The Invention of Truth is really two stories, each proceeding in parallel, like railway tracks. The first, and by far the most interesting, is the story of the Bayeux Tapestry, which celebrated—and minutely illustrated—the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 A.D. The second story, not as engrossing as the first, is about a visit, in 1879, by the great Victorian writer and visionary, John Ruskin, to Amiens Cathedral—a visit that would ultimately result in his book, The Bible of Amiens (1885).
The actual origins of the 70 metre long Bayeux tapestry have never been agreed upon. Some scholars contend it was commissioned in the 1070s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother to William. Others insist—and this is by far the most romantic story, and the one we all want to be true—that the epic work was undertaken by Queen Matilda, William’s wife. That’s the version—of course—that Morazzoni uses in The Invention of Truth.
This is how the book opens (it opens like fairy tale): “They say that once upon a time a group of expert needlewomen gathered for a long time in a minor court of France up in the north. There is no record of any official production or of any messengers sent from region to region to encourage the quiet migration of these women. And in fact the migration happened, one could say, by word of mouth, so that no needlewoman of any talent remained ignorant of the appeal, not one escaped or wanted to escape the call.”
There were 300 of them (the figure tolls like a bell throughout the novel). Each of them, travelled north at the behest of “the young queen with a ringing name,” each of them bringing with them “a thimble and a roll of fabric tightly padded with cotton, in which an armory of needles of different sizes rested in disciplined order.’”
Then, with the 300 needlewomen safely underway, we race forward to 1879 and the aging Ruskin’s visit to the gothic cathedral with which he seems obsessed—Amiens. He is accompanied, in Morazzoni’s novel, by a certain surname-less George, valet and photographer—who, it seems to me, is little more than an encumbrance. George—restless, talentless, irritating—never comes to life and serves only to slow this otherwise taut, elegant little book to a crawl. And besides, according to numerous Ruskin biographies (I own a groaning shelf of Ruskin and Ruskiniana), there was no George anyhow. Ruskin was accompanied on this particular research by his nieces. It wouldn’t matter if Morazzoni had done a better job of bringing George to life. As it is, he just gets in the way.
What also gets a little tiring is the pendulum-like way Morazzoni swings back and forth—with mechanical predictability—between the absorbing needlework saga and the insufficiently developed Ruskin/Amiens story. It’s A-B, A-B, A-B, all throughout the work.
Having said all this, it is now necessary—more than ever—to stress that the Bayeux tapestry story is superbly well-managed (perhaps she cares more for needlework than for Ruskin). Morazzoni’s needlework-prose is clean, exacting, eloquently simple. And it was inspired to have invented Anne Elizabeth, a seamstress from Amiens (the only point of contact between the two stories), who reluctantly leaves her family to trek north to work on the giant tapestry and, by a mere accident of placement (300 needlewomen in a palace room), gets to sit beside the young and austere Queen Matilda and effect what is almost a relationship with her.
Here is Anne Elizabeth stitching ocean waves into the stretched cloth of the tapestry: “The vibration of a wave lies not only in the perfect placing of the woollen thread, and the passing of the needle in the cloth follows an interior movement that is not exhausted by the mechanical gesture. It had been necessary for her to look on the sea.” (p.28)
After The Invention of Truth, Morazzoni went on to write other books—among them His Mother’s House, The Secret Note, and, more recently, the highly acclaimed The Alphonse Courrier Affair (2012). I haven’t read them. But I’ve now read The Invention of Truth twice.