Today, I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Jeni Neill’s debut novel, The Devil’s Dye which is set in and around Norwich in the 1560 and 1570s and follows the fortunes of a family of Strangers, Protestant refugees escaping persecution in the Spanish Netherlands.
Apprenticing the two Wright boys to Jowan has been a successful decision and one that he playfully pats his own back for. Both George and Will have shown enough aptitude to take instruction and approach their work with an earnest and respectful interest. Secondary to this, it has given Jowan opportunities to spend some time with Eliza. This is enhanced by the friendship that Mariss has developed with the girl, and they are often found together.
This morning is bright and warm, the March sun tickles the last of the daffodils out of the soil and the grass is lush and green. Even the birdsong is more evident and shriller. To see the colours again, after the wet and grey of winter, lightens everybody’s soul. The lighter air carries a freshness, welcome to the stinking alleys, and, although without rain the waste still sits there, it somehow seems less of a bother.
Jowan feels a rush of playfulness as he strides up the stairs to join the girls in the Great Hall. He is surprised to see William standing at the top.
‘You have a break from schooling?’ Jowan gives a congenial smile, noticing that William grows still lankier.
‘No, Sir. A matter needed my assistance. I return now.’ The youth makes for the stairs but swings back on the bannister for an afterthought. ‘I note that your sister has made a strong bond with Eliza. ’Tis pleasing for me to see her with friends whilst I am away for long periods of study.’ William says this without blinking, his eyes stonily on Jowan’s.
Considering its meaning, Jowan can only interpret it as some mild threat of ownership. ‘Are you promised to each other, William?’
William sneers his reply, ‘For someone who researches others so well, I would have thought you have no need to ask this. But, as you will know, we are not, as yet. Both of us are patient enough to wait until the time is correct, for our relationship to take its natural course.’
‘I would be truly respectful and honour any natural course that your lives might yet take.’ Jowan’s mind thinks fast but he is not overly delighted with his retort.
It is enough to send the young man on his way, though. Jowan is all too aware that this is making for a most uncomfortable position, with them residing in his father’s house and enjoying the huge generosity bestowed from the elder man. He considers how grateful he is that they can move to their own home in a matter of weeks.
Whilst Mariss and Eliza read companionably together in the Great Hall, Barbel sits at the desk writing to her sister. Barbel’s discovery of certain differences between home and England have caused her alarm and her words are full of scorn.
‘So, it is pig fat they use! This is why so many things here have tasted differently, and not for the better. As you know, my dear Gertha, I am partial to butter and cannot understand why those here would not make it. To replace it with lard, even when with enough income! So please send me two small, wooden dishes for the making of a half-pound. Also, a dough trough, for they only knead in earthenware! Yes, can you believe it?’ she writes, enjoying an opportunity to release her disdain.
She stands to welcome Jowan and calls to Mariss, as she leaves the room, that she will return soon. ‘Once back, we must go straight to church work, Mariss. Please be ready. I must first see this posted though, it is of great importance,’ she says dramatically.
She needs to hand the letter to a man set up for the delivery of such. Once he has a large enough number, he takes the ferry of an established carrier. It is a slow process but communication, nonetheless, and the number of Strangers in Norwich already increases, giving more letters to send and requests for the items not easily acquired in England. Not only that, but the Strangers prefer familiar tools and comforts, and so often send requests for pairs of wool combs or particular chairs missed from home. Sometimes a box of herring is sent back, so that the receiver can sell them and get the money needed for their passage to Norfolk.
In her absence, the young women continue reading a poem by Eliza. Her discomfort, in sharing it, is apparent, but his sister employs her usual forceful energy to see it. They sit with the bright canary between them, flitting in his cage with cheerful song. Jowan appreciates the attractive picture that the scene makes but doesn’t increase Eliza’s embarrassment by taking a look.
Mariss becomes distracted with Jowan in the room and bunches her plentiful locks of blond hair, ‘My hair was once as light as yours, Eliza. Maybe the summer sun will help it regain some light, but I fear I shall turn as dark as mother is now. What do you think, Jowan? Will it suit me to be as dark as mother?’ Her voice is as idle as the question.
Jowan joins them at the window seat and sees an opportunity to tease her. ‘I am sure that it will. Your personality being so bright draws attention from any observation of your looks, so this is a good blessing for you!’
The Devil’s Dye
The Devil’s Dye is set in dark times against a background of religious persecution and superstition when conformity is essential and those who are free spirited are a danger.
The De Hems are a successful weaving family, invited to England by Queen Elizabeth in 1566. Settling in Norwich, this group of immigrants are known as The Strangers. The son of the family, Jowan, is lively, young and full of human complexities. When he marries innocent Eliza, all seems to be well but soon the relationship is challenged by both Jowan’s inner turmoils and his overriding ambition. As Jowan struggles to contain his self-destructive desires, the focus of the story becomes as much Eliza’s, as their love and loss, hope and tragedy create the final twist in the tale.
Balancing poignancy with humour, this warm, many-layered tale is beautiful in its simplicity. As the story unfolds, it brings history to life and new possibilities to the origins of the legend of the Black Shuck of East Anglia. The Devil’s Dye is an intriguing story that will capture the imagination of readers who enjoy historical and contemporary fiction alike.
Jeni Neill has tried many creative outlets over the years, such as art in several mediums, ceramics, silver-smithing, floristry and landscape design. As both a registered nurse and, more recently, a practice manager, her writing had been limited to reports and record keeping so she did not expect that writing would be where her creativity would be found. But, inspired on visiting one of her daughter’s university open days, Jeni decided to enroll in a creative writing course.
The class stoked ideas that had been simmering for many years. As her imagination began to flow, characters revealed themselves and The Devil’s Dye began to take form. Jeni discovered her passion for creative writing and embraced the new found freedom to tell the stories she had always known and had enjoyed sharing with her children.