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.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott

redgauntlet Redgauntlet, one of Scott’s Waverley novels, is set in Scotland and the north of England in 1765, twenty years after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745. Although the rising was unsuccessful and ended in disaster for Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters, there were still those who dreamed of restoring the exiled Stuarts to the throne. Redgauntlet centres around a fictional third Jacobite Rebellion and the lives of two innocent young men who accidentally become caught up in the plot.

The novel is made up of a mixture of letters, journal entries and first person narrative written from the perspectives of Darsie Latimer and his friend, Alan Fairford. Darsie, an orphan, has grown up in Scotland knowing very little about his family background, aware only that he has been forbidden to cross the border into England until he turns twenty-five, which is also when he will come into his inheritance. The reason for this unusual condition is unknown to Darsie but eventually becomes clear as the story unfolds and the truth about his past is revealed.

Kidnapped on a fishing expedition to the Solway Firth, Darsie discovers that he has fallen into the clutches of the mysterious Hugh Redgauntlet, a former Jacobite who seems to know more about Darsie than Darsie does himself. Help is on its way, however – when Alan Fairford, who is completing his legal studies in Edinburgh, receives a message from a beautiful young lady known only as Green Mantle, warning him that Darsie is in danger, he sets off at once in search of his friend.

Redgauntlet is the third Scott novel I’ve read (the others were Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian) and my favourite so far. In fact, I was ready to name it one of my books of the year until the plot began to fizzle out towards the end, which meant it lost its place on my list. Up to that point, though, I was completely engrossed in the adventures of Darsie and Alan. No, it’s not a particularly easy book to read, and yes, there are some long, dry passages where Scott discusses the politics of the period or describes obscure points of Scottish law, but otherwise I loved it. I loved the setting, the characters, the air of mystery and foreboding, the exciting plot and the way the novel was structured to incorporate different forms of writing and different viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed reading the letters sent between Darsie and Alan in which the personality of each man – the practical, unimaginative Alan and the romantic, adventurous Darsie – come through strongly.

The problem I had with this novel was with the storyline surrounding the third Jacobite Rising. Knowing that it never happened historically took away some of the suspense and Scott didn’t manage to convince me that Redgauntlet’s schemes would ever come to anything. I enjoyed the build-up, but when the rebellion started to come to the forefront of the novel near the end of the book, this was when I lost interest. It all seemed such an anti-climax after sticking with the story through so many pages. Still, the good bits of Redgauntlet are very, very good – my favourite part was Wandering Willie’s Tale, a wonderful ghost story which appears in the middle of the book. It’s worth reading Redgauntlet for this story alone.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Scott’s novels. Having only read three so far, I certainly have plenty left to choose from. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which you think I should read next. And I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on Redgauntlet. Brilliant but flawed is my verdict!

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Master of Ballantrae My experiences with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson so far have been mixed. I liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although knowing the basic plot beforehand spoiled it slightly; I gave up on Kidnapped halfway through (but would like to give it another chance); and while I did read Treasure Island as a child, it was an abridged version for children, and I have no idea what I would think of the book as an adult. I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Master of Ballantrae, then, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it.

Published in 1889, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale is set much earlier, opening in Scotland in 1745, just before the Jacobite Rising. When news of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s arrival in Scotland reaches the Duries of Durrisdeer and Ballantrae, the family must decide what to do. There is no question of Lord Durrisdeer himself joining the rebellion, but his two sons – James Durie (the Master of Ballantrae), his eldest son and heir, and Henry, his younger brother – are both keen to go. A coin is tossed and it is decided, to Henry’s disappointment, that the Master will join the Jacobites while Henry stays at home and remains loyal to King George. This way, the family titles and estates will be safe no matter which side wins.

As history tells us, the rising will fail – and it is not long before the Duries receive reports that James has been killed. Henry becomes heir in his brother’s place and, at his father’s urging, marries the Master’s grieving fiancée, Alison. These are difficult times for Henry: his neighbours see him as a traitor for not taking part in the rising, and he knows that his father and wife will never stop mourning for James, always the favourite son. But things are about to get a lot worse for Henry – it seems that the Master of Ballantrae is not dead after all and is about to come home to Durrisdeer to take his revenge.

The Master of Ballantrae has all the elements of a typical adventure story – duels, pirates, sea voyages, buried treasure – but it is also a fascinating psychological novel about the relationship between two very different brothers. James, the Master, is the charming, charismatic brother whom everyone seems to love, yet he is also devious, scheming and manipulative. Henry is his opposite – quiet, responsible and dutiful, but less glamorous and less popular. At first it seems that this is another Jekyll and Hyde story, with one character representing good and the other evil, but it soon becomes obvious that it is not as simple as this and Henry’s personality begins to change as his obsession with his brother starts to rule his life.

We get to know these two men from the perspective of Ephraim Mackellar, a family servant at Durrisdeer, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mackellar is not a very reliable narrator. It is clear from the start that he is loyal to Henry and his narration is definitely biased towards the younger brother, but whenever he spends time alone with the Master his opinion seems to change slightly and he is able to acknowledge that the elder brother also has some good points as well as bad.

Not all aspects of The Master of Ballantrae worked as well for me as others: the purely ‘adventure’ scenes, such as the encounters with pirate ships at sea and the treasure hunts in the American wilderness, became a bit tedious, especially whenever the narration switched away from Mackellar while another narrator took his place. But I loved the central storyline and the rivalry between the two brothers; I particularly loved the Master, who may have been the devilish brother, but was so much more interesting to read about than poor Henry! I will read more by Robert Louis Stevenson, though I’m not sure whether to move straight on to one of his other books, maybe The Black Arrow, or to try re-reading Treasure Island and Kidnapped first.

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

The Firebird Nicola Marter has a special talent, but it’s one that she doesn’t like to admit to – by touching an object she is able to see the history of the other people who have held that same object in the past. When a woman brings a wooden carving of a Russian firebird into the art gallery where Nicola works, asking for a valuation, Nicola is faced with a dilemma. The woman claims that the firebird was given to one of her ancestors by Empress Catherine of Russia and when Nicola holds the carving in her hands she knows that this is the truth, but unless she can find a way to prove it the carving is worth nothing.

Nicola decides to find out all she can about the history of the firebird but as her own psychic abilities are not strong enough, she enlists the help of an old boyfriend, Rob McMorran. Rob shares her special gift of psychometry, but while Nicola tries to keep hers a secret, Rob is happy for everyone to know about his powers. This difference in attitude is the reason they ended their relationship several years earlier, but Nicola knows that Rob is the only person who can help her now. Together they trace the path of the firebird from Slains Castle in Scotland to a convent in Belgium and finally to eighteenth century St Petersburg, and along the way they unravel the story of a young girl called Anna and learn how the Empress’s wooden firebird came to be in her possession.

This book surprised me because based solely on the synopsis, I’d expected to be learning about Russian history, but instead the focus is on Scottish history, particularly the Jacobites (the supporters of the deposed King James VII of Scotland – and II of England – and his heirs). I’ve read other historical fiction novels about the Jacobite Risings and always find it a sad subject to read about; the Jacobites were so devoted to their cause and so hopeful of success, but we know that all their efforts would only end in tragic failure. Yet somehow, in all my previous reading about the Jacobites, I had missed the fact that as well as looking to France and Spain for support, there was also a community of Jacobites working in Russia. It was interesting to read the author’s note at the end of the book and find out a bit more about the historical aspects of the story, including which of the eighteenth century characters really existed and which were fictional.

I often see Susanna Kearsley compared to Mary Stewart and in this book, the telepathic connection between Nicola and Rob reminded me of the one between Bryony and her secret lover in Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, who could also read each other’s minds and communicate without words – though of course Nicola and Rob have the additional ability of being able to see into the past and watch the actions of people who lived many years ago. I loved following Anna’s story (especially in the earlier chapters set in Scotland and Ypres) but I also enjoyed the contemporary storyline and the interactions between Rob and Nicola. The transitions from one time period to another were smooth and natural and I thought the balance between the two felt right.

The Firebird is a sequel to Sophia’s Secret (or The Winter Sea depending on which country you’re in) and the character of Rob has also appeared in another Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses. I haven’t read either of those two books yet, though that didn’t seem to be a problem as we are given all the background information we need early in the novel. I’m still looking forward to going back and reading them both, even if I’ve done things in the wrong order!

Corrag by Susan Fletcher

I first became aware of this book when Boof of The Book Whisperer said it was one of her favourites. I’ve been curious to see why she loved it so much and now that I’ve read it I agree that it’s a great book, although I didn’t think so at first.

In Corrag Susan Fletcher looks at one tragic moment in Scotland’s history – the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 in which thirty-eight members of the MacDonald clan were murdered by English soldiers and forty more died of exposure as they tried to escape. The story is narrated by Corrag, a young woman who has been branded a witch and sentenced to death for her involvement with the MacDonalds and the part she played in trying to prevent the massacre. As Corrag sits in her cell awaiting her death, she is visited by Charles Leslie, an Irish clergyman and Jacobite who is trying to find evidence to prove that the Protestant King William III was responsible for what happened at Glencoe.

Corrag tells Charles Leslie about her childhood in the north of England and the day her mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, told her to ride into Scotland, where she believed she would be safe. With only her grey mare for company, Corrag rode “north and west” and made a new home for herself near the valley of Glencoe. Here she met the people of the MacDonald clan and experienced true friendship and love for the first time in her life. As Leslie listens to Corrag’s memories he begins to learn the truth about the Glencoe Massacre and at the same time is forced to change his own preconceived ideas about Corrag herself.

I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started reading. I actually put it down after the first chapter and decided it wasn’t for me. But then something made me pick it up a few days later and try again. Corrag’s narrative style is so unusual and original, it took me a few chapters to get used to it but after that I started to fall in love with the beautiful, lyrical writing. The writing style gives the book a very strong sense of time and place and I felt as if I was really listening to a voice from the past. Corrag is also very observant and appreciates the little details of life that most of us would never even notice. I loved seeing the beauty of the Highlands through her eyes as she rode through Scotland on her grey mare.

Each chapter of Corrag’s story is followed by a letter written by Charles Leslie to his wife at home in Ireland, telling her about his experiences in Scotland and how his opinions about Corrag are changing as he learns more about her life. Corrag of course has not done anything to deserve the accusations of witchcraft; she’s an innocent woman who loves the natural world and has a knowledge of herbalism and healing, like her mother before her and like many other innocent women who were burned at the stake. And yet no matter how hard things get for Corrag and how much cruelty she experiences at the hands of other people she remains a loving, kind-hearted person and never loses her faith in human nature.

Corrag is a beautiful, moving story and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on it.

Note: This book has also been published under the titles of Witch Light and The Highland Witch.

Devil Water by Anya Seton

Several years ago I had the pleasure of discovering Anya Seton’s historical fiction novels. The first one I read was Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, quickly followed by Green Darkness, Avalon and The Winthrop Woman. After that I moved on to other authors and never got round to reading Seton’s other novels. And so I was pleased to come across one I hadn’t read, Devil Water, in the library. This book was originally published in 1962 and the story takes place during the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

Devil’s Water is the name of the river that flows past Dilston, a village in Northumberland in the north east of England. In the early 18th century, when Anya Seton’s novel begins, Dilston is home to the Radcliffe family. James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and his younger brother, Charles, are descendants of King Charles II and were both real historical figures.

The first half of the book concentrates on the life of Charles Radcliffe and his secret marriage to a working-class Northumberland girl, Meg Snowdon, with whom he has a daughter, Jenny. Both Charles and his brother, the Earl, are Catholics and Jacobites (supporters of the Catholic James Stuart who is living in exile in France while his half-sister, the Protestant Queen Anne, reigns in his place). In 1715 the Radcliffes join the Jacobite Rising in an attempt to put James, who they consider their rightful king, on the throne. When the rebellion ends in defeat, Charles escapes to France and leaves Jenny to be raised in London by his friend, Lady Betty Lee. Throughout the second half of the book the focus is on Jenny’s adventures which take her across the Atlantic to the plantations of colonial Virginia in search of Rob Wilson, the man she loves.

This book was particularly interesting to me as I’m from the north east of England myself. There are very few novels set in this part of the country so it was nice to read about places that I’m familiar with. I appreciated the effort Seton made to reproduce various local dialects, depending on whether a character comes from Northumberland, London, Scotland, Ireland, Virginia or elsewhere. Although the northern dialects didn’t always seem quite right to me, it wasn’t a bad attempt and it gave the book a more authentic feel. And the characters never sounded too modern or used language that felt out of place either.

Although I knew absolutely nothing about the Radcliffes before reading Devil Water, you can always trust that an Anya Seton novel would have been well researched and as historically accurate as she could make it, while bearing in mind that it’s still fiction and not everything that happens in the book will be completely factual. This book includes two author’s notes at the beginning and end in which she details the research she carried out and explains which parts of the story are likely to be true. There are also some useful maps and family trees which I found myself referring to occasionally. Don’t worry though, because the book is easy enough to read and doesn’t feel like a history lesson at all.

So, I loved the settings and the time period (I’ve read historical fiction about the Jacobites before and it always makes me feel sad, knowing what the outcome will be) but I did have one or two problems with the book. I thought it was much longer than it needed to be and seemed to take forever to read; the pacing didn’t feel right either – some parts of the book dragged and there were some big jumps forward in time, often leaving gaps of ten years. But the main thing that prevented me from really loving this book was that some of the characters were very difficult to like. I never managed to feel any connection to Charles and was more interested in his brother, the Earl of Derwentwater. And another character, who I had just started to warm to, does something really unforgivable that completely changed my impression of them. I did like Jenny (and a few of the minor characters, such as Betty Lee) but because the people around her were so unlikeable, the story didn’t have the emotional impact on me that it might otherwise have done.

Have you read any other Anya Seton books that I haven’t read yet? Which ones would you recommend?