The Winter Garden by Nicola Cornick

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
For I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot

There are different variations on this rhyme, but that’s the version I grew up with. It refers, of course, to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The name most often associated with the plot is Guy Fawkes, the man caught in the cellars below Parliament on November 5th preparing to ignite the gunpowder, but the leader of the conspirators was actually the less well known Robert Catesby. Nicola Cornick’s new novel The Winter Garden tells the story of not just Catesby himself but also his wife, Catherine, and mother, Anne.

Like Nicola Cornick’s other recent books, this one is set in more than one time period. In the present day, we meet Lucy Brown, a young woman suffering from the long-term effects of a viral infection that have left her unable to continue her promising career as a violinist. Not yet ready to return to her home in London and face up to a life without her beloved music, Lucy accepts an offer from an aunt to go and stay in her cottage in Oxfordshire while she recuperates. Gunpowder Cottage, as it is now known, was once the home of Robert Catesby and almost as soon as Lucy arrives she begins to have visions of a woman dressed in Tudor clothing. Could this be Catherine Catesby and if so what is she trying to tell Lucy?

The other thread of the novel begins in the late 16th century and is written from the perspective of Anne Catesby. The Catesby family are recusant Catholics – they remained loyal to the Catholic church after the Reformation and refuse to attend Church of England services. In 1593, Anne’s son, Robert, marries Catherine Leigh, the daughter of a wealthy Protestant family, who begins to create a beautiful garden in the grounds of her new home. Anne is pleased to see her son and daughter-in-law settling into married life, but the happy times don’t last for long and soon Robert is deeply involved in treason and conspiracy.

There’s so much going on in this novel: an archaeological dig aimed at finding and restoring Catherine’s vanished winter garden, rumours of hidden treasure dating back to the days of the Knights Hospitaller, and a mystery surrounding the death of one of the experts working on the garden project. There’s also a romance for Lucy, which, although it was completely predictable as soon as the love interest made his first appearance, felt believable and never came to dominate the plot. If you’ve read Nicola Cornick’s The Forgotten Sister, there’s a small part in this book for Johnny Robsart, whom you’ll remember was Amelia Robsart’s psychic brother. There are some paranormal elements in this novel too, but they provide the link between the two time periods and again, don’t really dominate.

When a book has two separate storylines set in different periods, there is usually one I like more than the other and in this case it was the historical one. I felt a stronger connection with Anne Catesby than I did with Lucy, maybe because Anne’s story was narrated in the first person while Lucy’s was written in the third. Although there wasn’t as much focus on the actual Gunpowder Plot as I’d expected, I found it interesting to read about the female influence on Robert Catesby’s life and how events at home may have led to him becoming involved in the conspiracy.

Have you read any other books about the Gunpowder Plot or Robert Catesby? I would love to hear about them!

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book #58 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.