Katherine Clements takes the real life figure of Elizabeth Poole, and transforms her into her own character in The Crimson Ribbon. Poole was known during her life time (1622 – post 1668) as a religious activist and later as some sort of prophet. Though she began as a tailor’s daughter her religious belief grew and she became convinced she heard messages from God, prompting her to protest the trial and execution of King Charles I. Her fervent and sometimes blind faith is a critical issue in The Crimson Ribbon, altering her life, and the lives of those close to her, forever.
Our narrator is Ruth, born a maid in the country household of Oliver Cromwell. She knows him as her and her mother’s benevolent master, a farmer who has gained influence and money. Only once she is an adult does he become the powerful, controversial man we know him as. He appears only a handful of times, but he is a constant presence behind Ruth; he is her connection to some sort of power, some way to get out.
Ruth’s mother dies at the start of the book, in the most horrible of ways. Ruth is witness to it all – not only the horror and sadness, but the deep injustice. Her mother is a maid but also a healer, a collector of herbs, and a midwife. Accused of witchcraft, she is murdered by a mob. Ruth is left to watch. Afterwards, Cromwell’s mother Old Bess urges Ruth to leave and travel to London, to put distance between herself and her mother’s attackers. She flees in the night, travelling by cart. She meets an ex-soldier on the road, Joseph, and they form an unlikely and uneven friendship that brings more to both of them than they might expect.
Clements keeps up the pace well as Ruth is thrown into her new life, navigating the dangers of the open world and the streets of London. Old Bess places her with Elizabeth Poole’s family as a maid, serving her father. From this point The Crimson Ribbon took on a bit of a Sarah Waters tone for me, which I liked as I love Waters’ books. Ruth and Lizzie become fast friends, and throughout the novel their relationship is brilliantly constructed and drawn. It is rather complex and both their roles change as the book goes on, but it is entirely believable and you see how it is buffeted about and changed by both circumstances and feelings, both of which evolve through the story.
In London Ruth meets Joseph again as she becomes more involved in Lizzie’s world. Lizzie writes political and religious pamphlets, and Joseph is involved in the printing. The use of printing is very interesting as it something that we now take for granted but was difficult, arduous and expensive back then. The scene with a description of how a printing press works is excellent, and conveys how much work and effort went into printing every page. The importance of printing within the novel also demonstrates what an impact and influence the printed word can have, and how it can be used. Here it gives women and revolutionaries a voice that they otherwise would not have. This is vital as it allows Lizzie to print her pamphlets – something that could either make or break her.
Both the English Civil War and the suspicion and fear of witches constantly exist in the background of the story. Clements very clearly demonstrates the power of religious belief and fervour, both in terms of Lizzie’s blind faith and in the way it is used by the authorities to single out and penalise those seen as dangerous. It is interesting because at this time in the 1640s, as Clements makes clear, neither Parliament nor the King had absolute power and so the only true law came from God – but that did not stop those with some power using it to their advantage. At various points the use of this power is made painfully clear, as with Ruth’s mother’s death, and these scenes really inspire feelings of anger and frustration as the zealots use the women’s words against them and twist the situation to their advantage – you feel that the justice of God is not present and the persecutors are doing anything they can to twist Scripture to suit their plans. These people are immoral and unchristian – and yet they have all the power and authority.
My only criticism of The Crimson Ribbon is that the pace was a little uneven. It begins very quickly with Ruth travelling to London, but then the mid section is overly long as Ruth and Lizzie spend time in Abingdon. On their return to London things happen very quickly and I felt the dramatic climax and ending was a bit ‘squeezed in’ and happened a bit too fast.
Other than that this is a beautifully written novel about an incredible time in England’s history, with a cast of intriguing and excellently drawn characters who seem entirely real. The Crimson Ribbon is very impressive for a debut novel, and I very much look forward to what Katherine Clements does next.
Published in the UK by Headline on 27th March 2014. My copy was very kindly provided by the publisher for review.
Part of this review was quoted in the 2014 edition.