Agony Column Fiction


Author photo by Sigrid Estrada
The novel itself by the author

The Master of Nottingham's Daughter
Being A Footnote Excerpted From
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
a Novel by Susanna Clarke

The story of the Master of Nottingham's daughter is worth recounting and so I set it down here. The fair to which the young woman repaired was held on Matthew's Feast in Nottingham. She spent a pleasant day, going about among the booths, making purchases of linens, laces and spices. Sometime during the afternoon she happened to turn suddenly to see some Italian tumblers who were behind her and the edge of her cloak flew out and struck a passing goose. This bad-tempered fowl ran at her, flapping its wings and screaming. In her surprize she dropt her father's ring, which fell into the goose's open gullet and the goose, in its surprize, swallowed it. But before the Master of Nottingham's daughter could say or do anything the gooseherd drove the goose on and both disappeared into the crowd.

The goose was bought by a man called John Ford who took it back to his house in the village of Fiskerton and the next day his wife, Margaret Ford, killed the goose, plucked it and drew out its innards. In its stomach she found a heavy silver ring set with a crooked piece of yellow amber. She put it down on a table near three hens' eggs that had been gathered that morning.

Immediately the eggs began to shake and then to crack open and from each egg something marvelous appeared. From the first egg came a stringed instrument like a viol, except that it had little arms and legs, and played sweet music upon itself with a tiny bow. From the next egg emerged a ship of purest ivory with sails of fine white linen and a set of silver oars. And from the last egg hatched a chick with strange red-and-gold plumage. This last was the only wonder to survive beyond the day. After an hour or two the viol cracked like an eggshell and fell into pieces and by sun set the ivory ship had set sail and rowed away through the air; but the bird grew up and later started a fire which destroyed most of Grantham. During the conflagration it was observed bathing itself in the flames. From this circumstance it was presumed to be a phoenix.

When Margaret Ford realized that a magic ring had somehow fallen into her possession, she was determined to do magic with it. Unfortunately she was a thoroughly malicious woman, who tyrannized over her gentle husband, and spent long hours pondering how to revenge herself upon her enemies. John Ford held the manor of Fiskerton, and in the months that followed he was loaded with lands and riches by greater lords who feared his wife's wicked magic.

Word of the wonders performed by Margaret Ford soon reached Nottingham, where the Master of Nottingham lay in bed waiting to die. So much of his power had gone into the ring that the loss of it had made him first melancholy, then despairing and finally sick. When news of his ring finally came he was too ill to do anything about it.

His daughter, on the other hand, was thoroughly sorry for bringing this misfortune on her family and thought it her duty to try and get the ring back; so without telling any one what she intended she set off along the river bank to the village of Fiskerton.

She had only got as far as Gunthorpe when she came upon a very dreadful sight. A little wood was burning steadily with fierce flames lapping every part of it. The black bitter smoke made her eyes sting and her throat ache, yet the wood was not consumed by the fire. A low moan issued from trees if they cried out at unnatural torment. The Master's daughter looked round for someone to explain this wonder to her. A young woodsman, who was passing, told her, "Two weeks ago, Margaret Ford stopt in the wood on the road from Thurgarton. She rested under the shade of its branches, drank from its stream and ate its nuts and berries, but just as she was leaving a root caught her foot and made her fall, and when she rose from the ground a briar was so impertinent as to scratch her arm. So she cast a spell upon the wood and swore it would burn or ever."

The Master's daughter thanked him for the information and walked on for a while. She became thirsty and crouched down to scoop up some water from the river. All at once a woman -- or something very like a woman -- half-rose out of the water. There were fish-scales all over her body, her skin was as grey and spotted as a trout's and her hair had become an odd arrangement of spiny grey trout fins. She seemed to glare at the Master's daughter, but her round cold fish-eyes and stiff fish skin were not well adapted to reproduce human expressions and so it was hard to tell.

" Oh! I beg your pardon!" said the Master's daughter, startled.

The woman opened her mouth, shewing a fish throat and mouth full of ugly fish teeth, but she seemed unable to make a sound. Then she rolled over and plunged back into the water.

A woman who was washing clothes on the riverbank explained to the Master's daughter, "That is Joscelin Trent who is so unfortunate as to be the wife of a man that Margaret Ford likes. Out of jealousy Margaret Ford has cast a spell on her and she is forced, poor lady, to spend all her days and nights immersed in the shallows of the river to keep her enchanted skin and flesh from drying out, and as she cannot swim she lives in constant terror of drowning."

The Master's daughter thanked the woman for telling her this.

Next the Master's daughter came to the village of Hoveringham. A man and his wife who were both squeezed together atop a little pony advised her not to enter the village, but led her around it by narrow lanes and paths. From a little green knoll the Master's daughter looked down and saw that everyone in the village wore a thick blindfold round his eyes. They were not at all used to their self-created blindness and constantly banged their faces against walls, tripped over stools and carts, cut themselves on knives and tools and burnt themselves in the fire. As a consequence they were covered in gashes and wounds, yet not one of them removed his blindfold.

" Oh!" said the wife. "The priest of Hoveringham has been bold enough to denounce the wickedness of Margaret Ford from his pulpit. Bishops, abbots and canons have all been silent, but this frail old man defied her and so she has cursed the whole village. It is their fate to have vivid images of all their worst fears constantly before their eyes. These poor souls see their children starve, their parents go mad, their loved ones scorn and betray them. Wives and husbands see each other horribly murdered. And so, though these sights be nought but illusions, the villagers must blindfold themselves or else be driven mad by what they see."

Shaking her head over the appalling wickedness of Margaret Ford, the Master's daughter continued on her way to John Ford's manor, where she found Margaret and her maidservants, each with a wooden stick in her hand, driving the cows to their evening's milking.

The Master's daughter went boldly up to Margaret Ford. Upon the instant Margaret Ford turned and struck her with her stick. "Wicked girl!" she cried. "I know who you are! My ring has told me. I know that you plan to lie to me, who have never done you any harm at all, and ask to become my servant. I know that you plan to steal my ring. Well, know this! I have set strong spells upon my ring. If any thief were foolish enough to touch it, then within a very short space of time bees and wasps and all kinds of insects would fly up from the earth and sting him; eagles and hawks and all kinds of birds would fly down from the sky and peck at him; then bears and boars and all kinds of wild creatures would appear and tear and trample him to pieces!"

Then Margaret Ford beat the Master's daughter soundly, and told the maids to put her to work in the kitchen.

Margaret Ford's servants, a miserable, ill-treated lot, gave the Master's daughter the hardest work to do and whenever Margaret Ford beat them or raged at them -- which happened very often -- they relieved their feelings by doing the same to her. Yet the Master's daughter did not allow herself to become low-spirited. She stayed working in the kitchen for several months and thought very hard how she might trick Margaret Ford into dropping the ring or losing it. Margaret Ford was a cruel woman, quick to take offence and her anger, once roused, could never be appeased. But for all that she adored little children; she took every opportunity to nurse babies and once she had a child in her arms she was gentleness itself. She had no child of her own and no one who knew her doubted that this was a source of great sorrow to her. It was widely supposed that she had expended a great deal of magic upon trying to conceive a child, but without success.

One day Margaret Ford was playing with a neighbour's little girl, and saying how if she ever were to have a child then she would rather it were a girl and how she would wish it to have a creamy white skin and green eyes and copper curls (this being Margaret Ford's own colouring.)

" Oh!" said the Master's daughter innocently, "The wife of the Reeve in Epperstone has a baby of exactly that description, the prettiest little creature that ever you saw."

Then Margaret Ford made the Master's daughter take her to Epperstone and shew her the Reeve's wife's baby, and when Margaret Ford saw that the baby was indeed the sweetest, prettiest child that ever there was (just as the Master's daughter had said) she announced to the horrified mother her intention of taking the child away with her.

As soon as she had possession of the Reeve's wife's baby Margaret Ford became almost a different person. She spent her days in looking after the baby, playing with her and singing to her. Margaret Ford became contented with her lot. She used her magic ring a great deal less than she had before and scarcely ever lost her temper.

So things went on until the Master of Nottingham's daughter had lived in Margaret Ford's house for almost a year. Then one summer's day Margaret Ford, the Master's daughter, the baby and the other maids took their midday meal upon the banks of the river. After eating, Margaret Ford rested in the shade of a rose-bush. It was a hot day and they were all very sleepy. As soon as she was certain that Margaret Ford was asleep the Master's daughter took out a sugar-plum and shewed it to the baby. The baby, knowing only too well what should be done to sugar-plums, opened its mouth wide and the Master's daughter popped it in. Then, as quick as she could and making sure that none of the other maids saw what she did, she slipped the magic ring from Margaret Ford's finger.

Then, "Oh!Oh!" she cried. "Wake up, madam! The baby has taken your ring and put it in her mouth! Oh, for the dear child's sake, undo the spell. Undo the spell!"

Margaret Ford awoke and saw the baby with its cheek bulging out, but for the moment she was too sleepy and surprised to understand what was happening. A bee flew past and the Master's daughter pointed at it and screamed. All the other maids screamed too. "Quickly, madam, I beg you!" cried the Master's daughter. "Oh!" She looked up. "Here are the eagles and hawks approaching! Oh!" She looked into the distance. "Here are the bears and boars running to tear the poor little thing to pieces!"

Margaret Ford cried out to the ring to stop the magic which it did immediately, and almost at the same moment the baby swallowed the sugar-plum. While Margaret Ford and the maids begged and coaxed the baby and shook it to make it cough up the magic ring, the Master of Nottingham's daughter began to run along the river bank towards Nottingham.

The rest of the story has all the usual devices. As soon as Margaret Ford discovered how she had been tricked she fetched horses and dogs to chase the Master's daughter. Upon several occasions the Master's daughter seemed lost for sure -- the riders were almost upon her and the dogs just behind her. But the story tells how she was helped by all the victims of Margaret Ford's magic: how the villagers of Hoveringham tore off their blindfolds and, in spite of all the horrifying sights they saw, rushed to build barricades to prevent Margaret Ford from passing; how poor Joscelin Trent reached up out of the river and tried to pull Margaret Ford down into the muddy water; how the burning wood threw down flaming branches upon her. The ring was returned to the Master of Nottingham who undid all the wrongs Margaret Ford had perpetrated and restored his own fortune and reputation. There is another version of this story which contains no magic ring, no eternally-burning wood, no phoenix -- no miracles at all, in fact. According to this version Margaret Ford and the Master of Nottingham's daughter (whose name was Donata Torel) were not enemies at all, but the leaders of a fellowship of female magicians that flourished in Nottinghamshire in the twelfth century. Hugh Torel, the Master of Nottingham, opposed the fellowship and took great pains to destroy it (though his own daughter was a member). He very nearly succeeded, until the women left their homes and fathers and husbands and went to live in the woods under the protection of Thomas Godbless, a much greater magician than Hugh Torel. This less colourful version of the story has never been as popular as the other but it is this version which Jonathan Strange said was the true one and which he included in The History and Practice of English Magic.

© 2004 Susanna Clarke