Aristocrat. Heiress. Highwaywoman
It is 1648 and the fate of England teeters on a knife-edge. Civil war splits the nation into Royalist and Parliamentarian, and the effects are felt far beyond the battlefield. Even as the years pass and Cromwell comes to power, the ravaged land struggles to recover and the great estates which once dominated the country find themselves starved, fragmented and close to collapse. One of these estates is Ware Park, the home of Katherine Ferrers and her husband (and cousin) Thomas Fanshawe.
Married at a young age in the shadow of war, they have scarcely had a chance to get to know one another before the conflict separates them. Thomas, sullen and ineffectual, lingers in London dreaming of a Royalist resurgence and frittering away his fortune at gambling tables. Abandoned in Ware, Katherine must face challenges that would daunt a far older and more experienced chateleine. With troops of army men ranging over the countryside, and the roads made dangerous by bandits, she must try to keep her household together in the face of her husband’s indifference and the uncertainty of the times. While she scrabbles for funds to maintain Ware Park, she is also conscious of her own family’s home at Markyate Cell, her long-promised inheritance, which increasingly seems to be slipping out of her reach.
And these are not her only troubles. Katherine knows that she is failing in a wife’s one key responsibility to her husband: the years of their marriage come and go, and she remains childless, the victim of her husband’s profound lack of interest. As time passes, and Katherine finds the possibility of love in other places, she begins to wonder whether perhaps her illicit desires are proof of her own taint: that, since she was assaulted on the road as a young girl, she has been irrevocably drawn into the Devil’s clutches.
It was the subject that appealed to me: the idea of a lady highwayman promised a novel full of swashbuckling, danger and excitement. The reality was a little different. While there was danger, there wasn’t actually an awful lot of swashbuckling or, indeed, very much highwaymanning. The novel is far more interested in Katherine’s romantic passions and the few scenes of ‘stand and deliver’ are little more than accents to the story of the tempestuous attraction that lures her to a criminal lifestyle. Stylistically, though, it does have appeal: Clements writes elegant, rich prose with a sensuous awareness of colour and texture. The descriptions of Katherine’s world bring the locations vividly to mind with an almost cinematic clarity. And she has evidently done her research, although to her credit the story wears it so lightly that it only becomes apparent in her afterword. Only then did I discover that her story is based on truth: that Katherine Ferrers was a real person, as was Rafe Chaplin, and that Clements has tried as much as possible to reflect the facts in writing her story. The afterword even includes the one known portrait of Katherine, which offers a curious jolt in finally coming face to face with the heroine of the novel.
And yet this author’s note merely underlined reservations that I’d felt while reading the book. As Katherine Ferrers was a real person, one might have hoped for slightly more verve and individuality. I think I’d been expecting someone closer to Angelica Fanshawe (no relation to Thomas, I presume) of The Devil’s Whore, a series which casts a long shadow over this novel. There are striking parallels: an aristocratic heroine, an intimate of Charles I’s court; a cold dynastic marriage between cousins; the heroine forced to fend for herself; her conviction that in childhood she unwittingly made a pact with the Devil; her series of romantic entanglements…
But Katherine lacks Angelica’s fierce fire. Even at her most independent, she seems to be driven by pursuit of, or defiance of, a man. There were some strange episodes which seem intended to prove her spirit but which actually do little more than underline her sexual appeal to men. I’m thinking of one scene in particular where Katherine creeps away from home with great preparation with a couple of servants, their absence causing great alarm, for the sole purpose of going paddling in the river and to experience an erotic frisson with one of the servants. It didn’t feel like a scene which organically grew out of the needs of the story. More generally Katherine gets away with many unexplained overnight absences which would surely have caused more comment and investigation than they do. I think that generally I would have found her much more interesting if she’d come across as a more complex, independent and self-sufficient figure, rather than as a woman who never quite transcended her relationships with the men around her. And I’m being particularly hard on her because I’d hoped for slightly more spice and wit and humour from the writing and from the characterisation. A woman who takes such a path must logically be rather extraordinary; and yet we see no real reason why Rafe Chaplin, or indeed Richard Willis, find Katherine so compelling. It’s a pet hate of mine: we are told a character is attractive and irresistible, rather than being shown enough to see it for ourselves. And in fact the novel seems divided even on that score, for much of the time when people speak to Katherine they accuse her of being selfish or petulant or thoughtless – all claims which seem to have a grain of truth about them.
And yet. Let me simply admit that I came to this expecting the wrong genre: the atmospheric cover led me to anticipate something a little different. For those who enjoy romantic historical novels, this will tick all the boxes and offer escapism alongside a well-described panorama of one of the most turbulent periods of British history. Fans of Philippa Gregory might find this very enjoyable, although its romance isn’t quite as robustly written. And of course it is, to some extent, a true story. For my part, alas, it just didn’t have quite enough grit, daring and complexity to draw me into its heart.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.