2014 is shaping up to be a brilliant year for historical fiction. The Crimson Ribbon is a perfect book for me - it's set in the seventeenth century, has strong female characters and secrets to be uncovered, with the added bonuses of witchcraft accusations and a birthing scene. That’s a winner all round when combined with a story that kept me reading page after page.
The story starts on May Day 1646 with a shocking scene of birth, death and brutality. Ruth Flowers watches helpless as her mother is accused of witchcraft, swum in the river, and then hanged. As part of the Cromwell household they ought to have been protected, but with Oliver Cromwell away with the army and tensions running high all over the civil war struck country local mob justice prevailed. I thought the beginning, starting with a series of endings, was very effective. There is literal death but also the end of Ruth’s old life. The security she has known until this terrible event is gone and she is left alone and seeking out a replacement.
Ruth changes her life more than once as she moves from Ely to London, then further west and back again. In London she is directed to the Poole household where Elizabeth Poole takes her in. Lizzie has a magnetic charm that draws people to her, and Ruth is no exception. She immediately adores Lizzie and will sacrifice everything to be with her forever. This includes using some of her mother’s old ways – she uses a charm to bind their lives together.
There are three things I love about this book. Number one is the story itself. As I mentioned, it had me hooked, and I read it in two sittings. It would have been one but I had to sleep! It’s set during a period of history that fascinates me and includes aspects of early modern life that I have and continue to study. Bringing me on to the second thing I love: the themes in the book. The way politics invaded every part of life and every person in the mid-17th century no matter how reluctant a participant is beautifully demonstrated in The Crimson Ribbon. The impact on women’s lives is clear in the story: accusations of witchcraft, religious prophecy, and the direct impact of war. Then, some gorgeous universal themes are woven in – the nature of family, the need for emotional security, and the shadings between friendship, love and desire.
All this, and more, is told through characters that deserve mention. And they are they third thing I love. Oliver Cromwell is in a book and I don’t detest him utterly. Now, this is a revelation. Due to some deeply entrenched prejudice acquired in childhood I am incapable of thinking of Cromwell without scowling (objectivity of the historian noticeably absent here). Clements has managed the unthinkable and allowed me to consider him as maybe somewhat OK, although still ruthless in his pursuit of his interpretation of God’s will (just in case anyone thought I was going soft on the man). The other male character I’d like to mention is Joseph, who offers Ruth companionship on her flight from Ely, and whose paths cross ever after. He’s a decent man burdened by the literal and metaphorical scars of the battlefield. He’s a reminder, as if one can possibly be needed, of the toll war takes on its participants.
Ruth and Lizzie are both so interesting. Lizzie is a complex woman, holding secrets, wielding sexual power, needing recognition and validation. Ruth has much simpler desires. She’s tied to the old ways and would rather stay away from the spotlight. Both have lost their mothers; both need to be loved. There is so much more I could say about this novel, but I’ll finish with an observation Ruth makes: ‘People have so many parts it is impossible to know them all.’ Clements has done a fine job in exploring the many parts that make up a person, and a society in conflict.
Headline Review, who very kindly sent me a copy for review, publishes The Crimson Ribbon today.