Brown’s first novel is a heart-poundingly vivid, intellectually provocative account of the legal case against a fictional woman condemned to death for secretly burying her dead, illegitimate newborn in Cromwell’s England.
In 1649, Cromwell has taken power after the beheading of Charles I. Politics is in turmoil, suspicion and paranoia the mood of the day. But the law still must be upheld as aging and ailing criminal investigator Thomas Bartwain reluctantly builds his case against Rachel Lockyer, an unmarried glovemaker’s apprentice, for breaking the 1624 “Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children.” No one questions that Rachel buried her infant daughter; the case hinges on whether the child was born dead. Humorously Rumpole-like, with a wife who keeps him morally on pitch, Bartwain is increasingly uneasy, especially when he finds a flaw in the law. Meanwhile Rachel remains largely silent out of her confused sense of guilt and because she does not want to expose William Walwyn, who has been her adulterous lover for three passionate years—the author provides great, unsentimental sex scenes that feel true to the era. With his crony Richard Lilburne, Walwyn is a well-known leader of the Levelers, a human rights advocacy group that originally supported Cromwell but has turned against him and is now under attack. William is also the father of 14 legitimate children, and his wife Anne watches and waits for her husband to return his heart to his marriage, not passive but patient. Rachel’s true friend and supporter is feisty and outspoken Elizabeth Lilburne, who has recently lost two small sons to smallpox and remains loyal to husband John despite her impatience with his political posturing. Events in the plot are based on historical incidents, and one of the book’s many joys is the way fictional (Rachel, the Bartwains) and historical figures (the Walwyns, the Lilburnes) weave seamlessly together; everyone’s motives and reactions are richly complex.
A romping good read that is character-driven yet intellectually provocative on issues of law, religion and morality—historical fiction at its best.