Blog Reviews

Historical Fiction – learning from ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’

Nightingale 2Vianne and Isabelle are sisters whose challenge is to survive after the fall of France to the Nazis in WWII. Vianne’s house is requisitioned by the Gestapo, whilst her husband is away fighting, leading to knife-edge tensions as she tries to protect her daughter Sophie, and her Jewish neighbour, and best friend, Rachel. Meanwhile, rebellious Isabelle thinks her sister too passive, and joins the rebel partisans in the French resistance. Isabelle moves back to Paris to live with her father, with whom she has a less than warm relationship. She falls in love, but the relationship cannot blossom under these dangerous circumstances. Isabelle eventually becmes responsible for saving downed airmemn by leading them across the Pyrenees and into Spain, until she is caught – with harrowing consequences.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.

For a historical fiction writer, Kristin Hannah’s book is a masterclass in maintaining tension through plot and character. It is not just the setting that creates the edge-of-the-seat drama. Both female characters are strong in their own way, with allegiances for which they are prepared to sacrifice everything. For both women, every chapter contains a harsh choice to be made, and one that will affect not just the protagonist, but those vulnerable people who under her care. The choices also force the women at each step to re-evaluate their position, and so each of the sisters changes and grows through the story. Both women make mistakes, but this adds to their humanity as they do their best to make the right decisions when every choice could lead to disaster. For me this was a five star read that I couldn’t put down, and when I’d finished I wanted to start all over again to see just how she did it.

Christoval AlvarezIt is the year 1586. England is awash with traitors, plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and bring about a foreign invasion. ‘The young physician Christoval Alvarez, a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, becomes a reluctant spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage service. His religion is one secret, but I shan’t spoil the surprise by telling you about Christoval’s other, and even more dangerous secret. Despite the espionage theme, this is a novel that relies not on plot, or even on tension, but on immersion to hold the reader. Ann Swinfen’s descriptions of Tudor London are lengthy, but also delicious.

A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.

Reading this first book in the series I was transported effortlessly to late 16thc London. The plot meanders a little in the middle, because as it is based on the real events of the Babington plot, not everything can fit conveniently to move the reader on. This didn’t matter though, because what the book showed me was that authenticity of setting, and the application of the right detail adds an enormous amount for a historical fiction reader. I read historical fiction to be taken to another time and place with all its sounds, sights and smells, and at this, Ann Swinfen is a master. I shall be reading the rest of this series. Very highly recommended.


This Rough Ocean by Ann Swinfen


 Rough Ocean


Flood and This Rough Ocean

Two Families in the 1640s

I have written two novels set in the seventeenth century and both have their roots in true events. Like most people, I suspect, I’m heartily thankful I did not live in that tempestuous period, yet it is endlessly fascinating. Social and religious pressures had been building up over the preceding hundred years or so, and in the seventeenth century – in England as elsewhere – they exploded. Ordinary men and women were better informed, even more literate, than before. Developments in printing and the foundation of many grammar schools had contributed to educating a population which was prepared to question the traditional religious establishment and the social hierarchy. The dictatorial stance of the early Stuart monarchs, especially Charles I, was the final spark which lit this particular powder keg.

It is little wonder that the times gave rise to the revolutionary ideas of Levellers and Diggers, to confrontation between an elected Parliament and an anointed king, to clashes between Puritans and traditionalists. Opportunist land-grabbers fought with rural communities. Soldiers mutinied. Portents were observed. And innocent people – often old and poor – were sentenced to death for witchcraft.

The first of my novels set in this period, Flood, arose from my reading about how unscrupulous speculators seized the communally-held lands of East Anglia and undertook illegal drainage schemes with often disastrous results. The local people fought back, and amongst their leaders were many women. To compound the horrors of the situation, this was also the time of ‘licensed’ iconoclasts who smashed up parish churches, and of the monstrous career of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, whose fanatical search for victims ranged over the same area. I chose as my protagonist in Flood the daughter of a yeoman farmer who becomes one of the leaders of the fenlanders, fighting for her family and village, trying to save their lands and livelihood.

So how did I come across the account of this struggle in the first place? It was during my research into events in England in the mid seventeenth century for quite a different book. As part of the general research, it never became an element in that book but remained filed away in my memory, to emerge again later as the story of Flood

And what was the other book? This Rough Ocean.

I suppose I’m like most writers: some ideas come swiftly and are written at once, others stay with you for a long time, quietly maturing, like a fine wine.

We need to backtrack many years here. My father-in-law had done some research into the Swinfen family of Swinfen in Staffordshire, partly spurred on by another descendent who worked for Burke’s Peerage. It emerged that the family was very well documented. A Norman knight, shortly after the Conquest, had married the heiress to the Swinfen estates and taken the name Swinfen in place of his own (de Auste). As landed gentry, they were well covered in the historical record and early genealogies. Like most families of their class, they carried out their duties as substantial landowners over the centuries – not aristocracy but holding an important position in their own shire.

Also like other gentry families, they began to rise under the Tudors and came to real prominence in the seventeenth century. An interesting link with my own Christoval Alvarez series of novels is John Swinfen (c.1560s-1632), grandfather of one of the protagonists of This Rough Ocean. When Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason in 1601, his widow, Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham (Christoval’s employer), was deprived of her lands and her son of his inheritance. John Swinfen helped her to recover them from James I. He also christened one of his sons Deveroxe just after Essex’s execution, which must have taken some courage.

However, it was this John’s grandson, John Swinfen or Swynfen (1613-1694) who is the most interesting. He attended Cambridge and Grey’s Inn, then became a Member of Parliament at a young age. He was therefore at the centre of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century – born while Shakespeare was still alive, he lived through the reigns of James I, Charles I, the Protectorate, Charles II, James II and William and Mary, and also through the Plague and Fire of London. He was caught up in the struggles between Parliament and the king. He was imprisoned twice – once by Cromwell for opposing the killing of the king, once by James II on a trumped-up accusation of being involved in Monmouth’s rebellion. Ah, the dangers of being a Moderate! Both extremes hate you! He lived long enough to be one of the founders of the Whig (Liberal) Party.

I found this entire career fascinating, and my husband plans to write the definitive biography, but I wanted to capture some of this rich life in a novel. Clearly the whole life was far too large a subject, so I decided to concentrate on the period immediately following Pride’s Purge. John and his Moderate colleagues had persuaded Parliament to vote to treat with the king on the basis of an agreement whereby most of the powers of government would be handed over from the king to Parliament. The Moderates rejoiced. An end to the Civil War at last, on terms favourable to Parliament.

The next morning, all those MPs who had supported the treaty were driven away from Parliament by armed soldiers of Cromwell’s army. The most important, including John, were imprisoned. The remaining MPs were believed to be favourable to Cromwell and his supporters, but many soon followed their consciences and withdrew, leaving the mockery of the ‘Rump Parliament’.

My novel, This Rough Ocean, tells the story of the imprisoned John and his wife Anne, who makes a dangerous winter journey home to Staffordshire with her young children. Once there she finds the estate and its people on the brink of collapse into ruin and starvation. She alone must take on her husband’s role, running the large estate and averting disaster. The two stories are intertwined, as husband and wife each fight for survival.

I have always been intrigued by the lives of ordinary people in the past. We hear much about great rulers and men of power, but dig a little deeper and there is a great deal to be discovered about everyone else, the poor, the quiet farmers, the craftsmen, the minor players in the large events. In Flood and This Rough Ocean I’ve sought to tell two stories of those turbulent years of the seventeenth century, about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Buy the Books:  This Rough Ocean  US   UK    Flood   US    UK


Find out more  from Ann’s website  
Would you like to post on Royalty Free Fiction? I feature Historical Fiction about extraordinary people with extraordinary stories, but no Kings and Queens. Contact me at authordeborahswift at gmail dot com
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