- Miranda Malins
- ARRSE Rating
- 5 Mushroom Heads
If you are living in seclusion thanks to Covid-19, this fascinating novel should help you to beguile the time until normal life resumes. At 434 pages, including Notes, it is a substantial work. If you enjoyed Daphne du Maurier's Civil War novel, The King's General, you should enjoy this one, which is by contrast written from a Puritan perspective. The main difference is that Miranda Malins is a Cambridge-educated historian, who has done considerable research to ensure authenticity of historic detail, while Daphne du Maurier was an autodidact. Malins' learning is profound; the first two chapters, while absorbing to me, can occasionally read like a history lesson. Do not be put off; the narrative becomes considerably more lively after Chapter 2; the book proves to be a combination of political thriller and romance (between the narrator and her admirer, Robert Rich).
The seventeenth century exercises a continuing fascination on British people because for us the modern age started then. It began with Queen Elizabeth I reigning almost unchallenged in England and ended with a fledgling constitutional monarchy, regular Parliaments and the two-party system in place. In between there were two revolutions and a destructive Civil War, which still has the power to provoke strong emotions. Oliver Cromwell, a brilliant soldier and one of our best rulers, was a key figure in these developments. His memory also inspired the American revolutionaries in the next century. Who better than a member of his family to explain to us what went on, including behind the scenes?
The heroine and narrator is Cromwell's youngest daughter Frances, who became Lady Rich and later Lady Russell. Frances' two aristocratic marriages are a clue to the novel's title. Cromwell's two youngest daughters, Mary and Frances, made much grander marriages than their elder sisters. This was because, by the time that they came of age, their father was Lord Protector and king in all but name, so they were Puritan princesses. It followed that their future marriages were of political importance. Frances has great difficulty in accepting this and regards inter alia a proposed political match with the exiled King Charles II 'the most debauched man in Europe', with undisguised horror. Cromwell eventually allows her to marry the man of her choice, Robert Rich, heir presumptive to the Earl of Warwick, although sadly he dies young. Her sister Mary marries Viscount Fauconberg in a bid to heal the breach with his influential Royalist family and others like them.
The period of the novel is the years 1657 to 1661. Through Frances' narrative we experience the Cromwell dynasty's glory days following Oliver's second investiture as Lord Protector and the spectacular marriages of Frances and Mary. Malins rightly emphasises the cultured and decorous face of the Cromwellian regime, adorned by such luminaries as Milton, Dryden and Marvell. After the Restoration some citizens would come to regret the dignity and decorum of Cromwell's era, compared with the riotous court and corrupt government of Charles II. Tragedy strikes when Oliver dies unexpectedly, following the death of his favourite daughter, Elizabeth Claypole. The subsequent fall of the Cromwell dynasty, which was partly – but only partly – due to the weakness of Oliver's designated successor and elder surviving son, Richard, is harrowingly told. Treachery and politics also played their part. The intrigues between the Major Generals and the civilian politicians are well-described. The Restoration fills Frances with gloom, although she eventually finds happiness living in the country with her second husband, Lord Russell.
A sub-plot is the Restoration Government's decision to evict the great and good of the Commonwealth and Protectorate from Westminster Abbey; they include members of the Cromwell family (except for Elizabeth Claypole, who was overlooked; she is still there). Most are reburied nearby in St Margaret's churchyard but the bodies of the three principal Regicides, Cromwell, Bradshaw and Ireton, are to be tried posthumously and then subjected to all the indignities traditionally inflicted on traitors. Can the family rescue Oliver's body for Christian reburial elsewhere and substitute another?
The author set herself a challenging task by choosing to write in the first person. Obviously Frances Cromwell would have written and spoken seventeenth century English, with which we are familiar from the works of, among others, John Bunyan, Izaak Walton and Sir Thomas Browne. However, 'repro-seventeenth century' English would not have made for an easy read, so Malins' Frances Cromwell expresses herself in modern but formal English. Most of the time this works, but occasionally I found myself wondering whether Frances would really have had some of the thoughts or made some of the vaguely feminist remarks attributed to her, not to mention having a pre-marital fling with Robert Rich. (Fortunately Oliver Cromwell does not find out.) One particular expression, 'empower', has been singled out as a terrible anachronism by at least one reviewer. However Milton used it, so Frances Cromwell, who knew him, might well have done so too.
Miranda Malins is an historian specialising in the seventeenth century. She is the author of numerous articles in learned reviews and a Trustee of the Cromwell Association. She is also a London solicitor. She began writing novels while on maternity leave.