. It was hard to watch Comrij wilfully
crippling his creation before it was even born. His master had been brought
up, as far as he knew, entirely in Holland: but his father, in turn, had been a
Scot who had exiled himself from his native land in the days of Queen
Mary, for the sake of religion. Although Comrij was in no sense Scottish,
apart from occasional lapses into that tongue, his background as the child of
a resident alien had left him with a sense of apartness from the Dutch which
sometimes, as it seemed to Pelagius, left him extraordinarily obtuse about
the culture he inhabited.
Pelagius bit back comment, as he had so often bitten it back. In
the days of his slavehood, Comrij had been remarkably considerate as the
relationship of master and slave went, but he was under no illusion that he
had ever been invited to express his opinion as if he were an equal. Now he
was a free man, with Comrij as his patron, but the situation was completely
unchanged. Comrij's dependence on him was expressed in every moment
of their intercourse, but he was sublimely unaware of it, as he had been
unaware of his dependence on his wife.
As the weeks went by, some decisions were eventually made.
Comrij was gradually talked into organizing the plants by class. He found
and hired an engraver; the focus of a whole further round of argument and
hesitation before settling on Meester Gerrit in the Turfmarkt. Gerrit's bill for
all the plates would amount to as much as would keep the pair of them for
six years; a sum which brought Pelagius out in a cold sweat. The risk
inherent in the whole venture cost him many hours of sleep. Exhaustive
enquiry had established that no publisher was prepared to take on such a
project unless the illustrations already existed: thus almost the entire
preliminary expense of the project was borne by the author. Pelagius did not
know what Comrij's resources were, though he was able to make a shrewd
guess: the fifty, full-page plates of the Theatrum, especially if a number of
fine, hand-coloured copies were made as Comrij clearly envisaged that there
should be, were going to make a formidable hole in them. Printing the plates
for five hundred copies would be another sixty-five guilders, with more than
forty for the paper. More than two thousand guilders in all: he doubted that
Comrij owned much more. Even given the limited medical resources of
Batavia, the fees gained by so eccentric, opinionated and quarrelsome a man
had not been excessive. It did not seem likely that he had saved much.
Pelagius had returned to Comrij the remains of the money he had had from
him to support his studies, so his own future, his chance of getting back to
Leiden to resume his work, and then of returning to Batavia as a free man
and a preacher of the word of God, was therefore entirely dependent on the
success of Comrij's book, which he was almost powerless to influence
beyond imposing what order he could as far as he was permitted to do so.
Comrij, meanwhile, was supremely unconscious of any of this. If
he was anxious about his book, he did not show it directly: his nervousness
expressed itself through irascibility, and exasperating changes of mind.
Pelagius attempted grimly to concentrate on the task most immediately to
hand, since he feared that any attempt to take a broader view would
immediately result in losing his temper. They lived as cheaply as possible:
for a consideration in the rent they had dispensed with the services of
Mevrouw Mariken, their landlady. Before beginning his work on the
Theatrum each day, he took out the slops, fetched clean water, swept the
plank floors of the tenement and cooked their simple meals: oatmeal
porridge, bread soup, frugal stews of stockfish, kale and onions. Once a
week he washed their linen. Comrij clearly grudged the time he spent on this
laborious task, but Mevrouw Mariken had been so anxious about the
cleanliness of her house that Pelagius dared not let standards slide lest she
ask them to find other lodgings. He was obsessed by the need to
economize, as if, by saving a few stuivers here and there in the week, he
could somehow hope to offset the hundreds of guilders which were seeping
from Comrij's purse. For the rest of the day, once the most necessary chores
were out of the way, he prepared pages for illustration, pasting up his own
and Comrij's meticulous drawings of the various parts of each plant into a
single, carefully laid-out page meticulously annotated, for which purpose, he
had had to learn to write in reverse, so that all the engraver had to do was
copy for the script to come out correctly on the printed page.
One by one, the pages were completed and taken to Meester
Gerrit. He charged forty guilders a plate (including, as he was quick to point
out, the cost of the copper), a sum which caused Comrij to rave helplessly
about thieves and extortionists, though it was clear that the thing could not
be done cheaper. It was Pelagius's business to take him the finished
drawings, and twenty guilders with each one: the balance was to be paid on
completion of the whole.
For his own part, he quite welcomed his visits to the engraver:
they broke the monotony of tedious days spent in silence with his own
thoughts, a silence broken chiefly by the irritating sound of Comrij's painful,
phlegmy cough, which had settled on his chest shortly after his arrival in
Europe and never quite left him, and the hard claws of the pigeons rattling
on the slates above their heads.
On one such occasion, early in the spring, he looked at his folio
page, wrote a final word with care, and laid down his pen. 'Master, this page
is ready for Meester Gerrit.'
'Aye, is it so? Let me see.' Comrij came across from his lectern,
and looked at the prepared page. 'Flower . . . leaf . . . ripe seed pod . . .
root. Preparation of the ground root . . . Aye, not so bad. You have looked at
your notes with a mirror?'
'Of course, master.'
'You may as well take it, then. And that bloodsucking bastard will
want his money.' Comrij disappeared into his room and Pelagius heard the
scrape of his iron-bound chest as he pulled it from under his bed.
Meanwhile, he rolled the completed drawing carefully, inserted it into a
cylindrical leather carrying case and capped it. He took his cloak and hat
from the peg beside the door, and when Comrij came back with twenty
guilders in his hand he was ready to go.
Their lodgings were near the middle of town, in a street of old
houses near the Groote Kerk which had gone catastrophically down in the
world since the building of a new, fashionable quartier around the Vijver and
the Voorhout. Meester Gerrit lived on the edge of The Hague, in an area
dominated by small workshops and independent craftsmen of one kind or
another, many of whose activities were either smelly or noisy. Engraving
was neither, of course; but it was convenient on both sides for engravers
such as Gerrit to work in close proximity to printers, who were both. It was a
pleasant enough walk, even on a sharp morning in early spring with
impertinent children cat-calling and yelling 'Swarte Piet!' as he passed by,
round the court precincts of the Binnenhof, and down the long canal called
the Spuy to the Turfmarkt. Meester Gerrit, like themselves, had a top-floor
workroom, in order to catch the maximum amount of light, over a printer's
shop on the ground floor. When he knocked on the side door, an answering
shout told him to come up, so he went up the vertiginous flight of stairs and
emerged in Gerrit's attic.
Gerrit was sitting at his table, with the light falling on the sheet of
copper in front of him, burin in hand, his working drawing pinned on an easel
to one side. He was a big man, fat rather than formidable, with pale eyes in
a pale face and straight, lank, dirty-white hair, abrupt and charmless in his
manner, but a very considerable craftsman.
'Hey, it's the black. Brought me another, have you?'
Pelagius bowed without speaking and handed over the case with
the drawing. Gerrit wiped his hands down the sides of his breeches, took
out the drawing, unrolled it on a spare corner of his worktable and studied it
carefully. Finally, he nodded.
'It'll do. No. There's just one thing. Look here. Where the pod's
split. Are these meant to be separate seeds, or what's-its, you know, like a
raspberry or a blackberry?
Or something in between, like you have in a pomegranate.'
'They are separate seeds, not drupes, Meester Gerrit. Brown, with
a hard coat.'
'All right. I'll remember that. Let's see the money.'
Pelagius handed over the twenty guilders silently. Gerrit not only
counted them, but rang each one on the table and examined it before
slipping it into his pocket. Only when he was satisfied with the weight and
purity of all twenty coins did he scribble a receipt on a grubby scrap of
cheese paper and give it to Pelagius.
'The last one you brought me's done. What was it? – galingale, I
think. I've pulled a proof page for the doctor.' As he spoke, he crossed the
room and rummaged in a folder, then put an engraved folio into Pelagius's
'Thank you. This is excellent.' It was, indeed, excellent. The
galingale and its parts stood on the page crisply, clearly and accurately. At
a swift glance, the Latin text appeared to be flawless and probably was.
Gerrit was expensive because he was renowned for seldom making
mistakes. Pelagius disliked the man for his rudeness and his heavy, sour
smell, but appreciated his worth. The engraver had already returned to his
work, without even waiting to see if he had any corrections to make,
assuming with characteristic arrogance that there would be none. Silently,
Pelagius read carefully through the text, put the proof page into his carrying
case and bowed formally to Gerrit, who, head bent over his work, his hand
moving with crisp, mechanical precision throwing up bright, hairlike curls of
copper from the tip of his burin as he sent it ploughing through the metal,
neither saw him, nor responded. Pelagius turned away and let himself out.
The banging from the printer's caught his attention and he looked
in at the window for a moment to see what was going on. Printing, he knew,
would be another major expense: he was interested to know if there was
any way of saving money on the job. Three men were at work, one working
thick black ink evenly across the surface of a copper plate, while a second
was taking ink equally carefully off another until it looked clean again, a
procedure which puzzled him, and looked suspiciously like make-work. The
sharp, metallic smell of the oily ink, which was keeping warm in a pot over a
tiny brazier, exhaled from the window. A third, older man, Claes the master
printer, whom he had met once before, was expertly bedding a plate on the
press. He looked up, perceiving the occlusion of the light as Pelagius
paused before the window.
'It's Dr Comrij's black, isn't it? Want to see what we're doing?'
Pelagius opened the door and went in. 'We've got a run of Meester Gerrit's
stuff printing. This is what will happen to your master's plates, if we're all
'It doesn't look like a press,' said Pelagius, considering the great
wooden structure in the middle of the floor.
'Ah. You'll have seen a printer for letterpress. This is a press for
copper plates. Look. The plate goes here. The paper goes on top and then
these blankets, to even the pressure. Then it goes through the rollers.' The
rollers were turned by a wheel with four great spokes, like a St Andrew's
cross. Setting his foot on one and hauling the next with both hands, Claes
set the machine into motion, putting his whole not inconsiderable weight
into the swing. Reluctantly, the bed passed forward between the rollers as
the spokes went round. When the plate had fully emerged on the other side
he let go of the spoke which he was holding, laid back the blankets and
peeled the paper free of the plate, holding it delicately by the top
corners. 'There you are. A perfect print, or it will be when it's dry. And it
takes all this for every single one. You can tell your master that's where the
money goes.'
'How long to print each page?' asked Pelagius.
'Oh, three – four minutes. And that's with three of us on the job.
That's why we charge a guilder a hundred. Come on, lad. Get your coat off
and send a couple through yourself. Give me a minute to catch my breath.'
Pelagius, nothing loath, took off hat, cloak and coat, and stood
expectantly by the wheel of the great press. The two journeymen glanced at
him slyly, then looked at each other.
''E should be doing the inking, by rights,' said one under his
breath. ''E's black enough already.'
'Hold your tongue, Janneken,' commanded Claes, without
animosity. 'That's a good shirt 'e's wearing. And when I want your opinion
I'll ask for it.' He set up another page for printing and Pelagius hauled willingly
at the spokes of the wheel. It was astonishingly hard work; the muscles of
his back strained with the effort and it was only when he shoved down
viciously with one foot as well as using his hands that he was able to
persuade it into motion. The three printers were cackling at his efforts, with
the traditional sadism of workmen watching a gentleman attempting a task at
which they are expert. 'Not bad. Keep it going through even,' said Claes
sharply. 'Nice smooth pace. There it goes. See? Nothing to it, really.'
Pelagius breathed hard, unbuttoning his waistcoat as Claes
rescued the print and hung it up. 'Do you do this all day?'
'All day, son, when there's a rush on. We've a publisher
desperate for these plates. Copper engravings are all the rage these days,
the public reckons woodblocks're common. Printers mostly contract the work
out, like your Mynheer van der Aa. Anyway, with this one, there's twelve
engravings in each book and they're printing a thousand copies. There was
some kind of mix-up, and Meester Gerrit had to re-cut three plates. It cost
someone a pretty penny, I'm sure, and now they're in a hurry. Are you ready
for another?'
'Yes.' He took a deep breath and sent the wheel round.
He did an hour's work at the printer's and walked home feeling the
better for it. He had learned a great deal about the printing process, which,
while not reassuring, at least gave him a clearer sense of what was entailed
before Comrij's book came out. The hard exercise of turning the press,
though he knew he would suffer the next morning, had done him good. He
spent too much of each day immobile on a hard wooden stool working on
the Theatrum; it made for nightmares, and unrefreshing sleep in which he
was haunted by visions which, he feared, might be true sendings. It had not
occurred to him before that the printing process was also going to be so
expensive; but he could see the work that had to be done, feel it, in his own
muscles. Whatever Comrij might think, there could not be a cheap way of
doing it.

Copyright © 2001 by Jane Stevenson.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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