Prize for the Fire by Rilla Askew is historical fiction from the time of Henry VIII. The period language caused me some initial trepidation. It needn’t have. Within pages, I was hooked. It wasn’t the historical period that drew me in, though the author’s extensive research shone through in the myriad details of settings, customs, and class distinctions. It wasn’t the atrocities and absurdities in the name of Crown and religion, or the bone-chilling constraints placed on women (and the parallels one might draw to conditions for many women and girls today) that kept me turning the pages—though these elements are presented with skill, never overdone or intrusive.
What bound me to the narrative were the characterizations of Anne and all the supporting characters, as well as the story itself. Prize for the Fire is a gripping saga, a recreation of the martyrdom of Anne Askew, condemned by the Church of England to be burned at the stake in 1546 for heresy—namely, refusing to denounce her Protestant faith and her steadfast refusal to accept the Eucharist as the literal blood and body of Christ, though it meant never seeing her two sons again, imprisonment in the dankest of London prisons, unspeakable pain by torture, and ultimately death by fire.
We first meet Anne as a seemingly spoiled, headstrong girl, married at 15 into a Catholic family. Her husband was meant to be wed to her older sister, who has just died. Anne’s father offers her as an alternative. At the novel’s beginning, a young, lonely Anne commiserates with her dead sister, Maddie, about her new circumstances:
“They live meanly here, Maddie, and demand of me that I do the same. It is not poverty of purse but meanness of spirit which causes them to crimp their mouths if one but ask for a bit of beef for one’s supper. Oh, my dear sister, you cannot imagine! I say this daily, hourly, and then I think, but she does know! She must know everything, see everything, from her place on High.”
Her words are a harbinger of what’s to come. Anne finds her dead sister’s hidden bible at the bottom of her dowry trunk, an illicit English Bible. This bible and Anne’s personal maid Beatrice become her only solace in an increasingly hostile and demeaning household, where she shares a bed with a cruel and sadistic husband. Lonely, isolated, and physically and sexually abused, Anne’s faith and commitment to memory of her secret bible consume her, ultimately irrevocably altering the course of her life.
Anne Askew’s transformation from resentful young wife to religious zealot, preacher, and martyr occurs over a short period of time: 1537-1546. In vivid and horrifying sensorial detail, the final chapters of Prize for the Fire include scenes of Anne’s final days from various perspectives, including her own and her faithful maid’s. Beatrice finds Anne after she has been tortured:
“‘No! I’m sorry. The light is too harsh. I think. . . the strings of my eyes are burst.’
Her mistress swallows. ‘I am racked, Beatrice.’
‘Oh, Mother of God, oh, please, oh, surely they would not!’ But yes. Of course they would. They have. She had seen by the candle’s light the strange way her mistress lies, how her body seems near elongated, her arms and legs spread. And she is wearing only her smock; dear God, did they carry her through the streets like that?
‘What can I do, miss?’ she whispers.
‘You can—’ Anne stops, swallows, a choked gulping sound. ‘You can take a letter for me.’ She swallows deep again. ‘Tomorrow when I can bear the light. Not tonight.’
After a little while she whispers, ‘They said I should be burnt. If my Lord wills, so I shall be.’
Beatrice begins to cry quietly.
‘Please. Do not cry, Beatrice. See me here, I am not weeping, I am as merry’—she halts again, panting lightly—‘as merry as one bound towards Heaven.’”
In this passage, we can imagine traces of the same willful, determined Anne in the opening quote, where she was newly arrived at a house that did not welcome her, now on the eve of being executed by men so threatened by one sick and weakened young woman that are compelled not only to end her life, but to first inflict excruciating pain upon her.
It seems that stubborn, willful women infuriate men and drive them to do the unspeakable.
I highly recommend Prize for the Fire to readers of historical fiction, to readers of literary fiction generally, and to readers who prefer creative nonfiction. I became so caught up in Anne’s story that it ceased matter what the genre was. It’s simply a very fine book and a major accomplishment.