The Crimson Ribbon is a new historical fiction novel set during the English Civil War. As the story begins in 1646, our narrator, Ruth Flowers, is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell. When her mother is hanged for witchcraft, Ruth is forced to flee to London to the home of Master Poole and his daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie), friends of Cromwell’s mother. On the journey she meets a former Parliamentarian soldier, Joseph Oakes, who has deserted after the Battle of Naseby and is hoping to become a printer’s apprentice so that he can continue the fight using words instead of violence.
Still haunted by her mother’s death, Ruth finds it difficult to trust Joseph and separates from him when they reach London, expecting never to see him again. As she settles into her new life at the Pooles’ house, Ruth becomes captivated by the beautiful Lizzie Poole and is delighted to find that Lizzie returns her love. But when Lizzie’s religious and political beliefs draw her into the conflict between King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, the lives of both women could be in danger.
Ruth is a fictional character and her story is imagined by the author, but Elizabeth Poole was a real historical figure who really did claim to have visions and argued against the execution of King Charles I. It seems that there is not a lot of information available about Elizabeth’s life and she eventually disappears from historical records, allowing Katherine Clements to come up with an interesting conclusion to her story. In her author’s note she does explain where the story has moved away from the known facts about Lizzie.
This book is set during a fascinating period of history and one that I wish more historical fiction authors would write about. Ruth’s relationships with Lizzie, with Joseph and with Oliver Cromwell form the basis of the novel, but other subjects and themes are included too, particularly witchcraft and the witch hunts that were so common in seventeenth century England. These were superstitious times and anyone who led an unconventional life could find themselves under suspicion. Through Joseph we also learn a little bit about army life and what happened at Naseby, while Lizzie’s storyline involves prayer meetings and the writing of religious pamphlets.
As the story is narrated by Ruth in the first person, I felt that I got to know her better than any of the other characters. However, I didn’t like the character of Elizabeth Poole and this made it hard for me to understand Ruth’s love for her. It frustrated me that she continued to remain so devoted and loyal, despite the way Lizzie often treated her. Apart from this, my only problem with the book was that it was written in the present tense which I almost always dislike, although I can understand the reasons for choosing to write in that way – it does give the story a sense of immediacy and intimacy.
I did enjoy The Crimson Ribbon and as this is Katherine Clements’ first novel I will be looking out for news of a second!
Thanks to Headline for sending me a review copy of this book.