Sunday, April 14, 2013

Devil Water by Anya Seton

The novels of Anya Seton have a special spot in my heart. GREEN DARKNESS, still one of my all-time favorites to this day, was one of the first adult novels as well as one of the first historical fiction novels I ever read. And this sprawling eighteenth century epic journeying from London to Colonial America does not disappoint and more than earns its place as a keeper on the shelf alongside GREEN DARKNESS.

Spanning 1709-1746 DEVIL WATER is the story of Charles Radcliffe, his secret daughter Jenny, and the doomed Jacobite cause which attempted to oust the Hanoverians from the throne of England and restore the deposed Stuarts.

As a bored young nobleman, a younger son of the Earl of Derwentwater, Charles rides aimlessly over the Northumberland countryside, inspecting the local coal mines and just looking for something fun to do. He seduces a young servant girl named Meg. But her family doesn’t take it meekly and abducts Charles and forces him to marry Meg just in time for her to give birth to their child—Jenny. Whereupon Charles is cast out; Meg and her family want nothing further to do with him.

This forced marriage costs Charles a love match with his cousin Lady Betty Lee, and in the years to come, denied the normal comforts of hearth and home, he becomes a rake, spending lavishly, keeping a retinue of actresses as mistresses, until boredom sets in and he goes on to the next and then the next. In 1715 he and his brother join the ill-fated Jacobite Rebellion and end in prison. James, a fervent Catholic and devoted family man, becomes a martyr to the cause, and Charles, awaiting execution in Newgate, cleverly escapes.

Before he goes into hiding, he arranges for Jenny to be reared as a lady by his old love, Lady Betty Lee. She attends an exclusive girl’s school in London and becomes friends with Evelyn Byrd—a name I know well from books of ghost stories; her lovelorn spirit is said to haunt her family’s plantation. And in this novel we get a front row seat to the doomed romance and parental disapproval that led to the unhappy girl’s spirit becoming earthbound, though the haunting is never mentioned in this novel.

After Robbie, the proud man Jenny loves who worked his way up from pit boy in the coal mines of Newcastle to master builder, saves her from being a virgin victim of the satanic debauchery of the Hellfire Club and is deported to America as a bond slave, Jenny follows him to the New World. With Evelyn’s assistance, she buys her lover’s freedom and they carve out a new life for themselves in the Virginia wilderness.

But the past intrudes on their happiness when, after twenty years of silence, Jenny’s father reaches out to her. After throwing in his lot with Bonnie Prince Charlie he ends in the Tower, facing a death sentence, and asks Jenny to come and be a comfort to him, thus driving a stake into the heart of her happy marriage and forcing Jenny to choose between her husband and her father.

I could not put this novel down, though I was supposed to be working on my own, it kept pulling me back to it. I think I had better stay away from Anya Seton’s books until I meet my own deadline then I’ll treat myself to another.

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