Spirit of the Highway by Deborah Swift

I can hang like a mist, seep through solid walls, slither through keyholes. When you turn to look, you won’t see me, just feel a chill frost ruffle the hairs on your neck. You will sense my presence and stare hard into the dark, but I’ll be already gone, into a past or future where you can’t follow.

We know from the very beginning of Deborah Swift’s Spirit of the Highway that our narrator, Ralph Chaplin, is a ghost – the ghost of a former Roundhead soldier, looking back on his role in the Battle of Worcester and what happened in its aftermath. What we don’t know is when he died and how. To find the answers, we will have to read the whole of Ralph’s story because the truth is only revealed near the end.

The Battle of Worcester takes place in September 1651 and is the final battle of the English Civil War. Having fought on the winning side, Ralph should be triumphant, but instead he is sickened by the bloodshed and shocked by the abrupt death of his father. Accompanied by his army friend, Cutch, he returns home in the hope that at least some good will have come out of the fighting and the world will now be a better and fairer place to live…but with a defeated enemy on his trail, looking for revenge, it seems that things will go no more smoothly for Ralph in peacetime than they did during the war.

The woman Ralph loves – Lady Katherine Fanshawe – was on the other side of the conflict, having married into a Royalist family. Despite their differences in class and background, Kate shares Ralph’s dream of starting a community of Diggers (a movement who believe that land belongs to everyone and should not be enclosed or bought and sold). But although Kate’s Royalist husband is in exile, there is always a chance that he could return, and while he lives, she can never be free.

This is the second book in a trilogy of Highway novels, although the story makes sense on its own if you don’t want to read all three. The previous novel, Shadow on the Highway, does set up some of the storylines which are continued in this book, though, so I think it’s a good idea to read them in order. The first book is narrated by Ralph’s sister Abigail, who is Kate’s friend and maid, and the final novel, Lady of the Highway, is written from Kate’s point of view, which means we will have heard from all three of the trilogy’s main characters by the time we reach the end.

The character of Kate Fanshawe is based on the real life ‘Wicked Lady’, a highwaywoman from the 17th century. The name of Ralph (or sometimes Rafe) Chaplin is mentioned in some versions of the legend, but otherwise nothing is really known about him, which has given Deborah Swift plenty of scope to build an interesting story around him. Ralph’s two sisters, I think, must be completely fictional. I got to know and like Abigail in the previous book, but this time Elizabeth plays a more prominent role – and proves to be entirely different from her sister (not in a good way). As for Ralph himself, I liked him too, although his impulsiveness frustrated me and I wished he would stop and think before acting!

The opening chapter made me think this was going to be more of a ghost story than it actually was, but I didn’t mind that at all. The supernatural elements are quite subtle and confined mostly to the beginning and the end, but I thought they were handled well. I should also point out that this is described as a YA trilogy, but I think they are the sort of books that can be enjoyed by both young and not-so-young adults. I’ll have to read Lady of the Highway soon to see how the story ends.

Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

Shadow on the Highway Since reading Katherine Clements’ The Silvered Heart last year, I have been interested in reading more about Lady Katherine Fanshawe (or Ferrers), the seventeenth century highwaywoman known in legend as ‘the Wicked Lady’. On discovering that Deborah Swift had written a trilogy of novels about Lady Katherine, I had made a note to look out for the first one, Shadow on the Highway, so I was delighted to be offered a copy by Endeavour Press after signing up for their Virtual Historical Festival (taking place next week, 18-22 April).

Shadow on the Highway is aimed at young adults but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages; I certainly enjoyed it and thought it had a lot to offer an adult reader, as well as being a good choice for teenagers who are just starting to get into historical fiction. The story is set during the English Civil War and Deborah Swift does a good job of describing the history and politics of the period in a way that is easy to understand.

The novel is narrated by Abigail Chaplin, a young deaf girl who lost her hearing as a result of childhood measles. The Chaplin family has fallen on hard times and Abigail finds herself sent to work as a maid at Markyate Manor, home to Lady Katherine Fanshawe, a young woman not much older than Abigail herself. Katherine sees little of her husband, Thomas, and lives in fear of her hated stepfather, Sir Simon, who can be brutal, violent and controlling, so she quickly comes to value Abigail as a friend as well as a maid.

Desperate to escape from the manor for a while, Katherine persuades Abigail to help her dress as a servant and walk into the village with her so she can see how other people live. By chance she meets Ralph Chaplin, Abigail’s brother, while still in disguise and the two are instantly drawn to one another. This puts Abigail in a difficult position: should she tell Ralph that ‘Kate’ the servant is not what she appears to be? To make things worse, the Fanshawes are a Royalist household whereas the Chaplins are Parliamentarians. And then there’s the matter of the pistols Abigail has found inside Katherine’s writing desk and the worrying tales of a ‘Silent Highwayman’ holding up coaches on the London Road.

I found Shadow on the Highway a quick and entertaining read, although I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more actual action on the highway. Instead, the focus is on the family at Markyate Manor, the romance between Ralph and Katherine, and Abigail’s own personal story. It took me a while to warm to Katherine, but I liked Abigail from the beginning. Her deafness adds another intriguing angle to the story; as Deborah Swift explains in her Historical Note, the seventeenth century was a time of great advances in methods of communication for deaf people, including the beginnings of sign language.

As this is the second novel I’ve read featuring Lady Katherine, it was noticeable that Shadow on the Highway differs from The Silvered Heart in many ways. Although both books are based on the same legend, there are several different versions of that legend, leaving plenty of scope for an author to use her imagination. In particular, almost nothing is known of Katherine’s lover, except that the name Ralph or Rafe Chaplin is usually associated with the legends. In this novel, Deborah Swift creates an interesting story surrounding Ralph, making him a Digger – a member of a Protestant movement who believed in equality for all and who took their name from the fact that they attempted to settle and farm on common land:

“They’ll not stop us,” Ralph said. “Right is on our side. How far down do they own this land?” He grabbed up a handful of wet earth, showed it round in front of us. “To here? Or further down to where our spades reach? Does a mole recognise these boundaries? No, he can go where he wishes on God’s land. Are we less than a mole? We who are made in God’s likeness? No. We will persevere.”

The second book in the trilogy, Spirit of the Highway, is written from the perspective of Ralph rather than Abigail, which should be interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it – as well as the third book, when it becomes available.