The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Minette Walters is better known as a crime writer, but she has made some forays into historical fiction in the last few years with The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, both set in England during the Black Death of 1348. Although I didn’t love either of those books, I did find them interesting, so I was keen to try her new one, The Swift and the Harrier, which is set in a completely different time period.

It’s 1642 and England is divided by civil war. On one side, the supporters of King Charles I; on the other, the Parliamentarians. In the middle, refusing to commit to either group, is Jayne Swift, a Dorset physician – although, as a woman, she is not allowed to officially give herself that title. The reason for her neutrality is that she values all human lives and doesn’t believe in denying treatment to someone in need just because they are the enemy. Most people, however, do take sides and Jayne finds that there are divisions within her own family.

Visiting her Puritan cousin in Dorchester one day, Jayne finds herself caught up in a crowd gathering to watch the hanging of some Catholic priests. She is rescued by a neighbour, Lady Alice Stickland, who introduces Jayne to her footman, William Harrier. Even on that first meeting, Jayne can’t help feeling that William doesn’t behave at all like a servant and, as their paths cross again and again, she begins to wonder who he really is. Footman, nobleman or soldier? Royalist or Parliamentarian? William is an enigma and Jayne must decide whether he can or cannot be trusted.

The Swift and the Harrier provides a wonderfully detailed depiction of life in the south of England during the Civil War. Real historical characters such as Oliver Cromwell and Prince Maurice (Charles I’s nephew) appear now and then and have a part to play in the story, but the main focus is on the ordinary people of Dorset and the impact the war has on them. I found the section of the book set during the Siege of Lyme Regis particularly interesting as I can’t remember reading much about it before, certainly not in as much detail as this.

However, I had difficulty believing in Jayne Swift as a 17th century woman. While I could maybe accept the premise that she had received some medical training from a male physician friend, I felt it was completely unrealistic that she would be able to practise her medicine so openly in the 1640s. The challenges she faces in getting the men she meets to accept her as a doctor seem to be very easily overcome and there is no sense of the danger Jayne would surely be in due to the witch hunts sweeping England at that time, when women with even a basic knowledge of healing and herbal remedies were at risk of accusations of witchcraft. Although I did find the plot quite gripping and enjoyed getting to know William Harrier and some of the secondary characters such as Alice Stickland, the fact that I found Jayne and her circumstances so unconvincing stopped me from becoming fully absorbed in the story.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 48/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

15 thoughts on “The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

  1. Calmgrove says:

    It’s a shame when otherwise well-written historical novels have an anachronistic aspect that causes us to suspend belief: that’s why I tend not to read much in this genre, preferring fantasy that borrows heavily from and even burrows into historical fiction where anachronistic elements can be massaged to allow the willing suspension of disbelief! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      This could have been a great book without that anachronistic element – unfortunately it was a very big one! And yes, that’s the advantage of historical fantasy!

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I have this reserved at the library, but in the blurb two things jumped out at me immediately, the most important being the ‘woman physician’ aspect. Like you, my credibility was just stretched too far, and although I’m a keen feminist, I’m also a stickler for historical accuracy, and I’ve encountered a few books recently where women have been given professions that were invariably male at the time. Ariana Franklin and Phil Rickman, to name a couple, have had ‘female physicians’ as their main characters, and historically it’s just not feasible.

    The other was the heroine’s name. Yes, quite possibly it might have been spelled ‘Jayne’ occasionally at the time, but it looks jarringly modern to me, and she could just have well have been Jane.
    I didn’t care for Walters’ earlier historical novels either, the whole scenario seemed completely unlikely and I didn’t warm to any of the characters. I’ll try with this one, but if it annoys me too much I’ll give up. Far too many other, and better, books out there waiting for my attention!

    • Helen says:

      I had my doubts when I first read the blurb too, but decided to give it a try anyway, which was probably a mistake. I could have accepted the medical aspect of the book if Jayne had just been described as a healer or herbalist, but not a physician which, as you say, was not feasible – particularly as she never seemed to come up against much opposition or make any real effort to hide what she was doing.

      I probably won’t read any future historical fiction from Minette Walters, as I had similar problems with her last two books.

  3. Pam Thomas says:

    I wasn’t sure about the Catholic priests, either, so being a stickler for historical accuracy, I checked, and yes, they were executed in Dorchester in 1642, in a botched procedure which sounds utterly barbaric even by 17th century standards. Those with strong stomachs might like to read this thesis – the relevant section begins on page 64.

  4. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    I didn’t enjoy the last hours, so I’ll probably not read it, although the blurb sounds interesting. I also believe the female physician trope is a bit overused. I can understand it in Outlander where Claire just has 20th century medical knowledge, but without time travel? Not so sure.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Outlander is different because of the time travel, but in straight historical fiction female physicians are completely unrealistic – and definitely a bit overused! I didn’t enjoy The Last Hours much either and probably won’t read any more of Minette Walters’ books now.

    • Helen says:

      I thought this was better than The Last Hours, but the anachronistic characters really irritated me. I don’t think I’ll read any more of her books.

      • whatmeread says:

        If you are at all interested in trying her mysteries, that’s where she is really good, although they are dark. I recommend The Ice House. I am a big fan of her mysteries, just not so far her historical novels.

  5. Cyberkitten says:

    The Civil War is a VERY interesting period in English history and I do love reading books about it – fiction and non-fiction. This sounds like it had a valuable focus ruined (as I’ve seen other books ruined) by an anachronistic main character who is normally too modern presumably there to represent or appeal to the modern reader.

    • Helen says:

      It does seem as though some authors think modern readers won’t be able to connect with a character unless they hold anachronistically modern views. It’s a shame, as I’ve seen a lot of otherwise good books ruined like that too.

  6. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    Somehow I missed this review until now. I do love Civil War settings but maybe will wait until this book reaches the US and our libraries. Like others, I am really turned off by anachronistic historical fiction – some writers are so clueless they don’t know better but Walters is or should be better than that. It is interesting that she is moving in this direction, however. I did not like the last few crime novels of hers I read.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure whether I’ve actually read any of her crime novels – if I have, it must have been years ago. I think you would find this book interesting, if you can overlook the anachronistic main character!

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