Winchelsea by Alex Preston

John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet is a book I’ve been intending to read for a few years now – it’s on my Classics Club list – and I should probably have done so before picking up Winchelsea, a novel described by its author as “Moonfleet for grown-ups”. I often seem to do these things the wrong way round!

The novel takes its title from the seaside town of Winchelsea in East Sussex where the story is set. Our heroine, Goody Brown, rescued from drowning as a baby, is the adopted daughter of the physician Ezekiel Brown and his French wife, Alma. Goody has had a happy childhood and has grown to love her adoptive parents and her brother Francis, another adopted child, but in 1742, when she is sixteen years old, her life changes forever. Ezekiel, as well as being the town’s doctor, serves as ‘cellarman’ to a gang of smugglers, helping them to store their goods out of sight in the tunnels below the cliffs. When things go wrong and Ezekiel is murdered in the night by the gang, Goody and Francis begin to plot their revenge.

On the one hand, Winchelsea is a good old-fashioned adventure story, featuring not just smugglers but also pirates, espionage, political intrigue – yes, it’s the 1740s so the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie make an appearance – and all sorts of other swashbuckling escapades. On the other, it explores issues that the older novels it imitates would have swept over or not tackled at all, such as race (Goody’s adoptive brother escaped from a slave ship and is the only person in Winchelsea with dark skin) and gender (a cross-dressing storyline with a character who feels most comfortable ‘neither as woman nor man’). This mix of 18th century history and characters with 21st century sensibilities didn’t quite convince me, but other readers might enjoy seeing a modern take on an old story. The language was generally appropriate for the 1740s setting, anyway!

Goody’s name puzzled me slightly because it was historically a shortened form of Goodwife used to address older married women; it seemed a strange name to give a child. I suppose there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used as a first name as well. Most of the novel is written in the first person from Goody’s perspective and she’s a very engaging narrator. Later, two other characters take their turn to tell part of the story and although I found the change in narrators jarring at first, I soon settled into reading from a different point of view and I think the structure of the book was quite effective.

The best thing about Winchelsea, in my opinion, was the depiction of Winchelsea itself – the coastal landscape, the houses with large cellars, the underground network of tunnels known as the ‘Under-Reach’ – and nearby Rye and Romney Marsh. I haven’t read Russell Thorndike’s classic adventure novel Dr Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, but I suspect that was another of Alex Preston’s influences.

Although this book wasn’t a complete success with me, it did keep me entertained for a while and I will try to read Moonfleet sooner rather than later!

This is book 25/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

13 thoughts on “Winchelsea by Alex Preston

    • Helen says:

      I think a lot of good historical novels are spoiled when the author tries to include 21st century issues. I did enjoy this apart from that.

  1. mallikabooks15 says:

    I’ve read and enjoyed Moonfleet but too long ago to remember much and being preblog, I don’t seem to have any written thoughts–not even in my physical reading journals. This sounds good especially in its portrait of Winchelsea, though I will agree that looking at the past through a current-day lens isn’t always successful.

    Re the name Goody, there was Goody Two Shoes who seemed to have the name/nickname as a child as well, so the usage is something interesting to look into.

    • Helen says:

      That’s interesting – I had forgotten about Goody Two-Shoes. It must have been used as a nickname for children occasionally as well, then. I must read Moonfleet soon! I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if you can’t remember much about it now.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I can vouch for the fact that Winchelsea beach on a windy day can be quite bleak, but I shudder to imagine what it’d’ve been like more than 200 years ago with so much danger around! I have a Doctor Syn novel somewhere to read, got when I was researching one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves novels but aadly not yet opened. Moonfleet is of course set much further west along the south coast but all the familiar elements from that sound to be present here too.

    • Helen says:

      Sorry, I’m a bit behind with replying to comments at the moment! I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Winchelsea, but yes, I’m sure it must have been a bleak and dangerous place two or three hundred years ago! I will try to read Moonfleet soon, but I would probably have got more out of this book if I’d read them the other way round.

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