Guest Post: Will Troubled Blood Have A Spenserian Story Scaffold?

Chris sent me this speculative post before the seven chapter preview of Troubled Blood was available on Apple Books — and it holds up rather well in light of Strike 5’s first Part. The idea that Spencer’s Faerie Queene will play an outsized role in understanding Troubled Blood, a possibility first suggested here by Nick Jeffery when the Strike 5 title was announced, was certainly confirmed by the preview in which Faerie Queene passages begin the book and each chapter!

A Spenserian Story Scaffold for Troubled Blood?

By ChrisC.

After giving it some thought, the best “working idea” I’ve got about Strike 5, Troubled Blood, has to do with its story scaffolding. My theory is best put in the form of a question. “What if Rowling were to pattern Troubled Blood, at least in part, on Book 1 from Spenser’s Faerie Queene?” There’s a lot to examine on this topic, so why not join in after the jump?

Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together.

My biggest source for thinking this comes from Rebecca Olson’s Hanging Arras: The Textile that determined Early Modern Literature. In particular, I owe my current thoughts on Troubled Blood to the 2nd chapter of her study: “Tudor Tapestry Conventions and Spenser’s Courts of Pride”. It’s in that chapter that she posits Hampton Court as a potential model for the House of Pride in Book I of the epic. In particular, Olson cites the Fourth Canto of Book I, “when Duessa (as Fidessa) guides Redcrosse to the palace of Lucifera, identified in the canto’s argument as the “sinfull house of Pride…”

“Here in the House of Pride, the “costly arras” hanging serve, like Elizabeth’s own in the great halls of her palaces, to greet visitors in a large waiting chamber. The “wide open gates and the easy entrance to this first room are very similar to the protocol of a palace like Hampton Court, which housed hundreds in its Great Hall when the queen was in residence. In fact, at this point in the poem the reader may already be thinking of Hampton Court Palace – Lucifera’s “stately Pallace built of squared bricke” features “loftie towres,” “goodly galleries,” “And on the top a Diall told the timely howres” (I.iv.4.6-9). The clock above the palace has been read as signifying the relationship between time and pride, but it also recalls Henry VIII’s astronomical clock, which was erected at Hampton Court in 1540 and became one of the most easily recognizable features of the palace (Olson, 46)”.

Compare the line of scholarship above with the following advance snippet from Troubled Blood, one the author seems very anxious to draw the reader’s attention to for some reason.

“Oh wow,” said Robin (), looking over her shoulder and then walking backwards for a few paces, the better to see the objects set high in the wall above the archway. “Look at that!” Strike did as he was bidden and saw an enormous, ornate, sixteenth-century astronomical clock of blue and gold (web)”.

It’s clear enough that we see two texts describing the same setting. One of them just happens to go a bit further in suggesting possible textual links that grant the fictional snapshot a potential context. It should be noticed here that Olson is not just pulling a theory out of thin air. While her note on Spenser and Hampton Court forms just one element of her thesis, it at least does have a scholarly pedigree. It’s that historical precedent that I believe is most relevant for the purposes of “Strike 5”. The scholar Olson cites is a Prof. Frederick Hard. He was apparently one of the first Spenser scholars to note that the interior decorations of a lot of the palaces in The Faerie Queene could have come from the poet’s first-hand experience of the tapestries and architecture of real-life royal estates, and noble houses. In his best years, Spenser had ample opportunity to tour such palatial estates. It’s known, for instance, that he was familiar with the household of Sir Walter Raleigh. Hard appears to take this a step further. In his academic essay, “Spencer’s Clothes of Arras and Tour”, Hard notes the following similarities between real-life and make-believe.

“The Inventory of Cardinal Wolsey’s household stuff, taken in 1530, attests the indulgence of that dignitary in the matter of luxurious and costly tapestries, and reflects something of the splendor which is often associated in our minds with the court of Henry VIII. There are several hundred items in these lists, the subjects of which cover a wide range. Among those which remind us of some of Spenser’s interests may be mentioned such allegorical topics as “The Seven Deadly Sins”; “the Old Law and the New”; “The Twelve Months”; “the Triumphs of Time”; “Death, Chastity, Virtue, and Eternity”; classical subjects; “Cupid and Venus,” “Templum Bacchi,” “Eight pieces with the stories of Priamus, Parys and Atchilles, Jupiter, Pluto, and Ceres,” “Parys and Ellena,”; and legendary topics like “St. George killing the dragon,” “the Three Kings of Coleyne,” Godfrey of Bulloign,” “the Duke of Bry and the gyant Orrible,” and “King Arthur (167-8)”.

In the passage above, Prof. Hard seems to have demonstrated his own skill at the Spenserian “indirect statement”. Without pushing his luck too far, he nonetheless manages to posit the theory that perhaps Spenser’s possible first-hand experience at Hampton Palace was one of the real-life inspirations for characters, settings, and motifs in the Queene. Hard adds an additional connecting, literary thread by mentioning Colyn Clout, a work of satire by John Skelton. Spenser demonstrates his familiarity with this text on his own, based on the evidence of the appearance of Clout as a character in TFQ, and as part of a later minor work, Colyn Clout Comes Home.

What connects this Skelton poem to both Spenser and Troubled Blood has to do with one of its satirical targets. Part of it is a satire against Thomas Wolsey, the former owner of Hampton Court before Henry VIII kicked him out. Wolsey belonged to the Order of St. John, a Catholic organization that had its headquarters in St. John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. This creates an automatic historic link that joins together several clues that Rowling has passed off to her readers in her various Twitter header decorations. These include the Clerkenwell Gate, illustrations from Spencer’s poem, and the Hampton Astrological Clock. Each image connects, or is related in either personal or literary ways to each other. Dr. Louise Freeman has even gone so far as to wonder if the Clock is anything like a guiding symbol for the Fifth Book. In addition to all this, I think I should add one more bit of information that Hard imparts which might be relevant to more than just Book 5. “Of a number of tapestry subjects which Spenser mentions,” according to Hard, one of them is “Jove and Leda (180)”.

The Story Scaffold of Strike 5.

Having assembled all these pieces, what picture begins to emerge when they are all fitted together? I said at the start that the First Book of The Faerie Queene might provide the scaffold, or rather the structural and/or thematic content for Troubled Blood. So far, it’s the best idea I’ve got in terms of what Rowling is hinting to her readers. If you put her clues together, what you arrive at is Spenser’s House of Pride, and the real-life inspirations he might have drawn from in constructing his masterpiece. If Prof. Hard, and the suggestions of Olson, are correct, that means the fact that Spenser might have drawn on Hampton Court, and the symbolism and scandals that took place there means that we should expect it to play some kind of major part, direct or otherwise, in the next Strike Mystery.

The real question remains how that could play out. Without an actual printed copy of the text available as of this writing, all anyone can do is take their best guess. I know my own inclination is to see the Palace as more of an endpoint, if not the actual goal the main characters are working toward. All Strike is trying accomplish is a solution to the disappearance of his client’s mother way back when he was born. For some strange reason Hampton Court, and perhaps its adjacent connection, John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, are all mixed up in it.

It makes me wonder just what kind of life the missing Mrs. Bamborough might have led if her exploits could take her from a seedy place like Clerkenwell all the way up the halls of royalty. I’ll admit I’m having difficulty making much sense of it myself. Whatever happened Margot’s mom, it must have been interesting if it led to or was associated with all these places. So far, my best conclusion is that she was the victim of a mob hit in St. John’s, and those connected with it were important enough to have some sort of tie to the Palace. My biggest hope is that those figures are comprised of Rokeby, Digger Malley, and Whitaker, and that they will at last all be brought on stage so as to give readers an inkling into their connections with each other, Strike, and the detective’s past.

Aside from all this, my only other major expectations are just two. The first and primary one has to do with Hampton Court. Rowling’s clues all lead me to believe that she wants us to see the royal edifice as her book’s version of the House of Pride. It’s the most well-known, and therefore most famous section of Spenser’s entire cycle. It’s the part where Redcrosse witnesses a display of the Seven Sins, under the mistaken idea that he is in the house of an actual noble. It’s an illusion his is disabused of in short enough order. The ruler of this place of illusions is a figure with the all too suggestive name of Lucifera. It’s her charms that Redcrosse must learn to escape from if he ever wants to get out of there alive. He makes a very grisly discovery about all the miserable fools who didn’t learn in time.

Now, take that basic synopsis, and the parallels with Strike almost write themselves. Our knight-errant hero is a Red Cap, rather than Red Cross, yet I doubt that changes his basic nature or function in the next book. The lady of illusions whose clutches he has to escape can be none other than Charlotte “Crazy” Campbell herself. She’s still on track to being the closest to a Dolores Umbrage as far as this series is concerned. What I think needs to be added is that while there may be connections and echoes, I don’t expect everything to be an exact one-on-one correspondence. In other words, I think it’s a mistake if we go in thinking the entirety of Blood is going to just be a beat-by-beat replay of Spenser’s first plot. Something tells me Rowling is going to be a lot more creative than that.

For instance, I see the Palace presented in the book more as a last destination, the crucible at the end of the case and text where all the plot points terminate and are brought to a resolution, rather than as just one stopping point on the way to others, as it is in Spenser. It’s also an open question for me whether or not Strike has enough of screws loose as to sink into the despair that overtakes Redcrosse. I could be wrong on that, yet based on what “Bobbi” Galbraith told Tom Burke, Strike is the kind of guy who takes every effort not to let his personal problems get the better of him. I see no reason to think otherwise, unless there is a plot development waiting in the wings to take that noble character trait and smash it to pieces.

In the same way, I expect Robin’s role in this next book to be more a combination from two of Spenser’s dramatis personae, rather than just being either/or. Instead, perhaps we should expect the whole of Troubled Blood to be something of a continuous back and forth experience for the character. Like Florimell or Persephone, she will be advanced upon multiple times by whoever is successful or desperate enough to be Mr. Next-in-Line. Much like Britomart, however, I expect we get to see her put each of her pursuers in their proper place. Those still looking for Matthew to get a final comeuppance let me know in the comments! This is all to say that I’m kind of expecting, or hoping for great things from Robin in this book. This could really be the one where she comes into her own.

Conclusion: The Book of Allusions and Echoes.

J.K. Rowling is a very intertextual author. She’s often fond of embedding the work of others into her own writings. These literary allusions can be as simple as what Prof. Beatrice Groves calls “The Art of Craytilic Naming”. At other times, it can be as complex as crafting an entire novel around the skeleton (Skelton?) or scaffolding of books by her favorite writers. Right now, The Faerie Queene seems to be the most likely candidate that will condition the plot of Troubled Blood, at least to some extent, as noted above. Based on her own track record, the way the author goes about this is bound to be a lot more clever and subtle than perhaps even what I’ve written here. For instance, wouldn’t it be interesting if the missing Mrs. Bamborough were part of an allusion to the fact that the ending of Spenser’s cycle verse is now lost forever to mortal hands?

That particular idea is probably just fancy, however. All I’ve been able to do here is try and make sense of the clues as they have been doled out. It’s always possible I’ve fouled up, and someone out there had a better idea of what it all means. I’m still clueless about where the Tarot fits into all this, for instnance. Though I m hopeful this means that Blue Oyster Cult will start to become a major plot point in the series, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere. Beyond that, however, this is as far as I can take things in terms of guessing what comes next. What I can deny is just how fun it is to engage with a writer who likes to challenge her readers. I’ll leave off with just one more question, and it goes like this. The major setting of Troubled Blood is in real life (and presumably the novel) the home and host of the Hampton Court Palace Festival. Aside from being the perfect for Rowling to introduce us to Jonny Rokeby, in what way is it possible for readers to be treated to an updated version of Spenser’s Procession of Seven Deadly Sins in such a venue? I might be able to think of some versions of such an idea. However, what do you think? And how does the main idea of Spenser’s Book I as story skeleton for Strike 5 sound? Let me know how it all sounds in the comments below, and thanks again for listening in.




  1. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for sharing your well thought out speculations on the possible direction of the plot for Strike 5: Troubled Blood. In the link you provided fo the tapestries at Hampton Court in “Tudor Tapestry Convention’s and Spencer’s ‘Court of Pride,” I noticed the mention of one of the court’s tapestries was “Triumphs of Petrarch.” One of JK Rowling’s twitter headers had been from that very tapestry showing the “Triumph of Death” with the three fates standing over a deceased woman—although, I don’t believe it was from the Hampton Court tapestry since it was a favorite for tapestry artists to depict. But I do remember the speculation about the header picture centered around how Fame (which came next in Petrarch’s procession) triumphed over death and that “fame over death” could be one of the main attractors for Leda to the “Rock Gods” of Rock and Roll.

    I still think I remember JKR saying that it would be Al Rokeby rather than Jonny that will make an appearance in book 5. I truly don’t know if we are destined to ever see Jonny on the pages of the Strike series. At this point he is more like the character’s wife or husband (usually wife) that is mentioned throughout the run of the show but the audience never gets to actually see the other half of the equation and is left with just one side of the relationship.

    I like your remark about Redcrosse and Red Cap and that Charlotte will be the one Strike will need to break free of—but I think Charlotte will only be one of the things trying to drag him down in this book. I don’t think it’s a fluke that there is that Redcrosse=Red Cap connection.

    It is true that Cormoran has been remarkably successful is keeping himself moving in the “sane lane” especially given the life he has had, but he has shown in various ways that his coping choices are not of the best (drinking, smoking, over eating, lack of self-care, erratic sleeping habits, etc.) and he has suffered from panic attacks—although, the one time it was shown in the book series, in The Silkworm, during the big auto accident, was a scene not filmed for the TV version—which is a shame.

    I think it is likely that Strike will find himself in Troubled Blood as a very troubled person indeed. It is always far more traumatic to show someone who is normally a rock in situations—but who also has acquired more than a few cracks in his armor during their life—finally come up against a sea of troubles that even their lifetime arsenal of coping mechanisms can’t handle.

    I like that Robin has done a lot to become her own person through the pages of Lethal White, but I know for me I really hope that Troubled Blood will be a more Cormoran centered book, especially since Lethal White was very Robin centric.

  2. Nick Jeffery says

    Wonderful link for Hampton Court and Faerie Queene! I searched and could not find it, thank you so much for sharing this ChrisC. I am particularly pleased with the “Diall told the timely howres”.

  3. Joanne,

    Nice catch on the link between Spenser and Petrarch. That one never even occurred to me. I particularly like the idea of Leda being drawn to Fame as a way of overcoming mortality, and making a mistake about it. I sort of hope that bears out.

    As for Strike’s armor crumbling, well, that is at least a possibility. That said, he seems to be holding up well, based on what I’m hearing. Certainly he starts out in a much better place than Harry was from right at the outset of “Phoenix”. However, like you say, that can all change.

    Just a few other notes. While I didn’t find any Petrachan connections in my own search, I did turn up some interesting links between Spenser, and two Greek poets, one of whom has already played pretty important thematic part in the Strike series. One of them is Ovid. The other is Virgil.

    We’ve seen the Virgil quotations in “Cuckoo’s Calling already, and am I right in saying that the “Aeneid” is still something of a building block for the main character? Either way, the point is I ran across one scholarly text called “Spenser and Ovid”, by Syrithe Pugh.

    The main point of her book is neatly explained in the book’s main summary: “Pugh’s reading presents a challenge to New Historicist assumptions, as she contests both the traditional insistence on Virgil as Spenser’s prime classical model and the idea it has perpetuated of Spenser as Elizabeth I’s imperial propagandist. In fact, Pugh locates Ovid’s importance to Spenser precisely in his counter-Virgilian world view, with its high valuation of faithful love, concern for individual freedom, distrust of imperial rule, and the poet’s claim to vatic authority in opposition to political power”.

    Considering that Virgil is a poet that received a particular highlight from the author, Pugh’s thesis sort of jumped out at me. The trouble is I’m not at all sure whether its relevant here. That said, the idea that Spenser was writing a satirical attack against the Elizabethan Project under the guise of an Imperial Ode is something that Professor Olsen brings up. I know its also an idea propounded by Harry Berger Jr. I’ll admit it does make me wonder if Rowling has written a book on similar lines, only in a modern context. I also have to admit that, at least, would be well in keeping with the kind of barbs she likes to hurl at her targets.

    The only other thing worth mentioning is a very minor, yet interesting fact. In Prof. Hard’s essay cited above, he makes mention of a “Mr. Felix Warburg (162)”. That name jumped out at me, because this Felix was a relative of Aby Warburg, founder of the Warburg Institute. The name and place itself can mean anything to most people. It’s just that the Warburg was the same institution that hired folks like Frances Yates and D.P. Walker. I can’t help thinking Hard’s name dropping of Warburg is another indirect statement. It could have been his way of signalling that he was approaching Spenser from an essentially Warburgian perspective, similar to Yates.

    Just an interesting thought. Also…

    Nick Jeffery,

    Pleasure to oblige! I was just flying blind same as you, far as I’m concerned.

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