Margaret Campbell Barnes is an author I’ve been curious about for a while, since some of her historical fiction novels started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads. Not really knowing anything about the author or her books, I chose Mary of Carisbrooke (originally published in 1956) because most of her others are set in the Tudor period and I wanted something a bit different, having read a lot of Tudor novels recently. This book is set in the 1640s at the end of the English Civil War, which is a period I’ve read about less often.
The ‘Mary’ of the title is seventeen-year-old Mary Floyd, whose father is a sergeant in the military garrison stationed at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Over on the mainland, the Civil War is coming to an end, having resulted in victory for Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians; for the islanders, separated from the rest of England by several miles of water, the drama is just beginning. The defeated King Charles I has fled to the island to take refuge in Carisbrooke Castle, hoping that the Governor, Robert Hammond, will be sympathetic. Unfortunately, Hammond feels it is his duty to inform Parliament and so the King finds himself a prisoner in the castle.
Many of the people in and around the castle, including Mary Floyd, still have Royalist sympathies and the rest of the novel follows their numerous attempts to help the King escape from Carisbrooke. If you know your English history you will know whether or not he does escape and what his eventual fate will be, but even if you do think you know how the story ends Barnes still manages to create some suspense and has us hoping that the islanders’ latest scheme will be a success!
I watched a BBC documentary, Castles, a while ago and remember a mention of Carisbrooke and one particular escape attempt involving a barred window; I kept waiting for this incident to appear in the book, which it does, but it is only one small episode. The King and his supporters have lots of other plans in store, and through the character of Mary, conveniently placed within the castle walls, we are right at the heart of the action as preparations are made, secret messages are sent and letters are smuggled in and out.
And yet, despite all the secrecy and intrigue, I found Mary of Carisbrooke quite a boring book. Mary is a likeable enough character, but a bit too good to be true – too nice, too generous, too kind, too courageous, and lacking the flaws and complexity I prefer my heroines to have. There’s a romantic subplot for Mary, as she becomes involved with two of the King’s men who have joined him on the island, but again, there was a lack of passion here. I did love the sections of the novel told from the King’s perspective and wished there had been more of these! His character is written very well, making him not just a King but also a father and a husband wanting to be reunited with his family, a human being we can identify with and understand.
It’s rare to find a book set on the Isle of Wight so I enjoyed that aspect of the story. It was interesting to see how the islanders felt about being suddenly thrust into the middle of the action after being used to feeling distant and removed from what was going on over in mainland England. However, I did wish that the author had spent more time setting up the story and explaining the background. I felt that we were introduced to a lot of characters all at once and I struggled to keep track of who they all were and which side they were on – which wasn’t helped by the fact that some of them seemed to have divided or ambiguous loyalties.
I would be happy to try another of Margaret Campbell Barnes’ books, but I’m not desperate to do so. I’m curious to know whether all of her books would leave me feeling the same way or if I’ve just picked the wrong one to start with.