Wintercombe by Pamela Belle follows a year in the life of the St Barbe family, from October 1644 to September 1645, at the height of the First English Civil War. The St Barbes are a Puritan family and hold the estate of Wintercombe near the village of Norton St Philip in Somerset. Two years earlier, Sir George St Barbe had gone with his eldest son, Sam, to fight for Parliament leaving his second wife, Silence, to manage the estate in his absence. Silence, more than half Sir George’s age, had married him eight years earlier, aged only nineteen. It was a marriage arranged between Silence’s father, a wealthy London draper, and Sir George who needed a biddable and Godly wife to care for his three children and manage his household. Their age difference and Sir George’s own view of the world has ensured that he was both condescending and critical of Silence. Silence was raised in a strict Puritan household in London where she learnt to be deferential and submissive and to keep her emotions in check. Even after eight years, Silence is still seen as an outsider by the servants and nearby villagers. She has care not only of her own three children, aged from two and a half to eight, but the fourteen year old twins from Sir George’s first marriage, as well as his tyrannical bedridden mother, Dame Ursula. Her greatest joy is her children, both her own but also her step-children. Although her relationship with her step-daughter Rachael is prickily, she gets on well with Rachel’s twin Nat, who in character resembles his recently deceased grandfather, Sir Simon St Barbe, whom Silence had come to love.
Apart from the absence of Sir George, life at Wintercombe has been largely unaffected by the war until a troop of Royalist soldiers arrive and seize Wintercombe for use of the King’s army. They are led by Lietenant-Colonel John Ridgeley, a brutal and callous veteran of England’s campaigns in Ireland who exercises little discipline over the behaviour of his soldiers, even joining them in their debauches. Silence refuses to leave Wintercombe which she loves and struggles against Ridgeley to protect the beautiful house and gardens, the larger estate and her family and household from the daily depredations of both Ridgeley and his men with their drunken carousing and casual destruction within the house, their attacks on the orchards, seizure of livestock and produce, threats of punishment and molestation of servants. Ridgeley’s Captain, Nick Hellier, appear to have some sympathy for Silence’s position and, at times, tries to temper Ridgeley’s worst excesses. Her task is not made easier by the reckless behavior of some of her children and servants. Through her struggles, Silence grows and develops a strength and resilience and confidence in herself she was unaware she had, despite Dame Ursula’s almost daily tirades and belittling of her. A tentative friendship develops slowly between the Silence and Hellier but she is unsure whether she can trust him – he is the enemy and there is the suspicion that he is just another Royalist playing a diverting game with a modest Puritan wife.
The book is told from multiple points of view which flow seamlessly from one to the next, although most of the first half is mainly Silence’s view. This gives the reader the opportunity to understand Silence and her deep love for her home and all her children, her relationship with her husband and also, as a Godly woman, the temptations of her developing relationship with Hellier. Belle has created a believable Puritan woman in Silence who although she carries, well hidden, the spirit of rebellion from childhood, she has a well developed conscience and understands that love for another does not give her licence to break her marriage vows. In the latter part of the book we come to understand more of Hellier and his view of Silence but, even by the end of the book, there is still much about him that is hidden.
There is a large cast of characters including children, servants, villagers and even a delightful cat and dog. I was pleased with the inclusion of so many children and animals as this reflects the reality of life at the time. Each person is distinct and the reader comes to understand them and their motivations well. This is not a fast paced novel although there are some terrifying moments. It is scrupulously researched and provides a rich understanding of the daily life of a woman managing a large estate. It also vividly creates the psychological strains of a household under military occupation by an enemy. Pamela Belle’s language is lyrical and includes some Somerset dialect which is understandable in context and only adds to the pleasure of reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed Wintercombe but, although the book has a definite resolution, it is clear that there is more to tell. I am now hunting down the next volume, Herald of Joy. It appears that there is not a single copy of it in either a public library or a bookshop in Australia. I am now impatiently waiting for it to arrive by post from the United States. (Thank Heavens for our web connected world!) There are four books in the Wintercombe series the other two are A Falling Star and Treason’s Gift which follow the St Barbes through the reign of Charles II and the Monmouth rebellion.
Further reviews can be found here.