A historical novel offers a litany of complex romantic entanglements set against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation’s genesis.
After the death of his father in the early 16th century, Heinrich Ritter moves to Wittenberg to pursue a doctorate in law. He takes up residence with the Diefenbachs, a family to whom his father had been close. Heinrich receives an alarming letter from his sister, Brigita, that’s she’s suddenly left the Alschers, the family she’s been staying with, and is headed for an unspecified convent, a potentially dangerous trip for an unaccompanied 17-year-old girl. She began a romantic relationship with Nikolaus Alscher, but he cruelly rejected her, though not before he got her pregnant. But once Nikolaus discovers her inheritance is more impressive than he had previously believed, he sets out to track Brigita down and make her his wife. Meanwhile, Heinrich wrestles with his own romantic feelings for Marlein Diefenbach, but a marriage to her seems thwarted by circumstances—her mother is gravely ill, and Marlein not only takes care of her, but the entire family as well. In this thoughtfully imagined novel by Baughman (Penelope’s Hope, 2015), Heinrich’s professor and confidant is none other than Martin Luther, the iconoclastic theologian who, at the start of the tale, had just composed his transformative critique of the Roman Catholic Church. As Heinrich struggles to understand not only his obligations to his sister and his love for Marlein, but also the simmering debate over the church’s sale of indulgences in exchange for salvation, he turns to the gently avuncular advice Luther offers. The author pulls off, without a sliver of pretension, an implausibly delightful combination: theological and romantic drama. The essential principles of Lutheran doctrine are distilled with graceful lucidity and made concrete through their application to Heinrich’s life. But Baughman is almost too inventive for her own good and bogs the plot down in an unnecessary detour involving alleged witchcraft. Nevertheless, the story proceeds briskly and grippingly toward multiple denouements: Heinrich’s love of Marlein, Brigita’s unenviable predicament, and Luther’s public defense of his theological innovations in Heidelberg.
An ingenious look at the nature of love in light of Lutheran theology.