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.