Accidents of Providence

Accidents of Providence

3.6 9
by Stacia Brown
     
 

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It is 1649. King Charles has been beheaded for treason. Amid civil war, Cromwell's army is running the country. The Levellers, a small faction of agitators, are calling for rights to the people. And a new law targeting unwed mothers and lewd women presumes anyone who conceals the death of her illegitimate child is guilty of murder.

 

Rachel Lockyer,

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Overview

It is 1649. King Charles has been beheaded for treason. Amid civil war, Cromwell's army is running the country. The Levellers, a small faction of agitators, are calling for rights to the people. And a new law targeting unwed mothers and lewd women presumes anyone who conceals the death of her illegitimate child is guilty of murder.

 

Rachel Lockyer, unmarried glove maker, and Leveller William Walwyn are locked in a secret affair. But when a child is found buried in the woods, Rachel is arrested.

 

So comes an investigation, public trial, and unforgettable characters: gouty investigator Thomas Bartwain, fiery Elizabeth Lilburne and her revolution-chasing husband, Huguenot glover Mary Du Gard, and others. Spinning within are Rachel and William, their remarkable love story, and the miracles that come to even the commonest lives.

 

Fans of Fingersmith and The Dress Lodger will love Accidents of Providence, absorbing historical fiction featuring Rachel Lockyer, a character wronged by her time and the kind of woman forgotten by history, whose love affair leads to her trial for murder.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Brown's first novel is a heart-poundingly vivid, intellectually provocative account of the legal case against a fictional woman condemned to death for secretly burying her dead, illegitimate newborn in Cromwell's England. In 1649, Cromwell has taken power after the beheading of Charles I. Politics is in turmoil, suspicion and paranoia the mood of the day. But the law still must be upheld as aging and ailing criminal investigator Thomas Bartwain reluctantly builds his case against Rachel Lockyer, an unmarried glovemaker's apprentice, for breaking the 1624 "Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children." No one questions that Rachel buried her infant daughter; the case hinges on whether the child was born dead. Humorously Rumpole-like, with a wife who keeps him morally on pitch, Bartwain is increasingly uneasy, especially when he finds a flaw in the law. Meanwhile Rachel remains largely silent out of her confused sense of guilt and because she does not want to expose William Walwyn, who has been her adulterous lover for three passionate years--the author provides great, unsentimental sex scenes that feel true to the era. With his crony Richard Lilburne, Walwyn is a well-known leader of the Levelers, a human-rights advocacy group that originally supported Cromwell but has turned against him and is now under attack. William is also the father of 14 legitimate children, and his wife Anne watches and waits for her husband to return his heart to his marriage, not passive but patient. Rachel's true friend and supporter is feisty and outspoken Elizabeth Lilburne, who has recently lost two small sons to smallpox and remains loyal to husband John despite her impatience with his political posturing. Events in the plot are based on historical incidents, and one of the book's many joys is the way fictional (Rachel, the Bartwains) and historical figures (the Walwyns, the Lilburnes) weave seamlessly together; everyone's motives and reactions are richly complex. A romping good read that is character-driven yet intellectually provocative on issues of law, religion and morality--historical fiction at its best.
From the Publisher
"Dangerous Liaisons: A 17th century heroine for our times...[A] delightfully seditious heroine...Brown introduces a wonderful cast of supporting characters.... For all its period detail, this debut seems remarkably modern in its depiction of love and politics—proof that a historical novel can be educational and entertaining, and nothing like homework."
O, The Oprah Magazine

"A heart-poundingly vivid, intellectually provocative account. . . A romping good read that is character-driven yet intellectually provocative on issues of law, religion and morality—historical fiction at its best."
Kirkus, STARRED review

"Debut novelist Brown has woven an absorbing tale...her story reveals a rich knowledge of the era with memorable characters, sharp, period-worthy dialog, and a poignant love story...This is the best kind of historical fiction—a combination of love story and murder mystery, wtih a sprinkling of intriguing historical snippets and wonderful writing."
Library Journal, STARRED review

"Intelligent, masterful, suspenseful—one of the best books I've read in years. An impressive debut novel from a hugely talented new writer, Accidents of Providence was a rare treat."
—Margaret George, author of many works of historical fiction, including Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles

"With this marvelous story written in searing prose, Stacia Brown brings us a deeply human, super-smart, uncommonly well-researched historical novel. Accidents of Providence tackles hypocrisy, both sexual and political, and invites us into the revolutionary taverns and chaotic courtrooms of civil-war-torn London, introducing us to the faithful and adulterous, the idealists and opportunists, of an era not so unlike our own. Don't miss it!"
—Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger, among others

"Stacia Brown's debut novel, Accidents of Providence, richly illuminates an important but little known period of history: that of the English Leveller society. Wonderfully detailed and keenly researched, it is a moving portrait of a courageous woman caught between a disastrous affair with a charismatic revolutionary and the draconian laws of the land that would put her to death because of it."
—Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic's Daughter

"Accidents of Providence is historical fiction at its best. It is absolutely steeped in atmosphere and so vividly re-creates the interregnum era that I felt as though I'd been transported there. Brown's prose has a beautiful originality. Her characters come alive with authenticity and humanity; they are loveable and infuriating, but the reader always believes in them, and invests hopes and fears with them. The story kept me gripped from the very first page—by turns desperately sad, funny, and heartwarming. It is a breath of fresh air. I loved it!"
—Katherine Webb, author of The Legacy

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547490809
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
02/14/2012
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

ONE

THOMAS BARTWAIN CRIMINAL investigator commissioned by the Council of State, was standing outside the Sessions House in Old Bailey warming his bones under a weak London sun when he realized he was a quarter-hour late for his first deposition.
  He coughed and checked his notes.
  “Christ,” he muttered, and wobbled back into the courthouse as fast as his thick, bowed legs would let him. He handed his papers to his secretary, a tall and jaundiced man named White who in recent months had begun refusing to doff his hat to persons of authority. When Bartwain questioned this practice, given the volatile and warring times in which they lived, his secretary growled, ornery as a drunk without a drop, that his hat-doffing was no one’s business.
  White glanced down at Bartwain’s notes. “You want to see how many witnesses today?” His face wore a dour mien. “There is no way to interview all these people. You’re running late as it is.”
  “Their summonses have been delivered,” the investigator said. “They will be arriving throughout the day. Knock on my door just before each hour so I don’t fall behind. You understand the severity of the accusations against this woman, this Leveler, this what’s-her-name.”
  “Rachel Lockyer,” the secretary said.
  “Yes, that’s it. I need all the information I can find.”
  White nodded reluctantly. “Shall I bring in your first witness? She’s here.”
  “Yes. Send her into my chambers. And bring me something to eat while you’re at it. I’m famished.” The investigator coughed again. He was sixty-one years old and his lungs were not good. Ever since the Council of State had assigned him to investigate the discovery of a dead infant behind the Smithfield slaughterhouse, his wheezing had been worse than usual. He stepped into his chambers, squeezed his fleshy stomach behind the desk, and adjusted his powdered wig. Then he picked up his quill, which he wielded like a scepter in between writing sentences.
  Rachel Lockyer’s case had made its way to Bartwain’s doorstep ten days before and so far he detested everything about it. After receiving the coroner’s report, he had interviewed a handful of witnesses, most of whom volunteered neighborhood gossip as testimony. From them Bartwain learned that Rachel was a spinster who lived independent of her mother (her father was dead), that she was poor (a glover’s assistant), and that she had spent time in the company of the Levelers (those political troublemakers), as had her younger brother, Robert, who’d recently been executed by firing squad for mutinying against his captain in the Parliamentary New Model Army. Only one witness, a gray-haired haberdasher named Katherine Chidley, had provided any information pertinent to the case at hand. Chidley recounted a series of examinations she had conducted of Rachel’s physical person and insisted Rachel had tried to hide a pregnancy from those who knew her. “She is the mother of that infant Widow du Gard found,” Chidley declared. “I have no doubt of it.” And while Chidley confessed she did not know the identity of the father, another witness—a homeless boy named Thom with a shock of orange hair whom White had had to drag in by summons and who remained reluctant to talk until Bartwain bribed him with candied flowers, which the child gulped down whole—reported being asked to deliver a message from Rachel to one of the Leveler leaders, initials W.W., who at the time was incarcerated in the London Tower. The investigator knew those initials. They’d appeared on the cheap pamphlets and polemical treatises produced by the Levelers over the past few years of civil war. The Levelers were always being incarcerated for one thing or another, usually for seditious writing. Bartwain asked the boy what the message was and how this W.W. had answered it, but the boy claimed to have forgotten the message and added that he’d never reached the intended recipient—something about a lion distracting him. The investigator doubted this account but went ahead and added William Walwyn to his interview list. Of course, the question of paternity was less significant now than it would have been if the infant had survived. When a bastard child lived, the magistrates could invoke the Poor Law and order the father to pay a stipend to the local church for its upkeep. A noncompliant father could be sentenced to corporal punishment, most likely public whipping alongside the mother. If the child died, only the mother was held responsible. Still, Bartwain thought the lead worth investigating.
  From the coroner he had learned that the newborn was female, dead less than three days at time of autopsy, and weighing six pounds and one-quarter ounce. Bartwain wondered about that one-quarter ounce. What part of an infant weighed this amount? A hand? A kneecap? He shuddered and spat into his empty water cup. He detested acts of violence against children. The coroner had said that the lungs were partly inflated, meaning the child had breathed outside the womb before it expired. The body was starting to decompose by the time of the autopsy. The earthworms had covered its little limbs, and moles had chewed through the cloth in which it was wrapped, while beetles had settled in the orifices. The coroner also reported a ring of bluish bruises around the infant’s neck, possibly made by string or twine. In his view, this suggested strangulation. But if someone was planning to lay a hand on a newborn, why clothe it first in a carefully sewn yellow dress?
  Bartwain tried to imagine what had happened, tried to theorize what had befallen the infant in the minutes or hours before it passed. He considered most women to be deceptive and unreliable by nature, so for him, the challenge in such cases was to leave room for some sliver of innocence, for some possibility that a criminal act had not taken place. Still, if the woman was innocent, why would she hide the body?
  The night before, the investigator’s wife had asked why this case vexed him so. She had seen him preparing his research notes and poring over the autopsy report. Start with the pregnancy and build the investigation from there, she had said. If only it were so simple, Bartwain had replied. In situations like these, identifying the mother could be a vexing challenge. Whether or not an unmarried woman had been pregnant remained difficult to prove after the fact. Some maids were sly and cunning and wore wide skirts to conceal their condition; Bartwain knew of a servant in Worcester who’d told her mistress her swelling belly was not pregnancy but colic. The mistress believed her tale until the servant showed up lean and weeping one Sunday with a dead babe in her arms, saying she’d found it in the alley. Other times women would plead they had not realized their condition until the pangs of labor started. Bartwain found this argument from ignorance persuasive only in exceptional instances, as in a case last year of a thirteen-year-old maid whose master had dallied with her as she moved past the point of her maturation; she had no way to recognize the signs that followed. The same plea would not suffice for a woman like Rachel Lockyer, a woman at the waning edge of the childbearing years.
  At half past nine the Huguenot glover Mary du Gard entered the investigator’s chambers. She looked a weary thirty. She wore a gray dress and a kerchief knotted around her shoulders. Her dark eyebrows almost touched.
  “Sit.” The investigator motioned from behind his desk. “Tell me your name for the record.”
  She perched on the witness stool, visibly uncomfortable. “Mary du Gard, sir. I am a widow. I would rather not be on the record.”
  “You would rather not be on the record? You were the one who brought this case to the coroner’s attention. Have you grown shy? Have you changed your opinion?”
  She blinked. Bartwain’s cheeks rounded into what on another face might have passed for a smile.
  “Now,” he said, leaning forward, leaning all the way across his desk, “if you are here to make my task harder, Widow du Gard, you may leave, and I shall send you back to whatever stinking village in France from which you came. But if you are here to obey the law, and to be a good Christian, then stay seated and tell me what you saw. I do not have all day.”
  So Mary began, reluctantly, to talk. She had managed Du Gard Gloves since her husband had died in battle; a few months after that, she’d hired Rachel to help in the shop. Together the two women paid a fee to the leather sellers’ company to become licensed vendors, though the business remained in the name of Mary’s husband. They specialized in military gloves, but because of the war they spent most of their time dyeing gloves black for funerals. Mary’s fingers, Bartwain noticed, were stained from dipping the gloves in dye.
  Throughout Mary’s deposition, which dragged on longer than most, the investigator kept growing distracted from the case; at one point he wandered off in the direction of theology. He found his witness’s manner dull and infuriating. She told him point by point about digging up a newborn in the woods behind the Smithfield slaughterhouse, but she took no initiative to explain what happened after. Bartwain wanted to know how Rachel had reacted when Mary returned to Warwick Lane and put the bundle into her arms. He wanted to know why Mary had banned Rachel from the glove shop that same day. Mary stared at him blankly and pretended not to understand. “My English is not good,” she said, in perfect English. So Bartwain, intuitively shifting tactics, devoted the next thirty minutes to engaging her in a discussion of ideas. He wanted to catch her off-guard so she would talk. Also, he harbored a hobbyist’s interest in the study of things religious. Although Mary was a Huguenot, or French Calvinist, her late husband had adopted the Particular Baptist faith when he moved to England, so Mary knew both factions. Bartwain asked her why the Particular Baptists believed Christ had died for some men only and not for the generality of them. She replied that Christ could not have died for all men because not all men were going to heaven. It made no sense for Him to die for someone if that person was going to spurn Him. Therefore, Christ must have died only for those He foreknew would respond positively. At this point Mary fell silent and eyed the floor.
  “Can you confirm that what you unearthed was your assistant’s?” the investigator abruptly asked. “Are you quite certain the child belonged to her?” All he needed was one credible confirmation. The evidence required to indict a woman in such investigations was not stringent, not very stringent at all.
  “Oh,” she said slowly, “I could never be completely certain. But I lived with her, so I saw things.”
  “Things? What kind of things?”
  “To recount them would be too tedious.”
  “I’m a criminal investigator. I specialize in the tedious.”
  “Well,” she said, warming slightly, “I thought I heard Rachel the night before, in her room. She was in the throes of what sounded to me like a painful indigestion or labor. She would not let me in.”
  “Did you knock?”
  Mary hesitated. “I called her name.”
  “Did she hear you?”
  “I am sure she did. I asked what she was doing. She had stuffed a cloth in the keyhole so I could not peek inside. She did not answer the door, so I went back to my room.”
  “This was the night of November second?”
  “No, sir. It was the night before. I told you. It was late; it was around one o’clock. And I did not see anything for certain. I only heard the sounds.”
  “Did you see her the next morning?”
  “Yes, sir, she came down to breakfast, but she was later than usual.”
  “Did you see signs of a delivery?”
  “Not then. But I went into her room later, while she was outside sweeping.”
  “She swept the walk the morning after she gave birth?”
  “She swept it the morning after I heard those sounds, yes, sir.”
  Bartwain considered this. “What did you see while she was outside?”
  “Her bedclothes all in a heap on the floor, and blood staining them, though it looked as if she had attempted to clean them.”
  “Did you confront her?”
  “I tried.”
  “What did she say?”
  “Only that she was in her monthly time, and that was where the stains came from. She said she was feeling faint.”
  “And what was her appearance?”
  “Unseemly and pale. And leaner than she had been the previous weeks.”
  I guess she would be, Bartwain thought.
  “She didn’t eat all day,” Mary went on with some feeling, “even though we were having her favorite, ham and apple bake.”
  I’d like some of that now, he said to himself. Where was White with his breakfast? “Why did you decide to go to the slaughterhouse?”
  “I was following her.”
  “The same night you heard the sounds?”
  “No, sir, the next night. I heard her moving around in her chambers again, and I was curious. So I followed her out the door. She crept out in the middle of the night.”
  “What did you see?”
  “She was carrying something small and close to her chest. She walked fast all the way to the Smithfield market. She buried the bundle by moonlight near the trees, and then I suppose she ran away.”  
  “So you stayed behind to uncover what she had buried?”
  “No, sir. I went home. Rachel returned home too, later that night, very ill and in a fit, it seemed, so I helped her to bed. She would not speak a word. I returned to the market the next morning.”
  “Why did you wait until the next day to go back?”
  “Because those woods are not safe at night.”
  “Ah. You think those woods are haunted.”
  Mary reddened.
  “I wonder what your late husband would think of your superstitions.”
  “That isn’t fair,” she told him.
  “Nothing is fair.” Bartwain’s lungs were threatening to spasm. He coughed into his handkerchief, discreetly checked the contents.
  From research he had learned that Mary’s Huguenot parents had died by fire for their faith when their daughter was ten; a man named Johannes du Gard had taken Mary under his care in the days following. The same man married her three years later, for her protection, he said, and then went off to war against the Holy Roman Empire. He was gone off and on for twelve years, from what Bartwain could gather. When he returned, he found both his business and his place of worship destroyed, so he crossed the British Sea, wife in tow, to open a glove shop and die for Oliver Cromwell, who believed in the same God he did. Mary never had any children.
  White knocked on the door. “Your next witness is here.”
  “You may go,” Bartwain said to Mary. “But be prepared to testify if there is a trial. And I think there will be.” She excused herself and left, and he rose from his desk, wheezing, to find his pipe.
  The investigator appreciated, at least in theory, why a woman might not want to come forward if she’d given birth to a living bastard. But why would a woman stay silent if she’d given birth to a child that died? Where dead illegitimates were concerned, the law turned on concealment. Bartwain lit his pipe, pondering. The reasonable thing for a woman to do in such situations was to come forward and confess she had delivered an illegitimate, explain it had died while she was in labor or shortly thereafter, and present it to the authorities for inspection. But time and again he’d seen women who acted contrary to common sense, women who insisted on disposing of the infants in their own secret way and who then tried to deny any wrongdoing when they were discovered. They failed to grasp that the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children declined to distinguish between murder and concealment. The law did not care about such details any more than it cared about the identity of the father. It kept things simple. Any unmarried woman who concealed her child’s death could be declared guilty of its murder—why else would she need to hide it? If the death was hidden and the woman unmarried, she could be charged, tried, and executed. Accordingly, all Bartwain needed to indict Rachel Lockyer for the crime of infant murder was proof she’d tried to hide a bastard’s death and a reasonable assumption the child was hers. Whether or not she meant to harm it was not important; at least, not in the eyes of the law.
  He could hear someone banging around in the hallway. “White!” he called out. “Where’s my breakfast?”
  His secretary appeared with a platter of duck eggs. Bartwain reached for two and shook them to test for doneness; they were hard-boiled, which made him unhappy, as he preferred his yolks runny. But he was ravenous, so he ate them all anyway, not troubling to remove the shells, stuffing the eggs one after the other into his mouth. “Bring my next interview in,” he said between bites. “I will get to the bottom of this case today or I am not Thomas Bartwain.” White inclined his head, though his subservience was unconvincing; he went into the corridor to fetch the next witness.

 

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Dangerous Liaisons: A 17th century heroine for our times...[A] delightfully seditious heroine...Brown introduces a wonderful cast of supporting characters.... For all its period detail, this debut seems remarkably modern in its depiction of love and politics—proof that a historical novel can be educational and entertaining, and nothing like homework."
O, The Oprah Magazine

"A heart-poundingly vivid, intellectually provocative account. . . A romping good read that is character-driven yet intellectually provocative on issues of law, religion and morality—historical fiction at its best."
Kirkus, STARRED review

"Debut novelist Brown has woven an absorbing tale...her story reveals a rich knowledge of the era with memorable characters, sharp, period-worthy dialog, and a poignant love story...This is the best kind of historical fiction—a combination of love story and murder mystery, wtih a sprinkling of intriguing historical snippets and wonderful writing."
Library Journal, STARRED review

"Intelligent, masterful, suspenseful—one of the best books I've read in years. An impressive debut novel from a hugely talented new writer, Accidents of Providence was a rare treat."
—Margaret George, author of many works of historical fiction, including Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles

"With this marvelous story written in searing prose, Stacia Brown brings us a deeply human, super-smart, uncommonly well-researched historical novel. Accidents of Providence tackles hypocrisy, both sexual and political, and invites us into the revolutionary taverns and chaotic courtrooms of civil-war-torn London, introducing us to the faithful and adulterous, the idealists and opportunists, of an era not so unlike our own. Don't miss it!"
—Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger, among others

"Stacia Brown's debut novel, Accidents of Providence, richly illuminates an important but little known period of history: that of the English Leveller society. Wonderfully detailed and keenly researched, it is a moving portrait of a courageous woman caught between a disastrous affair with a charismatic revolutionary and the draconian laws of the land that would put her to death because of it."
—Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic's Daughter

"Accidents of Providence is historical fiction at its best. It is absolutely steeped in atmosphere and so vividly re-creates the interregnum era that I felt as though I'd been transported there. Brown's prose has a beautiful originality. Her characters come alive with authenticity and humanity; they are loveable and infuriating, but the reader always believes in them, and invests hopes and fears with them. The story kept me gripped from the very first page—by turns desperately sad, funny, and heartwarming. It is a breath of fresh air. I loved it!"
—Katherine Webb, author of The Legacy

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Meet the Author

Stacia M. Brown holds graduate degrees in religion and historical theology from Emory University. She began writing Accidents of Providence from research conducted for her dissertation on martyrs in seventeenth century England. This is her first novel.

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The Accidents of Providence 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
mkpalmer More than 1 year ago
This is a deeply human, beautifully woven, and riveting story with rich and complicated characters. No one emerges a hero; no one is completely a villain. It seems to address the complexity of what we, as flawed human beings, both do and fail to do--and how this shapes our own lives and the lives of those around us. If you love historical fiction and excellent writing, this is a must read!
sandiek More than 1 year ago
The year is 1649, the location London. Oliver Cromwell has defeated the King, Charles I, and religion now is the ruler of England. In this time and place, women are considered playthings of the Devil, and their wickedness must be controlled. One late night, Rachel Lockyer is observed by her employer burying something. The employer goes back the next morning and discovers a dead newborn. Rachel is arrested and the book follows her case. If a woman has a child out of wedlock, she can be stripped and flogged. If she names the father, he will join her in punishment. If the child is dead, the assumption is that the mother has murdered her child to avoid punishment. This is the assumption in Rachel's case, as she has steadfastly denied being pregnant, even when asked directly. Her lover was a married man, and she is not willing to have him punished. The book follows Rachel to Newgate Prison, a horrid place where prisoners must pay not to be attacked by guards and everyone is out for himself. The main investigator puts down the facts but something about the case bothers him. The trial is short and the outcome inevitable. As Rachel waits for her execution date, the story shifts to follow the man who was the father of her child, the political parties that want to use the case to further their complaints against the government by making Rachel a martyr, and Rachel's friends who try to save her. Stacia Brown has written a historical fiction novel that outlines the brutish lives of this time, and the brutish government that served to punish any perceived misconduct. All blame went to the woman, and men could ruin them with little fear of punishment. This book is recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction as it is a real opening through which the reader can experience life in this time and age.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was really looking forward to reading this book after reading the reviews of it, but I found it to be dull and a little trite. I really couldn't finish it. An example of a much more engrossing and well-written book with fully-fleshed out characters would be "Year of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks, which I highly recommend.
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lsmeadows More than 1 year ago
I think that historical fiction is probably my favorite genre. In relation to this book, it was not my favorite historical fiction book, but it did tell a good story. I felt that the characters were interesting and enjoyed reading about their lives. I think my favorite characters were Thomas Boatswain, the lawyer, and John Lilburne's wife, Elizabeth. Their charactes had such depth. I liked the fact that they were so complex as it helped to illustrate the class of people that they represented. It is always nice to find a well written book about everyday life in England. For me, though, historical fiction is not only about the story of the people, but about what I can learn about the time period in which the book was set. I was especially interested in learning about the Levellers, who, I admit, I had never heard of before reading this book. In addition, the author's depiction of life for women in England during this period was fascinating and enlightening. Lastly, the detail Rachel's trial and the legal workings surrounding her situation were interesting. I am giving this book 3 stars and would recommend it to friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago