In view of the fact that American readers of a long novel are an endangered species these days (this one clocks in at 742 densely packed pages), it may seem to my readers that reviewing this book is an exercise in futility rather than fertilty. I assure you however, this novel is well worth your time, even though, in my case I spent the whole summer reading it a little at a time. Some books are like eating marzipan— you only can consume a little of it at a time, but it is worth the consumption after all.
Lindsey Davis is of course famous for her Falco detective novels about the Rooman Empire in the late first century A.D. This novel is a complete departure from that. It’s focus is on the English Civil War of the 17th century, which preceded the American Civil War. Whereas her Roman novels are short, witty, snarky, and fun, this novel is long, full of highly descriptive material, and loaded with insight about the religious and political life in England which led up to the great Revivals of the 18th century led by John Wesley and others. In a sense this novel is an exercise in social history, as it recounts the lives of about six ordinary people and their families from the period 1634-1657 as their lives get enmeshed in a horrible conflict which led to the beheading of King Charles (Stuart), and the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the ‘Commonwealth’. Here is the summary on Amazon.
“Davis’ hefty, ambitious epic of the English Civil War and Commonwealth of the mid–seventeenth century, more serious-minded than her Falco mysteries of ancient Rome, depicts this tumultuous era from the earliest rumblings against Charles I’s divine-right monarchy through plottings against Cromwell’s Protectorate two decades later. The perspective switches among three people whose paths occasionally cross: Juliana Lovell, a Royalist wife and mother struggling with poverty, thanks to her husband’s absences; Gideon Jukes, a London printer’s apprentice who joins Parliament’s New Model Army; and a teenage vagabond girl. The most exciting scenes dramatize events from their lives, such as the devastation wrought by the cavalier army’s brutal advance into Birmingham. The immense amount of background detail sometimes integrates well with the fictional characters’ stories, though generally it’s piled on thickly. Devotees of the period will appreciate its authentic depiction and the breadth of coverage; everyone else will learn much about politics, military actions, social movements, religious sects, and the daily life of ordinary people as alliances shift, groups splinter off, and the meaning of treason changes.”
What this review does not say is just how eye-opening this novel is when it comes to the Protestant and Catholic religion and their influence on politics throughout the period. Especially vivid is the portrayal of the various Protestant sects and splinter groups, ranging from staunch Scots Presbyterians to Ranters, to Independent Baptists, to loyalist Roman Catholics, to establishment Anglicans, and much more. Those Americans who tend to think religion is one thing and politcs another, will be shocked to discover how much these things were intertwined in England as the colonies in America were being settled, intertwined not least because King Charles like his predecessors and successors claimed ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ that is ‘the divine right of Kings to rule a people’ based on a rather clear exegesis of texts such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.13-17.
Lindsey does not spare our feelings in this novel. We see the brutality of war, and the almost equally clear brutality of a form of patriarchy that did not much allow women to have or inherit property, or at least made it difficult for them to keep it, especially if they were single women. The plight or the ordinary person, the poor, women and children, during wartime is vividly depicted, as war increasingly is made to appear to be a story of ‘men behaving very badly’ while women try to hold things together on the home front.
Presbyterians will perhaps be surprised to see how their Scots ancestors were prepared to conive with Catholic royalty from all over Europe (and with Charles once he was on the run) in order to establish their independence from England. I personally especially enjoyed following the trials and tribulations of Gideon Jukes, and learning about the early days of free presses in England and the publishing enterprise during the war, which created for the first time something of a ‘freedom of the press’ situation. But the stories most full of pathos without question are the stories of Anne Jukes (Gideon’s brother’s wife and a very independent woman for her day) and Julianna Lovell. Davis writes with keen insight and sympathy for the plight of such brave and courageous women. Here is a book full of tales about the follies of men and wars, and the foibles of kings and rebels, and the admirable perseverance of good and godly women. While I am not ready to give up my Falco mysteries for this sort of Davis novel, I learned much about life in 17th century England by reading this novel, and feel I better understand some of the social realities which presaged and prepared for the Great Awakenings of the 18th century.