It took me a while to get into this one – not just the usual adjustment to the more verbose style of Victorian literature, but to second convoluted layer of language in Sir Walter Scott’s version of medieval English, with all its thees and thous.
Once I did though, I really enjoyed this highly romanticised view of medieval England, with one heroic caper after another. It reminded me quite a bit of The Three Musketeers in that the overall plot of the book was slightly beside the point – it read more as a series of adventures involving a band of entertaining and familiar characters.
As you’d expect from Victorian historical fiction, it’s rather Victorian in its outlook. The women are damsels in distress, beautiful and unimpeachable objects of worship for the courtly knights, at least at first glance. Rowena has some autonomy as the Saxon claimant to the throne, although she is still unable to marry who she likes. More interesting is Rebecca, who, being Jewish, is constantly on the receiving end of abuse and prejudice, but is portrayed as highly intelligent, thoughtful, and noble, a skilled medic as well as an accomplished diplomat.
She wins the trust and regard of the Saxons despite their religious differences – although they by no means see her as an equal. In fact, the books portrayal of Judaism jars very much for a modern reader, and I would be interested to see what a Victorian would have made of it – was the way the Medieval characters treat Isaac of York shocking to Victorian readers, or would they have sympathised with their fears of a different religion?
Aside from this, it’s a very enjoyable book with a host of familiar characters, among them Robin Hood and his merry men and Richard the Lionheart. It romps along with one skirmish after another, and while our hero Ivanhoe is sadly indisposed for many of the fights, we do get to witness his military prowess in an early jousting tournament, where he ably defends the Saxon reputation against the dastardly Norman nobles.