May Day 1646. The Civil War is raging and what should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn. Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it’s in the Poole household that she finds refuge.
Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth, who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie’s world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie’s radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country’s conflict, to the trial of a king.
The English Civil War is an era of British history that I’ve only started to learn more than the bare bones about in the past few years. Reading The Bleeding Land and its sequel Brother’s Fury by Giles Kristian and some of Andrew Swanston’s Thomas Hill novels showed me that these decades in the middle of the seventeenth century were pivotal in Britain’s history and created massive changes to British society and left deep scars on its populace. It’s a fascinating era and Katherine Clements’ debut novel The Crimson Ribbon, set in perhaps some of the most dramatic and traumatic years of the Civil War, couldn’t fail but catch my interest when it came through the mail. And though it took me over a year to read it, I’m glad I made the time, because Clements weaves a stunning tale.
Ruth Flowers is the narrator and protagonist of the story. Her narrative interweaves her personal journey learning to accept her heart and laying her ghosts to rest with the greater story of the final years of King Charles I’s life. Ruth’s story revolves around her mistress Lizzie Poole, who takes in Ruth after she loses her mother and her place in the Cromwell household in one night. Ruth transfers her love and loyalty from her mother to Lizzie and comes to love her mistress deeply. Yet, Ruth needs to learn to stand on her own, to depend on herself and to be her own woman. Clements allows Ruth to grow and develop in a beautiful manner, slowly gaining agency and letting the balance of power between the two women grow more equal and in some ways tip over in Ruth’s favour.
Lizzie is a captivating character, both to Ruth and the reader, yet she has a dangerous edge to her. There is something ominous to Lizzie’s brilliance; her light can blind and burn and once sucked into her orbit, it is hard to leave her. Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with hints that Lizzie isn’t the saint Ruth thinks she is and it is this contradiction between Lizzie-as-saint and Lizzie-as-sinner that creates much of the tension in Ruth and Lizzie’s friendship. In fact, Ruth’s wilful ignorance was quite frustrating at times. Lizzie’s dangerous edge is also expressed in her radical ideas. While The Crimson Ribbon tells the story of those on the side of Parliament, set against the King, Lizzie’s views oscillate from too radically egalitarian even for the rebels to too Royalist to not be considered a traitor. The numerous brands of freethinkers portrayed in the novel were fascinating and Lizzie’s story showed just how dangerous these new ideas could be.
Though the story very much focuses on Ruth’s relationship to Lizzie, Clements manages to infuse a lot of the politics of the time into the novel as well. Told from the point of view of those of the lower classes, The Crimson Ribbon makes a clear case of why they might rebel against the King and his court. The ordinary man wants to have an equal chance and an equal say in how his life and country is run. She also manages to show that Cromwell’s rebellion was just as hard, if not harder, on the general populace, as it was on the ruling classes. In a way, Ruth’s relationship with Lizzie mirrors the political developments of the war. They go from a traditional mistress-servant relationship, to a more equal friendship and in the end it flips completely around with Ruth being the one ‘in power’. And it is only in this middle part that they are at peace and happy.
In Ruth’s tale we also have a juxtaposition of blazing passion versus steady love. Lizzie sweeps Ruth off her feet from the first moment Ruth lays eyes on her. It is the kind of love that is celebrated in countless power ballads and romance novels, yet it is a love that burns, flares, and hurts. To accentuate this, Clements gives us Joseph, the soldier who travels with Ruth at the start of the novel and who weaves his way in and out of her life throughout the novel. Their friendship is slow and steady, and while not always easy or without hurt, it is a constant. Joseph is steadfast and loyal and it is his unwavering regard that lets Ruth discover her own wants and desires and to make her own choices for the future.
Katherine Clements’ The Crimson Ribbon is a powerful story of friendship and love set in an era that challenged all preconceived notions of how life was supposed to be. There are numerous layers to the narrative and so much to unpack, that I’ve not managed to touch on half of it in this review. This fascinating novel of a country in turmoil, of a girl set adrift in the world, and of how she manages to reach safe haven in the end, managed to capture my imagination and I was spell-bound until its final pages.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.