England’s Civil War has reached Wintercombe Manor. Silence St. Barbe, raised by a remorselessly strict father, has escaped her troublesome childhood home through a marriage of convenience. Her (much older) husband has left to fight on the side of Parliament against King Charles. Silence is only twenty-eight years old, but she has been left with the responsibility of the manor estate along with several servants and her five children to care for and protect in her husband’s absence. However Wintercombe is soon to be occupied by Royalist forces (and an attractive Royalist captain who more than once, will come to Silence’s rescue, or to her children’s).
“You will be safe,” he said. “You would not be harmed by either side. If Wintercombe were besieged, you could be sent out to safety. The children can go to the village, if you yourself do not wish to leave. But it may not come to that. The garrison may be withdrawn to Bath or Bristol, if Fairfax comes too close – and then we will all be spared.”
“Then I shall pray for it,” Silence said bitterly. She thought of the lovely house behind her, serene in the fading light, so dear and now, it seemed, in such peril. She had heard what a determined siege could do. In Taunton, hardly anything had been left standing save the chimneys, rising forlornly from the heaps of ashes. And the house at Chard, though it had never suffered siege, was a blackened, uninhabitable ruin. Was the same fate to befall Wintercombe?”
A lengthy historical romance, this novel of over 500 pages kept my interest. Much of the events of the Civil War are saved for the final third of the book while the personal story of Silence and her family plays out, bringing to life what military occupation meant for villages during England’s upheaval in civil war times. The author, Pamela Belle, writes attractively with her descriptions of English countryside, giving me on this winter- read a longing for Spring!
“In all the doubt and trouble and fear and confusion of her present existence, the utter certainty of her garden was a delight and a consolation. The sun would rise, true, but could be hidden by clouds and rain. Nothing would hide that joyous celebration, that yellow trumpeting for spring, and even if by some dread mischance she were not at Wintercombe to see it, there would be other flowers, other gardens. Not all the king’s soldiers, not even the king himself, could stand like Canute and deny the inexorable turning of the seasons and the renewal of the year.
She knew that she should, as a good wife and mother, of the sort called Puritan, turn to God for help and comfort. And indeed her prayers, morning and night, were more fervent than they had ever been. But she had always gone for solace to her garden, and it had never yet failed her.”
Several Royalist Generals described in the novel are true historic figures, such as Lord Goring, Sir Thomas Fairfax, and of course, Prince Rupert. The author has certainly done her homework, as the settings she chooses are brought to life and the battles in the novel (Langport, Taunton, and others) also happened much as they were described. “Wintercombe” illustrates the plight of various towns and regions in England that were so deeply affected by the occupation of both Royalist and Roundhead troops.
“On the twenty-eight of July, the New Model Army reached Wells. Rupert, hearing the news, dispatched a more stalwart and reliable officer, accompanied by a couple of troops of horse, to hold Bath instead of the wavering Sir Thomas Bridges.
The people of Bath were frightened, and furious. The soldiers were from Bristol, and could well have brought the plague with them, to infect their clean, sweet, and pleasant city, and they did not see why they should risk such a disaster when the Royal cause seemed well and truly lost. When it became apparent that many of the reinforcements were the hated and despised Welsh, their rage was redoubled. Crowds surrounded the governor’s house in West Street, throwing rotten eggs and filth and stones, and shouting “No Welsh!”
I completely enjoyed this book (and I am going to be very honest here) – until I came to the last sixty pages or so. The decisions made by Silence and her romantic interest, Captain Hellier, were so dismaying and disappointing, as they rationalise and justify the choices they make. The author does do a good job of portraying Silence’s struggle between right and wrong, as much of the bulk of the book is taken up with her attempts to justify the growing friendship and attraction she is experiencing.
Silence knows the risks, she understands the impossibility of her situation and the ramifications should she plunge into a deeper relationship that has no hope of any positive outcome. Yet Silence (in her frail humanity), chooses ultimately to rebel against everything common sense and discretion would tell her, all for a brief romantic interlude. Even worse, Silence justifies her choice not just to herself alone, but to her children and her cautiously disapproving maid, all of whom (conveniently) end up supporting her. And so Silence is able to ‘have her cake and eat it too’, without regret or reaping any apparent consequence.
It is also hard to believe in the character of Silence’s mother-in-law. A grandmother who quotes Scripture and wields it frequently with malice, her only motive seemingly, to take delight in making her family squirm, is not a very attractive (or to me, believable), persona. It is possible that this character (like Silence’s father), was created solely to garner sympathy for Silence’s plight (having escaped the rigors of her childhood only to be plunged into a joyless, harsh religious atmosphere). Silence’s quiet misery, her harsh upbringing and lack of ‘romance’ within an arranged marriage will find solace in a romantic relationship (albeit one outside of marraige), and so ultimately, her forbidden love is justified.
I would have appreciated the novel much more had this author used the events in Silence’s life rather to display opportunity for growth in her character. How much more I would have enjoyed seeing Silence finding contentment and happiness within the constraints of her marriage vows, home, family and children (certainly her garden has brought her much joy, and poverty is not a problem for Silence, although she must find creative solutions to feed a household of servants, family and fifty-plus soldiers). I love to read novels that illustrate personality change and watch the characters mature through their life lessons and circumstances. Remaining steadfast within challenging, difficult or even insurmountable situations, while modelling qualities such as faithfulness and building stability within one’s household, (especially in front of young, impressionable children), would have made for me, a much more enjoyable story.
(I could not help but contrast this with Lucilla Eliot’s excellent characterization and similar experiences in her novel “The Bird in the Tree”!)
Despite my disappointment with the characters’ motivations and the final chapters of “Wintercombe”, I did find much to learn in this Civil War novel and am curious to see where the author takes the reader next in this series.