The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder’s Sister is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I was drawn to it first by the title and the cover, but the subject – the English witch trials of the 1640s – appealed to me too.

The title character is Alice Hopkins, a fictional sister of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General who was believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of women in England over a period of several years in the middle of the 17th century. At the beginning of the novel, following the death of her husband in London, Alice is returning to Manningtree, Essex, where her brother still lives. The two have not been on good terms ever since Alice married the son of a servant, Bridget, whom Matthew blames for the childhood accident which has left his face scarred. Now, though, she hopes they can put the past behind them and move on.

Moving into her brother’s lodgings at the Thorn Inn, Alice is relieved to find that he is willing to let her stay with him – but she quickly discovers that the years have changed Matthew and that he is not the same man she left behind. She hears disturbing rumours about him in the town, linking him with accusations of witchcraft against local women, and when she discovers that he is making lists and collecting evidence, Alice must decide whether or not to intervene.

The novel gets off to a slow start as characters are introduced and background information is provided, with lots of flashbacks to earlier events in Alice’s and Matthew’s lives, but after a few chapters the pace begins to pick up. Not knowing much about the real Matthew Hopkins, I found Underdown’s portrayal of him very intriguing. The lack of known facts relating to his early days gives her the freedom to create a convincing backstory for him, and I appreciated the way she delves into his personal history, revealing family secrets and trying to show how incidents from his childhood may have helped to shape the man he will become. Only seeing him through Alice’s eyes – the novel is written in the first person – makes it difficult to penetrate below the surface and really understand him, but that just makes him all the more chilling and unnerving.

I thought Alice was a less interesting character, maybe because her main role as narrator is to tell the story of Matthew and the women accused of witchcraft rather than taking an active part in events herself. I found her slightly bland – although I did have some sympathy as she was forced to stand by and watch as her brother carried out his terrible deeds, not knowing what she could say or do to help his victims. It would have been nice to have had the opportunity to get to know some of the so-called witches in more depth; most of them were little more than names on the page, and I think if I had been able to care about their fates on an emotional level that would have added an extra layer to the novel. Having said that, I was fascinated by the descriptions of Hopkins’ methods of identifying witches, particularly the one referred to as ‘watching’ – I had heard about that before, but hadn’t fully appreciated the discomfort and torment involved in it.

The book ends in a way that is slightly difficult to believe, but I liked it and thought it added a good twist! Based on this novel, I think Beth Underdown can look forward to a successful writing career; there were things that I liked about it and others that I didn’t like as much, but on the whole I enjoyed it and would certainly be interested in reading more by this author.

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

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.

The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas

the-red-sphinx Well, it may be only January but I think I already know one book which will be appearing on my books of the year list this December! Having read and enjoyed all of Alexandre Dumas’ d’Artagnan novels over the last few years (beginning with a re-read of The Three Musketeers and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask), imagine my delight when I discovered that Dumas had written yet another Musketeers sequel – The Red Sphinx, which is being made available in a new English translation this month. Bearing in mind that this is a later Dumas novel, written towards the end of his career on the urging of his publishers, I was pleased to find, almost as soon as I started reading, that it was living up to my expectations!

I don’t think it’s at all necessary to have read The Three Musketeers first; The Red Sphinx is set in the same world – that is, in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIII of France – but it also stands alone and if you’re hoping to be reacquainted with d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, you’ll be disappointed as the four friends don’t appear at all in this book. However, it does contain many of the same elements that made the original novel so much fun to read. There are dashing young heroes and beautiful heroines; duels, battles and sieges; spies and smugglers; secret messages, clever disguises, letters written in code – and political and romantic intrigue in abundance.

Beginning only a few weeks after the events of The Three Musketeers ended, the novel opens in Paris at the Inn of the Painted Beard where a hunchbacked marquis is trying to persuade swordsman Etienne Latil to assassinate a rival. When Latil hears that the man he is required to kill is the Comte de Moret, illegitimate son of the late King Henri IV, he refuses to accept the mission and a fight breaks out during which both Latil and the marquis are injured. As fate would have it, upstairs in the inn at that very moment are the Comte de Moret himself and one of the Queen’s ladies, who have met in disguise to arrange for Moret to attend a meeting with the Queen.

cardinal-richelieu
Cardinal Richelieu

At the meeting, Moret, who has only recently returned to France from Italy, delivers some letters to the Queen, Anne of Austria, the King’s mother Marie de’ Medici, and the King’s brother, Gaston d’Orleans, and learns that they are plotting the downfall of Cardinal Richelieu, the Red Sphinx of the title. Now, in The Three Musketeers, the Cardinal is portrayed as a villain; in The Red Sphinx, he is very much a hero. With an intelligence network stretching across half of Europe, he is shown to be a formidably clever man but also a loyal one who always acts with France’s best interests at heart – and although he’s accused of having too much influence over the king, it’s evident that he is trying to use his influence for the good of the country.

I can’t possibly describe the plot of this novel in any more detail; it’s so complex that I wouldn’t know where to start. I think it’s enough to say that most of it is devoted to the power struggle between Cardinal Richelieu and his allies on one side and the two queens and Gaston d’Orleans on the other, with the ineffectual young king caught in the middle. Dumas spends a lot of time introducing us to each character who plays a part in the story, even the minor ones, and although this makes the book longer than it probably needed to be, I didn’t mind because the amusing anecdotes he provides about them are so entertaining. He also includes whole chapters dedicated to explaining the political situation in France and across Europe or to describing the progress of key battles – and I’ll confess to not finding these very interesting. In general, though, I thought the balance was right and despite the length of the book it held my attention from beginning to end.

One important thing to know about The Red Sphinx is that it was never actually finished! In his introduction to the new edition, Lawrence Ellsworth (who is also responsible for the wonderful translation) suggests that maybe Dumas struggled to write an ending because he had already done this in an earlier work. This means that the novel comes to a rather abrupt end with several plot points left unresolved. Annoying – but not as annoying as it could have been, because Ellsworth comes to the rescue by pairing The Red Sphinx with another little-known Dumas work, The Dove. This is a short story (actually more of a novella) which continues the adventures of two of our main characters, the Comte de Moret and Isabelle de Lautrec, and brings at least some of the threads of the story to a satisfying conclusion.

The Dove was written earlier in Dumas’ career than The Red Sphinx and has a very different feel, being told in the form of letters carried by a dove. It’s an unashamedly sentimental story, but I loved it. I found it beautifully romantic and perfectly paced, with the suspense building and building from one letter to the next.

I will, of course, be reading more by Dumas – I have an upcoming re-read of one of my favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo, planned – but I was also so impressed by Lawrence Ellsworth’s translation that I’ve had a look to see what else he has done. It seems that he has also edited The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, which sounds very appealing. One to add to the wishlist, I think!

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

Alathea by Pamela Belle

alathea A few years ago, I read the first two books in Pamela Belle’s Heron series, The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate. I loved them but because I didn’t have a copy of the third novel ready to start immediately, I never moved on with the series. The books have recently been reissued by Endeavour Press and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read the next Heron novel, Alathea (originally published in 1985).

Alathea is the eldest daughter of Francis and Thomazine Heron, whose stories are told in the previous two novels. Although Francis and Thomazine do appear in this book, the focus is firmly on Alathea, which means it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary to have read the first two books before this one. I would still recommend starting at the beginning, though; I think you will get more out of the story if you understand Alathea’s family background and the relationships between the characters.

The novel opens in 1660. Charles II has just been restored to the throne and thousands of Royalists exiled after the recent Civil War are on their way back to England – amongst them Simon Heron, whose return means that Alathea and her family must move out of the Herons’ Suffolk estate of Goldhayes and go back to Ashcott in Oxfordshire. It is there that Alathea meets a boy called John Wilmot for the first time – but it will be several years before their paths cross again.

At the age of eleven, Alathea’s talent for drawing is becoming apparent, and she already has dreams of building a successful career for herself as an artist. Her dreams move a step closer to reality when her parents send Alathea to live with her Aunt Lucy in London in the hope of separating her from her jealous half-brother, Kit. Here Alathea has the opportunity to study with the famous female artist, Mary Beale, and as the years go by she begins to establish herself as a portrait painter.

It is through her painting that Alathea is brought back into contact with John Wilmot, better known as the notorious Earl of Rochester. An attraction quickly forms between the two of them, but Rochester is not the only man interested in our heroine; Jasper, the son of Thomazine’s dearest friend, has decided Alathea is the woman he wants to marry, while Kit is also growing increasingly obsessed with his beautiful half-sister. Will any of them succeed? With Alathea reluctant to sacrifice her independence, she will need to find a way to reconcile her personal life with the career for which she has worked so hard.

I’m actually glad that I waited a while before reading Alathea; I think if I’d read it straight after The Chains of Fate, I would have been disappointed that there wasn’t more of Thomazine and Francis, but allowing some time to pass meant that I was able to enjoy Alathea’s story in its own right. And it is an enjoyable story. Although there are some sad moments and some dramatic ones, there’s also plenty of humour (in particular, I’m thinking of a certain scene involving a dinner party and Rochester’s pet monkey). I’m sure Rochester must have been a fascinating character to write about; I’ve read about him once or twice before, but never in as much detail and never in a way that made him feel so human.

There are some beautiful descriptions of the countryside surrounding Ashcott and Goldhayes, as well as of life in Restoration London – the section set during the Great Fire stood out for me as being particularly vivid. I also loved the way some of Rochester’s poetry is incorporated into the story, and the painting of his famous portrait, complete with monkey. What I found most interesting, though, was the portrayal of a young woman trying to make her own way in a male-dominated world, at a time when it was not at all common or very socially acceptable for a woman to earn a living as an artist.

I didn’t like this book quite as much as The Moon in the Water and The Chains of Fate which I think was simply because I loved following the ups and downs of the romance between Thomazine and Francis, so was more emotionally invested in their story than I was in Alathea’s. I still thought Alathea was a great book and I’m hoping to read Pamela Belle’s other series, Wintercombe, this year too.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas

the-man-in-the-iron-mask I had considered starting 2017 by posting some reading plans and resolutions but, to be honest, after failing to keep most of last year’s, I don’t want to make any for this year. I do have one goal for 2017, though: I would like every book I read to be a potential book of the year. That’s unrealistic, I know, but it’s something to keep in mind when I’m choosing which books to read and when I’m deciding whether or not it’s worth continuing with a book I’m not enjoying. And I’m already off to a great start with my first January read – The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas! I’m looking forward to telling you about that one after I’ve finished reading it, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on another Dumas novel I read just before Christmas.

The Man in the Iron Mask is the last book in the d’Artagnan series which began with The Three Musketeers and continued with Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne and Louise de la Vallière. The final three in the series were originally published as one novel, which must have been enormous; it’s easy to see why most publishers now split it into separate volumes! I think most people probably just go straight from The Three Musketeers to The Man in the Iron Mask – after all, they are the two best known and the most often filmed of the d’Artagnan stories – but I don’t regret having taken the time to read the ones in between. I did enjoy them all, particularly Twenty Years After, and it meant that I went into this, the final book, with the background knowledge I needed to be able to get straight into the story.

Unlike The Vicomte and Louise, which deal mainly with the political and romantic intrigues of various members of the 17th century French court, in The Man in the Iron Mask, the focus returns to d’Artagnan and his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The first half of the novel revolves around Aramis and a plot involving a man imprisoned in the Bastille who bears a striking resemblance to the King of France. I won’t say too much about this as I wouldn’t want to spoil the story for future readers, but suffice it to say that things don’t go exactly as according to plan and both Aramis and Porthos (who, as usual, has become implicated in the schemes of others while blissfully unaware of what is really going on) find themselves in trouble.

We then catch up with Raoul, the young Vicomte de Bragelonne, who is trying to come to terms with the discovery that his beloved Louise de la Vallière is now the mistress of Louis XIV. Devastated by the loss of Louise, Raoul agrees to accompany the Duc de Beaufort on an expedition to Africa. How will his father, Athos, cope in his absence? D’Artagnan, meanwhile, has remained loyal to the king and for much of this novel he is caught up in the final power struggle between the two rival finance ministers, Fouquet and Colbert. When his duties bring him into conflict with Aramis and Porthos, however, d’Artagnan must find a way to serve his king without betraying his friends.

This is a much more exciting, action-packed book than the two preceding ones. The actual ‘man in the iron mask’ has a relatively small role to play but the plot has serious consequences which are explored throughout the remainder of the novel as we follow our old friends, the musketeers, to the end of their careers. I was pleased to see so much more of d’Artagnan and his friends than we did in the last two books, but I was disappointed by the lack of scenes with all four together (it was the relationship between the four of them, in my opinion, that made the first Musketeers novel such a joy to read) and that Athos’ storyline seemed to barely intersect with the others. Athos was my favourite character in the original Musketeers book and I really dislike the direction Dumas took him in throughout the later books in the series, particularly after Raoul became more prominent in the story. It’s funny that Aramis, my least favourite, ended up being the character I found the most interesting!

Towards the end, The Man in the Iron Mask also becomes a very sad book; after spending so much time with these characters – literally thousands of pages over the last few years – I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to any of them. Dumas ties things up very neatly in the final chapters…a bit too neatly for me; I would have preferred a happier ending with more left to the imagination! Still, I did enjoy this book and was delighted to discover that Dumas had written yet another, often forgotten, sequel to The Three Musketeers. It’s called The Red Sphinx and is being made available in a new English translation this month. I’m reading it now and am pleased to say that so far it’s definitely living up to my expectations!

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

merivel I wasn’t planning to read Merivel so soon after finishing Rose Tremain’s Restoration, but when I saw a copy on the library shelf a few days later, I couldn’t resist bringing it home so I could catch up with Robert Merivel again and see how he was getting on. I didn’t expect this book to be as good as Restoration, as sequels written many years later often aren’t, so I was surprised to find that I actually preferred this one. Looking at other reviews, I can see that I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I think the reason I liked this book better was because I liked Merivel himself better.

At the beginning of Merivel, our narrator, Robert Merivel, is back at his Norfolk estate of Bidnold, where he returned at the end of Restoration. It’s 1683 and sixteen years have gone by since we last saw him; he’s now a middle-aged man, very aware that time is slipping away and bringing changes to himself and the people around him. His faithful servant, Will, is getting old and is struggling to carry out his duties, while his little girl, Margaret, is now a young lady and planning to spend Christmas in Cornwall with friends. Facing the prospect of being left at home alone, Merivel decides to make the most of the time remaining to him and sets off to Versailles – with a letter of introduction from his friend, King Charles II – in the hope of finding some excitement and intellectual stimulation.

Unfortunately, Versailles fails to live up to Merivel’s expectations; he finds little to admire at the French court and it’s not long before he’s on his way home to England. Apart from a brief romance with an attractive botanist, Louise, and an invitation to visit her at her father’s estate in Switzerland, the only thing Merivel has to show for his time in France is a large bear called Clarendon whom he has rescued from captivity and brought back to Norfolk. On arriving at Bidnold, however, Merivel discovers that he has more to worry about than Louise and his bear: his daughter, Margaret, is seriously ill and requires all of his skills as a physician if she is to survive.

Although there are some humorous scenes in this book, I found this quite a sad and sombre novel, especially in comparison to the liveliness of Restoration. The passing of time is a major theme (it’s no coincidence that Merivel shares lodgings in France with a clockmaker) and there’s always a sense that things are coming to an end, that Will, Merivel – and even the King – won’t live forever. Merivel is not so much searching for his place in the world as he was in the previous book, but trying to understand himself and come to terms with his own nature. He still gets things wrong sometimes, he still makes some poor decisions, and has a tendency to neglect the things that are most important, but he also has a good heart and I found him completely endearing! I remember thinking he was a very frustrating character in Restoration, but in this book I had more patience with him because I could see that he was doing his best.

Merivel is a book with many layers, giving the reader a lot to think about. Even the headings of the four sections – The Great Enormity, The Great Captivity, The Great Consolation and The Great Transition – have a significance which is worth considering. But this is also a very entertaining novel. The pace is quite leisurely, but there’s always something happening: a duel, an encounter with highwaymen, an illness, or a visit from the King. The mood of the late 17th century is captured beautifully; Tremain even gives some of the nouns capital letters to enhance the feeling of authenticity, something which I thought might be irritating at first but which, after a few pages, I decided I liked.

The ending, when it came, was not entirely unexpected, but I was still a bit surprised because I think a lot of authors would have chosen to end Merivel’s story in a different, happier way. Considering the themes of this novel, though, I thought it was the perfect conclusion. I loved revisiting Merivel’s world and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Restoration. It could probably be read as a standalone but I think you’ll get more out of it if you’ve been following Merivel’s story from the beginning.

This book also counts towards my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project. It was shortlisted in 2013.

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes

lady-on-the-coin One of the many things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is seeing how different authors choose to interpret the same historical events and people. This is the second novel I’ve read about Frances Stuart, one of the prominent figures at the court of Charles II, and as I remembered being disappointed in Marci Jefferson’s Girl on the Golden Coin, I was curious to find out how Margaret Campbell Barnes had approached the same subject in this novel from 1963.

Lady on the Coin opens with Frances Stuart (or Stewart, but I have gone with the spelling used by Barnes) and her family in exile in Paris where they have been living since the Royalists were defeated in England’s recent civil war. In 1660, the monarchy is finally restored and Charles II, to whom Frances is distantly related, takes the throne. After saying goodbye to her close friend, Henrietta – Charles’ beloved sister, ‘Minette’ – who has married the brother of Louis XIV of France, Frances returns to England to join the household of the new queen, Catherine of Braganza.

With her appealing combination of beauty, enthusiasm and youthful innocence, Frances soon finds herself with many friends and admirers at court, and Charles himself is one of them. Although she enjoys the attention, Frances has no desire to hurt Catherine, so she does her best to resist the King’s attempts to make her his mistress. As she comes under more and more pressure to agree to his demands, a rumour begins to circulate that he is planning to make her his wife should anything happen to Catherine. A chance of escape arrives when she falls in love with the King’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, but there will be more obstacles to overcome before they can find happiness together.

I found this book better written and more satisfying than Marci Jefferson’s. Although the two are very similar in terms of plot (I suppose there’s a limit as to how much could be written about Frances Stuart, after all), I felt that Margaret Campbell Barnes did a much better job of forming a compelling story from the material available and giving her characters depth. Frances is portrayed as frivolous and immature, but she also has a kind heart and I couldn’t help liking her, as did most of the people around her. I say ‘most’ because her popularity at court earns Frances some enemies as well as friends and puts her at the mercy of those who wish to manipulate her for their own ends, such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, the King’s mistress of many years.

Later in the novel, when Frances’ relationship with Lennox begins to develop and she has some important decisions to make, we see a stronger, more serious side to her character. I don’t know enough about the real Frances or Lennox to be able to say whether their relationship has been romanticised here, but I expect it probably has; he is described, by his own admission, as a gambler and heavy drinker, but these problems seem to be brushed aside very easily once he and Frances get together. I did find their romance quite moving, though, and much more interesting to read about than the King and his mistresses!

Frances Stuart’s story is played out during an eventful period of history, but important events such as the plague, the Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch Wars seem to pass by in the background without having much of an effect on the life of our heroine. It’s probably true that Frances would have been very insulated from the outside world by her position at court, but I would still have liked a better balance between her personal story and the wider history of the period in general.

Now, you may be wondering why the title of the book refers to the ‘lady on the coin’. Well, one of Frances Stuart’s claims to fame is that she was apparently the model for Britannia, appearing on a commemorative medal produced after the war with the Dutch and then on various British coins until as recently as 2006.

Lady on the Coin is the second book I’ve read by Margaret Campbell Barnes; the first was Mary of Carisbrooke, which told the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books and the next logical choice is With All My Heart, her novel about Catherine of Braganza.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.