Book review- Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair

This historical romance, by the Scottish author of The Mermaid and the Bear, continues following the Monteith family. Sinclair’s second novel is set in the 1740s during the fateful years leading up to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion and its aftermath. Beginning in the castle near Aberdeen, the action quickly shifts away from Scotland however, with most of the story taking place on a tobacco plantation in Pennsylvania.  The Scottish heroine, Lady Elizabeth Monteith from “the castle” is kidnapped from her native Scotland and views its tragedy from the far-off American colonies. She is sold as an indentured servant, cook to an enlightened, mysterious “master”, Michael.

The novel is written in the first person with Beth relating the events in chronological order. Elizabeth, or “Beth” as she becomes, is a warm, likeable and very determined character. Her humanity and sense of humour rarely desert her. It is only in the aftermath of Culloden when she hears of the Jacobite defeat that her resilience flags and she succumbs to depression. Wisely, Sinclair chooses not to second guess the events of Culloden. Although most readers will already know the outcome of the Jacobite rising, Beth does not and a suitable period of time rolls by until the news crosses the ocean from Scotland.

The story follows Beth’s transformation from scared teenage captive to a capable and confident, practical young woman as she adapts to her new situation, ultimately leading to a decision between the old life and the new. It is set against the background of slavery, the social inequalities between free whites, indentured servants, native Americans and black slaves. Beth has a disarming acceptance of all races which today might be dismissed as “colour blindness” but in the context of an 18th century character is refreshing. Relations between the different racial and social groups are handed sensitively, even if it is sometimes a little difficult to believe in Beth’s naïve and childlike views.

There is an interesting range of characters from the evil (historical) Alexander Young, first mate on the ship which transports Beth to her new life, to the central figures of Sarah, the unpleasant Mrs Sauer, the elderly man Comfort and the two men in Beth’s life. Peter, her young companion in captivity, a fellow Scot, disappears from the story for much of the book, while Michael, the manager of the estates, emerges from the shadows in a series of revelations and surprising twists. 

The sense of time and place is well drawn; and the modest sprinkling of Scottish dialect words adds to the authentic voice of the narrator. Despite the central themes of slavery and racial intolerance, the occasional savagery of a scene (the pregnant Nivvie being whipped by the foreman) and the references to the brutal traitors’ deaths of the captured Jacobites, this is a gentle, hopeful and entertaining book. The plot keeps the reader guessing its outcome until the very last page.

Ghostly warriors

“Would Byron’s men haunt the Down in years to come, a restless and wild eyed horde charging into the guns of Waller’s army for evermore?”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Visiting battle fields is a melancholy, but addictive, pursuit. At some places the air remains thick with the ghosts of the dead. I visited Culloden at the age of 11 with my parents and I still recall the shivers which ran down my spine as we inspected one weather-beaten clan memorial after another. In the days before the existence of a visitors’ centre, we were the only visitors on a summer’s day among a host of highland warrior war dead.

Since then (but sadly not in 2020) I have visited other battlefields, particularly those of the English Civil War.  Thanks to Zoom (and a certain amount of very early rising due to the time difference between the UK and Australia) I am currently able to participate in Battlefields Trust and National Army Museum talks on everything from Boudica to my personal consuming passion, Basing House. The other Zoomees clutch glasses of wine, while I hold a mug of coffee and wear a sweatshirt hastily tugged on over my PJs. It is an unexpected, beneficial side effect of the Plague Year.

But writing historical fiction about battlefields is so much easier when you have climbed the hill to appreciate a particular vantage point. Despite being partly obscured by trees, the view from Edgehill’s 700 ft high ridge of where the fighting took place below gives wonderful perspective.

“From his position high on Edgehill, Rafe … could see empty fields stretching before him, far down below…

So distant they could have been pieces on a chessboard, Rafe saw the forces of the enemy streaming onto the fields below the ridge. As he watched, the antlike columns assumed the shapes of men and horses. Regiments were taking their places, the patterns changing as they moved from marching order into battle formation.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

View of the battlefield from Edgehill

In other places both view and landscape have remained the same. I was so haunted by the carpet of poppies on Roundway Down above Devizes, with its associations of the Great War overlaying those of the 1643 cavalry battle between the forces of King and Parliament, that the photo became my screensaver for many months.

“He shuddered at the thought his corpse might be left upon the Down to rot…until nothing remained of him but bones bleaching among the poppies.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Roundway Down, Devizes

As I discovered when I began writing historical fiction, and searching for “what really happened”, the location of a battle is not always clear. Those present at the battle were not generally concerned with pinpointing the location for future generations. “Facts” in their reports were obscured by clouds of gun smoke, their inability to see the entire battlefield from where they were fighting, and the desire to portray their own performance in the best possible light.

They would refer to “a little hill”, a wood, or rising ground. Sometimes archaeologists come to the rescue when a dig uncovers civil war ammunition. This may pinpoint where the action took place, and what types of soldiers were fighting. Musket balls mean infantry or dragoons, while pistol suggests cavalry. A complete lack of any pistol (or musket) balls suggests the battle took place in a different location. If they are lying thickly in the ground it is evidence of heavy fighting (but beware, it might also mean the baggage train, with its stores of ammunition, was waylaid at that point).

For a writer of fiction, a dispute is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us more wiggle room. But it can be fantastic to get an indisputable feel and proof of how an event went horribly wrong.  Walking the site of the battle of Cheriton (March 1644), I became lost in the maze of narrow lanes the Royalist cavalry had charged down. So narrow I could touch them with both hands, no wonder the cavalry were beaten for the first time in open battle.

“Bramdean Lane was so narrow that it scarcely permitted the passage of two horses side by side. The enemy would pick his men off as they filed into the open two by two like the animals into Noah’s ark…

Behind him, the riders were forming up in two files, their movements hampered by the confinement of the lane and the musketeers crouching in the hedges.

… Ahead were confused sounds of fighting from the unseen battlefield, the clash of sword play, gunfire, screams of man and beast mingling with the urgent beat of drums.”

(From forthcoming novel The Tawny Sash)

Cheriton battle field

The best illustration for me was when visiting Chester in 2018. King Charles I was said to have “watched the battle” of Rowton Moor, which lay outside the city, from a tower on the city walls now known as “The King’s Tower”. My guide took me inside the tower where I inspected the view from the window. Then she drove me out to the site of the battle which, even today, remains well outside Chester’s suburbs. I tramped across the rising ground (now farmland) and agreed with her that even with a telescope (which did exist in 1644), It would have been totally impossible for the king to watch the battle. That particular battle is yet to feature in my writing, but watch this space…

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