Regardless of the story inside, recent covers of historical novels are all about the bodice. A hint of cleavage indicates a hint of romance, maybe even lust. These books are obviously aimed at women, but when the character’s head is cut out of the picture, I wonder what kind of women those cover designers are aiming for.
The cover of Royalist Rebel suggests something less frivolous. It’s a circa 1651 portrait of the book’s protagonist, Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, with a black servant, possibly her beloved slave, Nero. It was painted at Ham House by Sir Peter Lely, and it still hangs there, where Elizabeth grew up and where much of the story takes place. There’s a bodice, yes, followed by a story that includes some lust and romance.
But author Anita Seymour takes her history seriously. The fun in historical fiction is letting someone else do the research for you. Some is more fiction, some is more historical. Seymour leans to the latter with an almost literal account of the facts.
Elizabeth Murray, a staunch royalist during the English Civil War of the 1640’s, is the only pretty sister of four. Raised by William Murray, First Earl of Dysart, a royalist spy and confidante of King Charles I, and Catherine Bruce Murray, who carries her husband’s secret messages back and forth across England, young Elizabeth catches on quickly to her parents’ schemes.
The real Elizabeth was known to be determined to have what she wanted, and in Seymour’s Royalist Rebel, what Elizabeth wants is Ham House. The king granted her father the lease on it in 1626, and it has been in her family ever since. She will stop at nothing to keep it for her family, and to inherit it for herself.
To keep Ham House out of the hands of rebels and the anti-royalist Parliament, Elizabeth must scheme against rebel leader Oliver Cromwell himself, and she does so with cunning and charm. Elizabeth is imperious, headstrong, and bossy. She believes that being of noble birth makes her better than those beneath her, especially rebel soldiers, and at times this snobbishness puts her and her loved ones in danger.
Seymour has made the wise choice to tell her story in first person, otherwise it might be difficult to sympathize with Elizabeth. But as we get inside her head, even as she disdains the lower class rebels, we begin to want her to succeed in keeping Ham House. We feel her discomfort when confronted by dirty soldiers. We cringe at the danger when a local rebel captain threatens. Yet while Elizabeth complains about minor losses (there’s very little wine left in the cellar), Seymour manages to show us rebel soldiers, outside Ham House, starving to the point of tearing out the gardens and chasing down livestock.
Seymour’s research is exhaustive. She weaves the most minute details into the story–the meaning in a turn of the neck, what is signaled by the uses of the hand, the styles of clothing. She also shows us the décor of every building the story visits, from Oxford to Ham House to Helmingham Hall in Suffolk.
The book is packed with names, dates, battles, wins, losses, and even body counts, all of them true to historical records. So much so, in fact, that this is my one quibble with the book. Seymour gets much of this information across in dialogue, and at times this fact-giving chit-chat is awkward, and not necessary to the whole.
However, besides the immense load of research she has accomplished in which I get to immerse myself, Seymour provides us with motivated, dimensional characters. No one is completely right, and no one is completely wrong. And as Elizabeth plots and schemes her way through the war, Anita Seymour excels at setting. In the best way, very few poetic phrases call attention to themselves. Yet I find myself immersed in the smell of lavender on a cool, English evening, or feeling claustrophobic as I climb the stairs to visit my lover in the Tower of London, or simply walking the halls of Ham House and wanting it for my own.
Petrea Burchard‘s new novel, Camelot & Vineavailable as in paperback and as an ebook. Her blog, Living Vicuriously, is featured on Hometown Pasadena’s “Best Blogs in San Gabriel Valley.” Petrea’s 30-year acting career began morphing into a writing career with “Act As If,” her humor column about the journeyman actor’s life, now in reruns at NowCasting.com. She gained a following in the animè world as the original English voice of Ryoko, a space pirate in the cult classic Tenchi Muyo!, and continues voice-over work as the voice of Stater Bros. markets.