Authors: Anya Seton
Tags: #Historical Fiction
Copyright © 1962 by Anya Seton Chase
Foreword © 2007 by Philippa Gregory
A Young Woman in a Russian Hat
by Pietro Antonio Rotari. Sotheby’s Picture Library.
This novel, first published in 1962, gave Anya Seton the challenge of a huge canvas on which to draw her story. The novel ranges from the wild areas of northern England, to eighteenth-century London in all its glamour and cruelty, to the France of the exiled Stuarts, to the new settlements and wilderness of America.
It opens in a vividly sketched Northumberland with a courtship, the seduction of a working-class girl by the indulged younger son of the Radcliffe family, Charles. Surprisingly, the girl’s impoverished family pursues him and forces a form of marriage on the young couple so that the baby will be acknowledged by her father. As the couple’s daughter, Jenny, grows into a passionate and devoted young woman, she proves to be one of Charles’s great loves, and his most loyal friend in a life overshadowed by tragedy.
The Radcliffes are illegitimate cousins to the Stuart royal family, who are surviving in exile after the coup which expelled James II and put his daughter Mary on the throne as joint ruler with her husband, William of Orange. Like many families in England and Scotland the Radcliffes remain faithful to the “King over the Water.” But for them it is not just a matter of a loyal toast and ballads--they retain the hope that they will recapture the country and are willing to respond to the Stuart call to arms. Seton powerfully expresses the poignancy of the failure of the Jacobite rebellion, the most romantic defeat in English history.
For Jenny, the Radcliffe daughter, the absence of her father and the death of her mother mean that she is brought up in London society by a wealthy lady who has never forgotten her own girlhood love for Charles. Seton draws on well-known elements of eighteenth-century London society to create a vivid portrait of Jenny’s world. Pickpockets, highwaymen, political corruption, and the villains of the Hell Fire Club all make lively appearances and keep the story rapidly moving on.
But it is when Jenny goes to the New World that Seton comes into her own, with her confident description of the real-life men and women who settled the wilderness, and an evocative portrayal of the new settlements and the wild countryside. Seton’s father’s interest in early American history and American life, and her own detailed research and enthusiasm, shine through these passages, which are among the book’s strongest. Her compassion and sense of social justice are endearing to the modern reader, however erratic their application.
This was a deeply felt book for Seton, drawn not only from detailed research but also from her own family history, stories, and traditions. Seton was related to the Snowden family--the wild Border family of Jenny’s unlucky mother--and she consulted cousins and historians in England and traced the Snowden estate in America as well. Her research into the details of the Radcliffe family, including the use of original documents woven into the narrative, is a model of the handling of history in fiction.
To the modern reader, Jenny’s relationship with her father will be a troubling element. There is clearly an incestuous tone: his affection for her is always very heated, and both his wife and her husband dislike the relationship. At one point she pretends to be his lover, and convinces a witness; she experiences discomfort when he kisses her on the mouth as if they were lovers indeed. Seton’s interest in Freudian psychological studies would have indicated to her the power of the father-daughter bond, and her own relationship with her glamorous and adventurous father would have informed this fiction. The readers’ discomfort comes from the partial development of the relationship. It is hinted, implied, but not confronted or explained. It remains a disturbing and half-submerged motif.
But this will not trouble Seton’s many admirers, who expect a thoroughly researched and swiftly moving story featuring a courageous woman in search of freedom and happiness. In
they will not be disappointed.
In this biographical novel about England and Virginia in the early eighteenth century, about the two Jacobite rebellions, the Radcliffe family and that of William Byrd of Westover, I have adhered scrupulously to facts, when they can be found. A great deal is known about some of these people at dramatic moments in their lives, and yet a great deal has been lost too. What records there are frequently conflict.
In my “Afterword” I have given my acknowledgments, some of my sources, a limited bibliography, and my reasons for drawing certain conclusions. Several people have suggested that I put this material at the
of the book, for the information of those who like such data. Many, however, read only for story -- and I hope that they won’t be disappointed.
This book developed out of my love for Northumberland, from Tyneside (where my father was born) to the Scottish Border, whence many of my ancestors came. I know the country well, and have many friends and cousins there. I have struggled to indicate the flavor of the varying dialects, without swamping the reader, and may the Northumbrians forgive me for lapses!
My interest in this subject deepened when I found the story included the wild North Country dales, and Tyneside coal pits, as well as London life amongst members of British royalty and society. I was further gripped when the subject led me to Virginia, not only to William Byrd’s household and Williamsburg but on to the Piedmont wilderness.
It has taken me four years to do the writing and research on this book, though the wish to write it has, I think, always been latent -- ever since my first years in England as a small child, when I heard the romantic tales current in my father’s family. These included our descent from George Seton, the last Earl of Winton. I’ve found scant proof of that, but in genealogical delvings on the spot I encountered the equally picturesque -- and far more convincing -- Snowdon story, and its interrelation with Charles Radcliffe. I was fired to try to write about these people, to try, with the help of all the documentation I could discover, to re-create their lives, and it seemed to me that their story included not only dramatic conflicts, but the themes of loyalty, and a “lost cause” as poignant as any of the lost causes with which history is studded.
The lovely burn which still flows by the pathetic ruins of Dilston Castle in Hexhamshire (Northumberland) is today called “Devil’s Water.” On eighteenth-century maps the possessive is dropped, as it is in my title. The “Devil’s Water” is an old simile for fear.
L’eau bénite du diable c’est la peur
was a medieval French saying. The Radcliffes were perforce much occupied with various ways of transmuting the “Devil Water” into courage, as their family motto also indicates.
Genealogical charts are provided as endpapers. Also, there are maps of Northumberland and early Virginia, which accompany the text at appropriate places.
There was the sound of bitter weeping in the heavy air. Young Charles Radcliffe heard it as he rode down the hill from Dilston Castle towards the Devil Water. Those wild despairing sobs came only from a kitchen wench whose lover -- a scurvy Hexham beggar -- had four days since stolen a cow from the Dilston byre. The rogue had soon been caught with the cow, hidden in a copse. The castle steward said the thief had protested that his mother was starving -- some such tale. But the thief was very properly hanged forthwith. The kitchen wench might think herself lucky that no more had happened to
than a good tongue-lashing from Mrs. Busby, the castle housekeeper. And yet the stupid girl, half crazed, they said, wept on and on. “Greeting,” they idiotically called weeping up here in their barbarous tongue, which was partly Scottish and partly the English of five hundred years ago, or so said Mr. Brown, the chaplain.
The unseen girl gave a louder wail and the noise aggravated all Charles’s pent-up boredom. The dripping mists lifted at last, and he rode aimlessly off in search of amusement.
The stream called Devil Water roared over cascades at the foot of the castle hill. It was in spate this September morning. There had been heavy rain on the moors to swell the burns with rushing brown water. Charles yanked at his mare’s bridle when they ambled across the stone bridge. He dismounted and peered down into the torrent wondering if there might be any salmon running--fighting from the Tyne up the rushing stream. If not salmon there would certainly be trout in the black pool beneath the Linnel Rocks.
Charles thought of shouting for a servant to bring his fishing gear, but then decided that the feckless knaves would not hear him up at the castle. Or if they did, would not bother to come. Undisciplined and sullen they were -- these Northumbrians -- silent when commanded, or muttering among themselves in their gobble-mouthed dialect.
It would be different when James came home from France. He’d beat manners into his servants and tenants. They’d have to obey their feudal lord, albeit they’d never yet seen him. Aye, thought Charles, sighing, nor have I seen him since I was nine. He turned abruptly and mounted his mare, having lost interest in fishing. The mare trotted across the bridge, and downstream towards the mill where the miller’s children often fed her apples. Charles let her pick her own way while wondering, not for the first time, nor without uneasiness, about the brother who was soon coming home.
Brother James. The Heir. The most noble Earl of Derwentwater, Viscount Radcliffe and Langley, Baron Tyndale. All that and yet but twenty. Owner too of estates in Northumberland, Cumberland, and other counties, a landed heritage so vast that Sir Marmaduke said there was no other nobleman in England’s North could surpass it. James’ll be proud as Lucifer, Charles thought, and play the master over me -- the frenchified popinjay!
At once Charles felt familiar stabs of envy and guilt. James had not been in France these seven years for trivial reasons. He had been sent there in 1702 to companion his cousin, James Stuart, in exile. “James the Third of England,” this cousin should have been now, had not that fat old frump of a Queen Anne proved an unnatural daughter, and allowed the scurvy Protestants to hoist her on the throne. May she rot! Charles thought, but without much heat. During his childhood in London he had never seen Queen Anne. Nor were the long-ago wrongs suffered by the deposed James the Second very real to Charles, despite the occasional harpings of Sir Marmaduke and Cousin Maud. Charles clicked his tongue impatiently as he thought of these two good people who had taken him into their Yorkshire home when his father died four years since. Sir Marmaduke Constable was a wispy, earnest man, cousin to the Radcliffes through his mother. When the second Earl died Sir Marmaduke had been appointed Charles’s guardian. Cousin Maud was his faded spinsterish wife, who often lamented the loss of the vocation she had felt as a girl, when many of her friends had professed as nuns in Belgium. But she was a conscientious woman, and anxiously performed all her duties -- except the production of an heir to Sir Marmaduke. They were both up at the castle now, fussing over the shabby dusty rooms, empty so many years, worrying over the dilapidations James would find when he came home to claim his patrimony. And doubtless they were irritably asking the housekeeper and the new priest they’d just taken as chaplain,
Master Charles could have gone off to in such damp unhealthy weather?
Charles’s young face tightened. He rubbed his dirty forefinger tenderly over his chin, feeling the golden prickles which had lately begun to sprout. He straightened his shoulders. They were broad enough for a man’s. He felt manhood surging in him, manhood and the need for mastery. But Cousin Maud clucked over him as though he were a child, never letting him forget that he was scarce sixteen and a younger brother. The
brother -- for there was Francis, too, coming back with James from the exiled Court at St. Germain.