Ruth Flowers is a servant in the house of Oliver Cromwell but her life is almost destroyed by the brutal events which force her from her Ely home and drive her to London and the haven of the Poole household. Protected by tailor Master Robert Poole, Ruth is soon the maid and confidante of his daughter Elizabeth, or Lizzie, ousting Lizzie’s former maid Charlotte from her affections, fast becoming enraptured by Lizzie’s beautiful face, her political and religious fervour, and her spirit.
Set in the late 1640s, these are the last days of the English Civil War but they are still dangerous times. The King is captured and under threat of trial and worse while Cromwell’s New Model Army is divided by the Levellers. Meanwhile, in the countryside, women are falling prey to the fervour of the witch hunts while in the city of London plague strikes at random. Ruth and Lizzie embark on a perilous path, not only in their relationship but also in their interest in the fate of the King. For women, there is a thin line between being considered the voice of God or the mouthpiece of the Devil, and it is possible that not even Cromwell, Ruth’s former kindly master, will be able to protect Lizzie and Ruth should they cross it.
I enjoyed The Crimson Ribbon, perhaps more than I was expecting due to my usual preference for Civil War military/political fiction. We see hints of what has gone on in battle thanks to the presence of Joseph, a pamphleteer and former soldier, traumatised by his experience at Naseby. Otherwise, though, the Civil War itself is a conflict that is about ended, at least this phase of it, leaving its victors with the problem of what to do with a divinely annointed King, and division now is fired by religion, superstition and idealism. Oliver Cromwell himself does feature – as a farmer and householder becoming transformed into powerful conqueror and ruler – but it is a minor role. The Crimson Ribbon is the story of Ruth and Lizzie, told in the present tense by Ruth herself and as such it is a much more personal tale – showing how Ruth’s life is defined by her love for Lizzie and by the great tragedy of her life, made even worse by the increasing possibility that events could be repeated.
Despite the big themes and great dramas, The Crimson Ribbon is an intimate story, and has an air of romance to it, although the sexual content is small and never gratuitous. This is a love story – between Ruth and Lizzie but also between Ruth and Joseph, although the latter is of far less significance for the book – and the feelings of Ruth for Lizzie take precedent over everything else. Through Lizzie, Ruth meets preachers and writers, generals and thinkers, but none matter much to Ruth and so we learn little about these things, which is perhaps a shame. Apart from romance, the other main emotion of The Crimson Ribbon is outrage at the injustice and barbarity women endured in 17th-century England at the hands of witchfinders, zealots and politicians.
I had one issue with The Crimson Ribbon and that was its distortion of the life of true historical figure Elizabeth Poole. Personally, I would have preferred this character to have been completely fictional, like most of the others in the novel, rather than a re-imagined version of what was in its own right a remarkable life. Perhaps because of this, Ruth is a much more rounded character than Lizzie, who often appears petulant, weak and less than likeable.
The Crimson Ribbon is a lot of fun. Its historical setting is vivid and rich and the experiences and psychology of Ruth rang true. There is a lightness to the narrative that makes it dance along. It provides a different perspective of the English Civil War from the one I would usually seek out but I found myself immersed in its portrait of superstitious and troubled England, and London especially, in the late 1640s.