The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

This is Katherine Clements’ third novel set in 17th century England, but it has a different feel from the previous two. Rather than being a straight historical novel like The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, The Coffin Path is a ghost story with a lonely rural setting and this time there is much less focus on the political and social events of the period.

It’s 1674 and there are signs that spring is on its way to the Yorkshire moors. The first lamb of the season is about to make its appearance, but it is a difficult birth and requires human assistance. Mercy Booth of Scarcross Hall, who farms the land and tends the sheep for her elderly father, helps to deliver the lamb into the world but its mother dies in the process – the first of several bad omens. Next, three ancient gold coins go missing from her father’s collection and reappear in unexpected places – and then Mercy begins to hear noises coming from a disused bedchamber upstairs.

Around this time, a stranger arrives looking for work. His name is Ellis Ferreby and although the local people are slow to trust him, he soon proves himself to be a good shepherd and a reliable worker. Ellis, however, is a man with secrets and it seems that he could have reasons of his own for coming to Scarcross Hall.

We slowly get to know both Mercy and Ellis as their stories alternate with each other throughout the novel. We hear what Mercy’s life has been like, growing up without a mother, with only her eccentric father, Bartram, and the servants for company – and we learn of her hopes for the future, which centre around the knowledge that one day, as her father’s only heir, she will inherit her beloved Scarcross Hall. As for Ellis, his background is shrouded in mystery and the truth about both his past and his purpose in being at Scarcross is only revealed later in the novel.

The 17th century is obviously a period which interests Katherine Clements and of which she has a lot of knowledge: The Crimson Ribbon was the story of a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell, while The Silvered Heart was about a highwaywoman in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Coffin Path is set just a few decades after those two books yet I felt that the story would have worked just as well if it had been set in almost any other period, either an earlier century or a later one. Although the effects of the recent Civil War do still linger in the lives of our characters, this only has any real significance towards the end of the book – otherwise, perhaps because Scarcross Hall is so isolated from the wider world, there is a general feeling of timelessness.

However, what the novel lacks in sense of time is made up for in sense of place. There are some wonderful descriptions of the moors surrounding Scarcross Hall, bringing to life this harsh but beautiful landscape. We also explore some of the old traditions and beliefs which survive in this remote part of England: the White Ladies is an ancient stone circle which the villagers associate with evil, while the Coffin Path of the title refers to the old track down which coffins would be carried from the moors to the church for burial. It’s no wonder that in a place like this, people like Ellis and Mercy are viewed with suspicion and distrust – Ellis because he is an outsider and Mercy because she is an independent, unconventional woman, still unmarried in her thirties and doing ‘a man’s work’ on the farm.

I enjoyed following the personal stories of both main characters and I liked the supernatural elements too: they were suitably eerie, but at the same time subtle enough to keep me wondering whether there really were ghosts involved or whether something else was happening. My only problem with the book (other than the fact that, like many novels these days, it is written in present tense) was that there were times when the plot seemed to be moving forward very slowly. It didn’t help that the first few chapters are devoted to describing, in great detail, the birth of a lamb; I would have preferred a stronger opening to pull me straight into the story.

Of the three books by Katherine Clements I have read, I think I liked both of the others better than this one, but it’s good to see that she has tried something slightly different here. What will she write next, I wonder?

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

The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

The Silvered Heart This is Katherine Clements’ second novel, following her debut The Crimson Ribbon, which I read last year. Both books are set during the English Civil War, but while The Crimson Ribbon is written from a Parliamentarian perspective (the main character is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell), The Silvered Heart takes us into the Hertfordshire countryside and shows us what life was like for the Royalists after they found themselves on the losing side. Our heroine this time is Katherine Ferrers, a legendary seventeenth century highwaywoman, known as “the Wicked Lady”.

The story begins in 1648 in an England divided by war – a war which seems to be entering its final stages following a series of Royalist defeats and the imprisonment of the King at Carisbrooke Castle. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is on her way to Ware Park, home of Thomas Fanshawe to whom she is being married off, when her carriage is attacked by a band of highwaymen. She survives this encounter, but what she experiences that day will go on to shape the course of her life.

Katherine’s marriage to Thomas is not a happy one, even after the war ends. Her husband spends most of his time in London plotting with his friends and dreaming of the day the monarchy will be restored, while Katherine struggles to get by at Ware Park, now impoverished and neglected, like many of the once great Royalist estates. With her own inheritance – her childhood home, Markyate Cell – lost to her, Katherine’s future looks bleak, especially as she is unable to give Thomas the child he so desperately wants. It’s only after meeting Rafe Chaplin, brother of her maid Rachel, and learning about his way of life, that Katherine discovers another option is open to her…if she chooses to take it.

I enjoyed The Silvered Heart – I thought it was a better book than The Crimson Ribbon – but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I had imagined lots of scenes involving moonlit roads, coaches appearing out of the mist, and shouts of “stand and deliver”. There was a little bit of that, but not as much as I was hoping for. I was disappointed that I was almost two hundred pages into the book before there was any hint of Katherine’s new career as a highwaywoman – and when it did happen, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the woman I had been getting to know in the first half of the novel would have chosen to turn to a life of crime.

Where The Silvered Heart does excel is in its portrayal of England in the aftermath of civil war, during the period known as the Interregnum: a time when those who had been loyal to their king find that they have their homes taken from them or are so heavily taxed and fined they can no longer afford to live in the manner they are used to; a time when men with Royalist sympathies risk exile or imprisonment in the Tower of London, and when networks of spies and double agents are formed as loyalties shift and allegiances change. This is the world in which Katherine finds herself and the backdrop against which her story is played out.

While the highway robbery aspect of the novel isn’t given as much attention as I would have liked, there is a lot of focus on Katherine’s romantic entanglements and relationships with the other main characters in the novel. I have already mentioned her unhappy marriage to Thomas Fanshawe and her partnership with Rafe Chaplin, but there are two more characters whom I found particularly interesting: Rachel, Katherine’s maid, whose relationship with her mistress is much more complex than it appeared to be at first, and Richard Willis, a scheming Royalist officer who knows more about Katherine than she is comfortable with.

I enjoyed reading the author’s note at the end of the book in which Clements tells us about the real life Lady Katherine Ferrers and shares with us a picture of the only known portrait of our heroine. It seems that there is a lack of actual evidence to link the real woman with the Wicked Lady of legend – Clements has drawn on both the historical facts and the details of the legend to create her version of events – but it’s interesting to consider the circumstances that may have led to these stories springing up around Katherine.

It appears that Katherine Ferrers has inspired a number of other novels (Deborah Swift’s recent young adult novel, Shadow on the Highway, is one) and also some films, including a 1945 adaptation starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. I’m surprised that I had never heard of her before reading The Silvered Heart, but I’m pleased to have been introduced to this fascinating woman at last!

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

The Crimson Ribbon The Crimson Ribbon is a new historical fiction novel set during the English Civil War. As the story begins in 1646, our narrator, Ruth Flowers, is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell. When her mother is hanged for witchcraft, Ruth is forced to flee to London to the home of Master Poole and his daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie), friends of Cromwell’s mother. On the journey she meets a former Parliamentarian soldier, Joseph Oakes, who has deserted after the Battle of Naseby and is hoping to become a printer’s apprentice so that he can continue the fight using words instead of violence.

Still haunted by her mother’s death, Ruth finds it difficult to trust Joseph and separates from him when they reach London, expecting never to see him again. As she settles into her new life at the Pooles’ house, Ruth becomes captivated by the beautiful Lizzie Poole and is delighted to find that Lizzie returns her love. But when Lizzie’s religious and political beliefs draw her into the conflict between King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, the lives of both women could be in danger.

Ruth is a fictional character and her story is imagined by the author, but Elizabeth Poole was a real historical figure who really did claim to have visions and argued against the execution of King Charles I. It seems that there is not a lot of information available about Elizabeth’s life and she eventually disappears from historical records, allowing Katherine Clements to come up with an interesting conclusion to her story. In her author’s note she does explain where the story has moved away from the known facts about Lizzie.

This book is set during a fascinating period of history and one that I wish more historical fiction authors would write about. Ruth’s relationships with Lizzie, with Joseph and with Oliver Cromwell form the basis of the novel, but other subjects and themes are included too, particularly witchcraft and the witch hunts that were so common in seventeenth century England. These were superstitious times and anyone who led an unconventional life could find themselves under suspicion. Through Joseph we also learn a little bit about army life and what happened at Naseby, while Lizzie’s storyline involves prayer meetings and the writing of religious pamphlets.

As the story is narrated by Ruth in the first person, I felt that I got to know her better than any of the other characters. However, I didn’t like the character of Elizabeth Poole and this made it hard for me to understand Ruth’s love for her. It frustrated me that she continued to remain so devoted and loyal, despite the way Lizzie often treated her. Apart from this, my only problem with the book was that it was written in the present tense which I almost always dislike, although I can understand the reasons for choosing to write in that way – it does give the story a sense of immediacy and intimacy.

I did enjoy The Crimson Ribbon and as this is Katherine Clements’ first novel I will be looking out for news of a second!

Thanks to Headline for sending me a review copy of this book.