Henrietta Challoner is the young daughter of a London merchant. With her mother dead, a death caused by her own birth and that of her twin brother Sam, Hen’s life is quiet, unexceptional. Despite her intelligence and the tutilage of her enlightened father, Hen’s life is spent in the shadow of her brothers Sam and Ned, her evenings tormented by her maliciously nostalgic nurse and her hopes repressed by her increasingly withdrawn and embittered grandmother. But this is 1640 and events are about to play a role in Hen’s fate. As London increasingly deplores King Charles’s war taxes, not to mention his Catholic foreign wife (Hen’s namesake), and Parliament continues to be unpopularly silenced, time grows ever more ripe for Civil War and in 1642 it comes.
Like many families of the time, at least in fiction, brother is set against brother and the Challinor household is no different. Ned is a godly man, he is drawn to the Protestant cause, and as a result of this he finds himself naked, trapped under the likewise naked corpses of ally and enemy on the field of Edgehill. Unlike them, though, Ned is still alive. But deeply traumatised. Sam’s allegiances may never have become clear if it hadn’t have been for the traditional, old-fashioned and possibly naive support of his father for the king. When his immensely likeable, kind and blustering father meets his fate, it’s then that Sam settles on the only course open to a stricken young man. Sam fights for the king. It’s Hen who’s left behind to try and hold house and home together. Falling in love with a man whose family may never accept her, Hen has to do the best she can to find a future for herself and her divided brothers, all the time wishing she could take charge of her own destiny and not be the one to wait at home and worry.
Treason’s Daughter presents the ebb and flow of the 1640s, right through to the execution of the king at the end of the decade. These ten years, though, saw more than war. They also heralded a time of science and questioning and this is every bit as important to the novel as the battles and unease that tore the country in two. Hen’s father is in love with science, trading stock for an abominably expensive microscope, while Hen’s love Will is more astronomer than lawyer. Hen herself is a great reader and a Latin scholar. There is a sense, though, that her elder brother Ned belongs to an earlier world, one in which the Earth is still the centre of the solar system. His life is governed by God. Not that it is treated this simplistically. Ned is a loving son and brother. It’s war that ruins things. War and disappointment.
Told in the present tense and moving between the stories of Hen, Ned and Sam, Treason’s Daughter is an extremely emotive read. From the beginning I was hooked and I instantly fell in love with young Hen. Her relationship with her father is realistically loving but complex, made more difficult by her mother’s death in childbirth. Sam and Ned are both deeply loved and Hen wants nothing more than to be like them. Some of her time, though, is spent with her cousin Anne’s family, contrasting greatly with her own. Anne’s story plays an important role in the novel. One might start off not liking her very much but as the fates play their hand sympathies stir. The lot of women during these days is an important theme. Romance might play a part at times but it’s not romance as we might know it today.
Events are described subjectively, all through the experiences of our young protagonists. This means that battles, imprisonments, deaths and dreams are all made extremely personal and described with great feeling. This makes the reader sit on the edge of his or her seat. But it also means that there are times of great sorrow. There is lightness – the dialogue especially is delightful – but as the novel, and the Civil War, proceed, darkness subdues the light. Ned’s experiences on the battlefield of Edgehill are unforgettable and enormously harrowing to read, as are other key moments in the novel.
The first half of Treason’s Daughter is superb. I was enraptured by it. The second half did feel, at least to me, that it lost its focus a little and the emotional heart of the story slightly faded as characters seemed lost due to the chaos of war. But when the end came I felt that all of my senses were under assault and I had one of the most powerful reactions I’ve ever had to the end of a novel. It left me reeling and in quite a state. I finished it yesterday and I thought of it through the night and today I had to re-read the final pages. To have become as fond of these characters as I have is a huge testimony to the power and beauty of Antonia Senior’s imagination and prose. The language is beautiful and feels true to the times. The emotional integrity of the characters is extraordinary and left me breathless. This is a book that pulls at the heartstrings as the country falls apart.