Haggard's trademark style centers in four areas: England, which is hardly surprising; the Fertile Crescent, Africa, and the Netherlands. A curious conglomeration, but to each his own. Today, we're going to be looking at a story from the last of the four areas: Lysbeth, a tale of the Protestant Reformation during the time of William of Orange. Note that so far I've only read the Christian Liberty Press editions of Haggard, which slightly update the language and edit for a greater Christian message.
"Juan de Montalvo...your wickedness has won and for Dirk's sake my person and my goods must pay its price. So be it since so it must be, but listen, I make no prophecies about you. I do not say that this or that shall happen to you, but I call down upon you the curse of God...
"God, Whom it has pleased that I should be given to a fate far worse than death; O God, blast the mind and the soul of this monster. Let him henceforth never know a peaceful hour; let misfortune come upon him through me and mine; let fears haunt his sleep. Let him live in heavy labor and die in blood and misery; and if I bear children to him, let the evil be upon them also."
Lysbeth's tone starts off with Haggard's classic cup of suffering. The year is 1544, the emperor is Charles V, and the city is Leyden. Lysbeth Van Hout meets her cousin Dirk van Goorl for a day of skating and sleigh races, and all goes well until a conversation with a mad old heretic woman, Martha the Mare, adds a drop of foreboding to her pleasure. When the strange Spaniard Count Don Juan de Montalvo asks her to be his passenger in the sleigh races, Dirk lets her go, and she will never be the same. Through a series of unfortunate events, Montalvo gains a hold over her, invites himself into her circle, and claims her hand in marriage. To save innocent people, she can do nothing to prevent him. He leads her a life of misery, forcing her to pay his debts with all of her money, and in time she conceives a child. Then her world falls to pieces when Montalvo's sins catch up with him. He is married to another woman, and her marriage to him is a mere farce.
She delivers a son. She names him Adrian. And then she marries again.
Book One is called "The Sowing", Book Two "The Ripening", Book Three "The Harvesting" We pick up again some twenty years later, when Lysbeth's second son, Foy, is a grown man. General Alvarez de Toledeo has marched his army across France to Brussells; all the inhabitants of the Netherlands are condemned to death for their Protestant faith, and citizens are forced to watch torturing, burnings, and hangings almost every day. Foy's a good sort of lad, fond of mischief, but a sound and committed Protestant. 24-year-old Adrian isn't committed to anything except his comfort and his poetry.
When Adrian rescues a young woman from a bunch of ruffians, and finds that she is travelling to meet his family, he brings her home, and Dirk finds that she is his niece, carrying an important message in her saddle bow. Her father is rich, and a certain one-eyed Spaniard, Ramiro, pursues his wealth. But though he knows that he will soon be put upon the rack, he sends his only child, and desires that Dirk will rescue his wealth from the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. This last request sets in motion a terrible train of revenge, betrayal, and the fulfillment of the curse that Lysbeth called down so many years before.
Lysbeth contains a lot of non-stop drama: rising floods, forced marriages, the turn of the rack, and flaming buildings, along with the quieter drama of whispered conversations and unwilling alliances, tied altogether by false identities. If you're looking for adventure, this is the book for you. I was surprised that Christian Liberty Press chose to keep several instances of language, including misuse of the Lord's Name, so that's something to be aware of.
But if you're looking for a bit of light reading, then don't pick up Lysbeth. Forebodings come true, curses are fulfilled, and overall this books is more of a doleful experience then a rollicking drama party. Foy and the family servant Red Martin provide a bit of comic relief, but it's not enough to overcome the darkness of the times. The worst thing about it is, Lysbeth makes decisions that leave you with despair that wouldn't have come had she held on for 48 hours more.
"A tale of faith, love, and hardship" the back of the books says. Hardship aplenty, love indeed, but faith? It isn't the faith of the main characters as a whole. Lysbeth doesn't have much even in the best of times, or if she does, it's more faith without hope. Indeed, the faith is more in the Netherlands as a people than any of the individual characters. Not that I'm saying the characters don't have any, but most of them leave me with a question mark.
However, Haggard's tribute to William of Orange is truly brilliant. While Lysbeth's family is the main story, threading throughout it is the greater backdrop of the people of Leyden. Their resentments, their fears, their intrepid perseverance, their deaths. While Lysbeth's story is not a happy one, the people of Leyden end on a brighter note of religious freedom for the future.
If one wishes to find implications deeper than the obvious, then there is a greater lesson in Lysbeth than perseverance under trial. And that is on the matter of curses. Lysbeth was not a Christian when she uttered her curse on Don Juan de Montalvo, but many Christians have uttered curses on their enemies--take for instance, the psalms of David, many of which are bloodthirsty petitions for God to break the teeth of his enemies.
But never, never curse the next generation.
The sins of the father affect the children for generations. It's a reality that God sets forth in Scripture, and one that we see. But that doesn't mean that the child has to sin, even though they may be dealing with the effects of past wrongdoing.
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. --Ezekiel 18:20
Cursing the future leads to great heartache and despair.
The story of religious freedom in the Netherlands is an interesting one, not merely for what happened to them, but how it affected others. As Haggard says in his author's commentary, "The Mayflower Pilgrims, who resided in Holland for over ten years, would never have been able to utilize this land as their temporary haven had not Almighty God, in His sovereign mercy and perfect timing, freed the Netherlands from Roman Catholic domination in the late 1500s. It is probably not too much to state, that if the Lord did not grant freedom to the Dutch when he did, then the whole scope of early American history would have been dramatically altered. Indeed, it is probable that North America would never have become a stronghold of Protestant Christianity and a beacon for virtuous liberty."
I recommend that everyone read Lysbeth, though it is probably more of a young adult/adult book than a family read. It is one that provokes thought, and deals with a time and place in history that we often overlook. I myself have a Dutch heritage, and I am glad to know more of it through this story. It may not be on my top ten list, but it is a book of worthy history, and a sober illustration of the importance of parental legacy.
There is no freedom without sacrifice, and no triumph without loss.
-H. Rider Haggard