by Antonia Fraser
Each Nov. 5, in an uncharacteristic display of communal merriment, people across England light bonfires, throw an effigy of one Guy Fawkes on top and set off fireworks. The celebration recalls the foiling of a plot to blow up James I in 1605, an incident perpetrated by a group of Catholics—Fawkes among them—who hoped to improve their lot by placing James’s young daughter Elizabeth on the throne.
Fraser uses the conspiracy to focus on the penalties—fines, imprisonment, sometimes death—suffered by Catholics in early Jacobean England. In the process, combining her skills as a novelist with those of historian, she introduces us to a memorable cast, including a remarkable deformed mason-carpenter, “Little John” Owen, who constructed scores of small, hidden chambers—”priest holes”—where such heroic women as Anne Vaux managed to hide Catholic clergymen, feeding them through tubes that Owen had ingeniously contrived.
Fraser, a Catholic, argues cogently that, while there was indeed a plot by a handful of fanatics, the affair was used by James’s minister Lord Salisbury to taint all Catholics, forcing them to live in an atmosphere of intolerance for more than 200 years. (Doubleday, $27.95)