Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Verneys

Review by Ann Skea

The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-century England.
Adrian Tinniswood.
Riverhead. 2007. 569 pp.
ISBN 9781594489488.

"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 tale 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 other 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.

Part two of the book deals equally interestingly with the lives of Ralph Verney and his wife and family. Ralph, ever the serious one, helped his father to shoulder the responsibilities of the family from a very young age. After the elder man’s death, he inherited debts, and later faced the possibility of losing the estate altogether when Parliament threatened to sequester it because of his family's Royalist sympathies. He avoided this threat by putting the estate into trust and escaping to France. His loyal and loving wife Mary (they were married at a very young age, even for those times) was know by her closest relatives as "Mischief." She accompanied him to France, but a few years later returned to England to lobby for the lifting of the threat of sequestration. At Ralph's instruction, she even forged a document (a capital offence) in order to achieve this. Eventually she succeeded, but after returning to France she became seriously ill and only after her death was Ralph able to return to England. Ralph's grief at the loss of his Mary, exacerbated by the death of her recently born baby and of their much loved eight-year-old daughter, Peg at about the same time, was intense and he never really got over it. But his later travels around Italy with his eldest son, Mun, make fascinating reading. So, too, does the career of his youngest son, Jack, who, as a baby, had been left in England during his parents' exile in France. Jack became a successful merchant trader in Syria, and Tinniswood paints a vivid picture of this exotic but very difficult part of the world in which Jack eventually made his fortune.

The lives of Jack and Mun make up most of part three of the book, but it also deals with the short lives of their four siblings. And it includes some vivid digressions on romantic myths about seventeenth century highway robbers and the real, but no less exciting, exploits of two distant but well-known Verney relatives who took to a life of crime and were hanged for it. Mun's fate was different but in many ways no less cruel. A charming character, Mun is described under his portrait in this book as "a complicated mixture of lecherous clown, tender father and loving husband." He married, under family pressure, at the age of twenty-six. But within weeks his wife began to suffer fits of madness, which continued periodically for the rest of her life. Mun, against all expectations, lovingly looked after her during these times rather than consigning her to the care of others. Tinniswood's brief examination of her madness, set in its historical context, makes interesting reading.

There is so much in this book that it is difficult not to write a book-length review of it. Suffice it to say that Tinniswood tells a fascinating story and he tells it well. He acknowledges his debt to those who earlier sorted through the documents and chronicled some of the contents, but as a social historian his approach is different to theirs. His accounts of the turbulent history of the times and of the wars which took place in Scotland, Ireland and England, often show the astonishing and ludicrous mismanagement and stupidity which accompanied the bloody events. And his occasional humorous asides throughout the book are a delight. I particularly warmed to his admission that one letter to Sir Ralph, which may have been a joke but probably was not, shows a distressing insensitivity in the sexual mores of the Verney men and he wished he had never seen it. Everywhere else, in this book, he clearly enjoys the ordinary humanity of the Verneys and it is this which makes it a delight to read and allows all the Verneys and their relatives and good friends to live again in our imaginations. What more could a reader (or a television producer, for that matter) want?


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