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.

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10 thoughts on “The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

  1. Alex says:

    This reminds me of something Hilary Mantel said when I heard her speak at the weekend. Apparently, when she first decided to write about Thomas Cromwell, almost everyone she mentioned it to looked at her pityingly and said the equivalent of “No dear, it was Oliver.” Who would make that mistake today?

  2. Charlie says:

    I can’t say I’ve read a book set during the war, and I’d say you’re right. More books would be interesting because there was so much going on and it’s fascinating. Despite the flaws I’d read this, too, overall it sounds good.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read a few (The Children of the New Forest is the first one that comes to mind) but the setting is definitely not as popular as other periods such as the Tudors.

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    Present tense is so unappealing to me – it is a rare author who can make me overcome my dislike for it.
    It seems that more authors are breaking out of the Tudor era and writing about different time periods that are not as popular – hooray!
    The cover for this is absolutely gorgeous.

  4. Jo says:

    I have just read a review of this on Fleur Fisher’s blog and am interested, mainly because as you say not much historical fiction is written around the Civil War, although I sense that may be about to change, as the Tudors and now the Plantangents are being done to death (but very well in some cases).

    I think I will need to try reading the first chapter or so, to see if the writing is something I can cope with for the rest of the book.

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