Allen & Unwin | 2021 (4 November) | 512p | review copy | Buy the book
It is 1642 and England is descending into Civil War. The country is divided as are families, even minds, as tradition and religion and long-held loyalties come under attack from brave new ideas. Jayne Swift is the daughter of a gentry family in Dorset but she has long resisted attempts to marry her off and now her parents and brothers are learning to accept her as a physician with a growing reputation for her skill. When Lyme Regis is besieged by a Royalist army, led by one of the King’s nephews, Jayne’s skills are needed by both sides. Jayne’s intention of remaining neutral, being physician to both Royalist and Parliamentarian, is suspected by some and there are claims on her from both sides. One man in particular seems to walk the line between each side, the mysterious William Harrier, who first appears to Jayne as a footman but acts like no servant. This is a war like no other as the prospect of a King’s execution makes all too clear.
I love Minette Walter’s writing and characterisation whatever the genre and I love that she has turned her attention to the English Civil War, one of my favourite periods of history. The Swift family embodies the tragedy of this war, with the very real possibility that father may face son, brother may face brother, on the battlefield. The Swift and the Harrier examines the trauma of this as well as the efforts people, including landowners, made to resist the war and its pillaging, looting, violent soldiers. Effectively, this is a war of three sides. Sometimes all would be calm, when the fight is taken elsewhere, but at other times it literally comes to the door.
Jayne Swift is defiantly neutral whereas William Harrier’s allegiances are, at least initially, unclear. This means that the novel shows us both sides, making a distinction between the cause and those who fought for it. The ways in which an army treats its soldiers is important to Jayne, the physician who must pick up the pieces, and it’s telling that many of the Royalist soldiers are effectively pressganged whereas the Parliamentarian soldiers are well-trained and motivated. Neither side emerges smelling of roses but The Swift and the Harrier made me re-evaluate my own assumptions about the Civil War and it completely altered my point of view. As someone who lives in Oxford, surrounded by reminders of Charles I’s residence in the city, it’s about time that I looked over the city’s walls to the claims of the other side! All of which means that I was thoroughly engrossed in the novel.
A substantial chunk is set during the siege of Lyme Regis and this is enthralling. I know and love the place and it was fascinating to imagine the bombardment and privations of the siege in the town, and the role of the cobb, which I’ve walked along so many times. The descriptions are fantastic and it’s also good to imagine the role that women would have played in the defence of their homes and families. Jayne’s own role as physician is carefully drawn. It feels believable. She works closely alongside male doctors, giving an air of authenticity to her role, but whereas some of them cling to medieval ways, Jayne is all about hygiene and cleanliness.
The main subject of the novel, apart from the war itself, is the growing relationship between Jayne and the enigmatic William Harrier, who pops up at critical times in the novel. He is a man of many guises but he remains mysterious. As a result, I didn’t particularly warm to him, as I did to Jayne and her brothers, and I did think there was a certain inevitability to this element of the story.
My favourite characters were the novel’s eldest – Lady Alice, Jayne’s father and the Duke, William’s grandfather. The impact of civil war on the older generations is particularly fascinating. Too old to fight, their opinions ignored, their loyalties to the old ways trampled upon, their sons divided, it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Jayne’s father is a good man who struggles to hold his family and home together. His growing pride in his daughter is wonderful. The Duke is a marvellous creation! There is a tenderness in the way that Minette Walters writes these characters. She is also at pains to show that one must look below the surface in judging a person. I did enjoy Cromwell’s cameo appearance!
The Swift and the Harrier is a fine novel, reassessing a period of history that continues to fascinate and has left its mark across the land. It’s beautifully written. It’s brutal at times – the opening chapters contain a horrific scene (don’t let that put you off) – it’s also tense. But there are also quiet and happy times as families go against the mood of the times and come together.