John Saturnall’s Feast, By Lawrence Norfolk

This banquet of a novel revels in the flavours of the past – but takes liberties with history

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This book is a feast, a groaning table laden with delicious and carefully made sweets. Norfolk's ambitions are like those of his main character, John Saturnall, kitchen boy turned top chef; both want a whole world in the little space of a banquet.

All Norfolk's novels concern the intrusion of the eternal and the mythic into a world of period detail. Here, he seeks traces of the Roman festival of the Saturnalia in a Stuart kitchen. He writes smoothly, fluently and elegantly, but some of the magic falters. After research is finished, historical novelists must choose events that seem to them likely, and this is where the 21stt century often gets the upper hand. Norfolk has woven together many fictions, and those happy to gobble up his delectable fantasies of marchpane and spun sugar are in for a treat. But not all his fictions are true.

John's mother Susan is an especial irritant. A wise herbalist-midwife accused of witchcraft, Susan is a sentimental old nonsense in pretty clothes. In reality, most women knew about herbal remedies, and this knowledge was uncontroversial, while midwives were more often found helping witches' accusers than being accused themselves.

When Susan dies romantically, the novel shakes off its chains, and gathers power from a slow, rich evocation of a manor-house kitchen. I was reminded of children's books – A Traveller in Time, and The Little White Horse – because there is a focus in these chapters on the child John, and the magic of cooking for a child. In those children's classics, the child characters are daughters of the house, but here the child is a servant, an elegant new turn, though John's relations with the daughter become a focal point.

Norfolk likes to soften the most vehemently hierarchical society England has ever known. Charles I was astonishingly conscious of his rank, and unlikely to visit a kitchen or talk to its staff if he did. Charles in the kitchen is a great, funny scene, but the novelist gets the better of the historian here, hurling the reader into scepticism. Improbably, the country-house kitchen provides John with the atmosphere he needs to become the artist he was always destined to be. His talent is recognised almost instantly in all its dazzling exceptionality. He has to do time washing pots in the scullery, but after this purgatory he is released into artistry. In reality, every kitchen in 1640 probably contained a talented, furious John, balked by hierarchy.

Promotion on merit didn't happen in early-modern kitchens. The first institution to promote on merit was the Parliamentarian New Model Army. For Norfolk, the Civil War is bad because all Puritans are bad, and the idea that some decent people were attracted to the Parliamentarian side because it stood for the liberties they were denied is unexamined. Norfolk especially loathes Cromwell, but his portrayal of Cromwell is all legend. Cromwell did not ban Christmas; that was a Parliamentary Committee in the Directory of Worship, printed in 1644. He was also relatively tolerant in matters of religion, reintroducing the Jews to England.

Norfolk amps up Puritan violence inexcusably. A clergyman would not have had the power to cut off the hand of someone in a personal quarrel. The war ends as improbably as it began. "'Cromwell's dead!' the man shouted. 'Long live the King!'… 'It's over, John!' exclaimed Philip." The protectorate still had nine months to run, and no one expected the Restoration then and there.

Some reviewers worry that they should know more history to relish novelists' treatment of the past. In this case, it would be better to know less. Then it would be easier to enjoy what's on offer here; the brilliant parody of Robert May's exceptional set piece, the way personal names shift into unrecognisable, indecipherable secrets. The sheer oddity of the past is here expressed in lost delights of palate and savour. This evocation is lovely, but the myth Norfolk wants to attach to it is wrong; the war did disrupt kitchen life, but that might mean more if set against a more accurate evocation of it. A little more research might make for less myth and more truth.

Diane Purkiss's 'The English Civil War: A People's History' is published by Harper Perennial

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