Reviewed by Rod McLary
Minette Walters is perhaps better known for her psychological novels most of which were written between 1992 and 2007. She has been awarded an Edgar Award and two Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger awards for The Ice House, The Scold’s Bridle and Fox Evil respectively. In recent years, however, she has turned to historical fiction. Her first novels in this genre – The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight – were set in the period of the Black Death in fourteenth-century England.
Her latest book – The Swift and the Harrier – is also historical fiction and set in the period of the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651.
In its simplest terms, the Civil War was essentially a battle between Charles I who believed in the Divine Right of Kings and the Parliamentarians who desired shared power rather than the absolute power of the monarch. In addition, there was a religious division – adherents of the Church of England tended towards the Royalist cause while those who believed that Church was too similar to the Catholic Church [the Puritans, the Presbyterians and Independents] were more inclined to side with the Parliamentarians. This religious division is played out through the story and adds an interesting dimension to the interactions between the players.
The protagonists are Jayne Swift – a physician and well ahead of her time – and William Harrier [the Swift and the Harrier of the book’s title]. Jayne is unable to take the title of doctor as she is female and only males were entitled to be called doctor; nor has she been awarded the title by a university. In spite of that, she is well-regarded by the local villagers and is seen as progressive and caring. She is of noble birth – albeit of minor nobility – and the only daughter of Sir Henry and Lady Margaret Swift of Swyre. William’s origins are initially less clear but become more so later in the story. At their first meeting, Jayne believes William to be a footman to Lady Alice Stickman; although like a chameleon, he appears in different guises as the story unfolds.
The story of Jayne and William is set out against the backdrop of the Civil War and the fighting which took place in and around the County of Dorsetshire in south-west England. While clearly the author has researched the Civil War period thoroughly – there are many references to battles and the tactics of war – the novel is more concerned with the period’s social mores and the place of women within it.
In common with the female protagonists of Minette Walters’ psychological novels, Jayne Swift is an intelligent, articulate and strong-minded young woman [she is aged about 26 at the beginning of the novel]. She is however somewhat constrained by the generally misogynistic attitudes of the men around whether high-born or low-born. There are of course some exceptions – men who recognise, even if not immediately, her skills and intelligence. Fortunately for William, he is one of them and he has the added advantages of being tall, brave and very good-looking.
One sub-plot centres on Jayne’s cousin Ruth, her husband Samuel Morecott and their two-year-old son Isaac who has chincough [now called whooping cough] which then often resulted in death. While the child recovers under Jayne’s care, the relationship between Ruth and Samuel is laid bare. Cruel to and demanding of both his wife and son, Samuel is toxic masculinity in its seventeenth-century form. He is ultimately and somewhat ambiguously ‘dealt with’ by William and many may view his ending as well and truly justified.
But the heart of the book is the developing relationship between Jayne and William. There are of course obstacles to any long-term future they may believe they have. There is a cloud over William’s origins and there are one or two skeletons in his closet which need to be dispensed with first. In addition, he is playing an active and crucial part in the war and there is the ever-present fear that he may not survive. But this is historical fiction so the conclusion to the book is a satisfying one.
While there are three narrative arcs to the novel – the Civil War, the relationship between men and women in the seventeenth-century, and the relationship between Jayne and William – the real strength of the novel lies in its intelligent and articulate writing. There are very few ‘action’ scenes but instead the harshness of war, the horrific injuries suffered by soldiers and civilians alike, and the inadequate and unhygienic living conditions of the poor are set out dispassionately with no less of an impact on the reader. The reader need only turn to page 25 which describes a priest’s death by drawing and quartering to experience at second-hand the barbarity of the time.
All in all, Minette Walters has crafted a well-researched, intelligent and entertaining story which can easily sit alongside the best of her psychological novels. The protagonists Jayne and William are attractive and engaging and, while neither seems fond of making protestations of love, there is from the start a palpable frisson of sexual attraction.
The Swift and the Harrier is well-recommended to all readers who enjoy historical fiction at its best.
The Swift and the Harrier
by Minette Walters
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176106 520 0