My favorite historical fiction blog, Historical Tapestry, featured books by Anya Seton last month. Since I greatly enjoyed Seton’s book Katherine several months ago, I decided to join in the wild rumpus and read another of her books.
Devil Water is set during the Jacobite Rebellion of the early eighteenth century. In case your historical knowledge is a little fuzzy on this period (as was mine when I started this book), I will give you a little background. In the year 1688, England deposed the Stuart king James II because he was a Papist. This Glorious Revolution (so called because it was virtually bloodless) replaced the old monarch with his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. When Mary and William died childless, the throne passed to Mary’s younger sister Anne. James Stuart, the younger Catholic son of James II, objected to being overlooked in favor of his Protestant sisters. He spent the rest of his life intriguing to gain the throne of England. The Latin name for James is “Jacobus,” and hence, all of James Stuart’s supporters were called Jacobites.
The first part of the novel focuses on Charles Radcliffe, a reckless younger son committed to the Jacobite cause (and illegitimate cousin to the Stuart pretender). Being of a somewhat Libertine propensity, Charles at the age of sixteen gets a farmer’s daughter pregnant, setting himself up for disastrous consequences. The farmer and his sons capture Charles and force him to marry the girl so that her child will be born in wedlock. This destroys Charles’ chances of a brilliant court marriage but produces Jenny Radcliffe, the half-border-lass, half-noblewoman who is the true heroine of the novel.
Jenny Radcliffe lives with her mother for several years until Rob Wilson, one of the local farmboys, takes the child to London to return her to her rightful father. The timing is unfortunate. Implicated in a Jacobite plot, Charles is languishing in the Tower of London, so Lady Betty (the one woman who truly loves him) raises Jenny as her own. Through wily means, Charles escapes from the Tower and heads to France.
Time passes quickly as Jenny grows into a young woman. Her lowborn mother dies, freeing Charles to marry again, and he makes a surreptitious visit to England to reveal himself to his daughter and gain her mother’s death certificate. On a trip to northern England where she was born, Jenny encounters Rob Wilson once again, and a mutual attraction flares up between them. Rob, knowing that Jenny is above his station, intends to stay out of her way, but when he discovers a plot by an insidious Viscount to rape Jenny, he intervenes and saves her honor. Refusing to explain his actions for killing a man, Rob is sentenced to penal servitude in the colonies.
Jenny goes to the continent to live with her father and her new stepmother but finds that her presence is a constraint upon their household. Learning what Rob did to save her, she decides to follow Rob to the Americas–but before she leaves, her father Charles Radcliffe makes her swear an oath that if he ever asks for her, she will come to him. Jenny uses her own money to free Rob. The two marry and set up a homestead in the colonies, living happily–although childless–for over a decade.
In time, news comes that the Jacobites have revolted again, and once again, Charles Radcliffe is in the Tower of London. This time, however, there will be no escape. Jenny receives his message asking for her, but Rob–despising everything about the Jacobites–refuses to let her go. Jenny must make a choice between her father and her husband, a choice that will either violate a promise or cause her to lose everything….
This book was an interesting read, although not quite the page turner that Katherine was. The end was particularly compelling, and I will admit to shedding a few tears. The title Devil Water refers both to a river in Northern England and also to an old English saying that means fear.