When I was studying 1940s fiction, I watched The Wicked Lady, one of Gainsborough Studios most glittering productions. With Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood facing off over who would marry the rich guy (as much as Patricia Roc ever does face off – she tended to play saintly, presumably as a nice contrast to her off-screen private life), over-blown costumes and constant melodrama, this was one of my favourite films from the course. Along with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Millions Like Us and Passport to Pimlico. Basically, I love 1940s films. I was immediately intrigued therefore when I received my review copy of The Silvered Heart which takes the myth of the Wicked Lady – the female highwayman – into the twenty-first century. Rather than a war-time morality tale about the evils of transgressing gender boundaries, this is more of a tale of girl power and it was terrific fun.
Katherine Ferrers loved Markyate Cell, her childhood home, and was promised by her mother and stepfather that one day she would be its mistress. However, fate in the form of the English Civil War intervened. The novel begins with her journey to marry Thomas Fanshawe , a wealthy heir but on the way they are accosted by highwaymen. In many ways, The Silvered Heart is dystopian fiction as Katherine and company are living in a world that has cast off all accepted rules. As a part of the Royalist faction, Katherine waits and waits for something to happen – Clements captures vividly the notion of a life lived ‘in the mean time’ – but Katherine is not the type of girl to sit back.
There are plentiful clichés at work here – Katherine is terribly rebellious, she likes to ride, does not pursue the feminine arts etc and of course her husband fails to satisfy her. She is basically Katniss Everdeen in a crinoline. I heaved a sigh when one character implies that Thomas was gay but was pleased to see that fictional trope inverted here. It’s interesting how widely-used that notion has been in historical fiction over recent years – it’s as if homosexuality is a recent invention which authors feel compelled to stick in wherever possible but it isn’t the most imaginative notion.
I think that The Silvered Heart would have worked better had Clements fleshed out Katherine’s relationships further. Her supposed ‘best friend’ and maid Rachel is never more than one-dimensional, which means that the apparent ‘mirroring’ between the two of them never quite takes off. They are supposed to look alike, act similar and be extremely close but Rachel never gets enough screen time for this to be convincing and it all felt like an act of author intervention, crow-barring this in. More convincing was Katherine’s attraction to Ralf and her dilemma between her status as an aristocrat and her own quest for personal happiness.
I felt that this novel lacked the central focus which marked Clements’ previous novel The Crimson Ribbon but it was still entertaining. I liked the constant grace that Martha offered to Katherine, knowing her crimes but forgiving her even the very worst of them. Perhaps The Silvered Heart was no deeper a tale than Gainsborough Studios’ The Wicked Lady but it was still enjoyable, with the same light prose and vibrancy that made its predecessor such an easy read. It was nice too to read a version of The Wicked Lady where the heroine gets to have her fun and not die horribly of a mysteriously bloodless wound (watch the film) – in short, an interesting update to the myth.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Hachette UK on May 7th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General
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