Dec 21 2006
Dear Mrs. Norman,
When I heard you had a new book coming out, I skipped around the house for joy. Your books are like an entire box of dark chocolate covered caramel truffles. I want to eat the whole box at once but I force me to pace myself. It’s hard but it’s worth it to prolong the pleasure.
The third book in your trilogy which started with “A Catch of Consequence” and which was followed by “Taking Liberties” continues with the theme of personal and class liberty. This time the struggle is set against the backdrop of revolution in France, the fight against unfair government censorship in England and the agonizing plight of African slaves everywhere. We revisit old friends from the previous books and mourn the loss of others. We see enlightened men fighting for liberty for some yet casually denying it to others. And moving through it all are the indomitable Makepeace Hedley and her daughters, Philippa and Jenny.
What had started out as the glorious revolution in France has now degenerated into the Reign of Terror. No one is safe in France anymore, even those who had once been in the forefront of the cause of universal liberty. Philippa Dapifer is determined that one family, that of the Marquis de Condorcet, will be saved. They had been friends to Philippa when, early in the Revolution, she fled to France from a broken heart. While there she had experienced the heady joy of gaining women’s rights that were unheard of elsewhere and after she returned to England, she had set up a group to try to secure freedoms for all Englishwomen. When that had proved to be impossible, she had turned her attention to the abolition of slavery and had accepted the marriage proposal of one of its leading proponents. She might not have the love of her life but together with Stephen Heilbron, she could do good work and be content.
When Philippa seeks the help of her friend Sir Andrew Ffoulkes to get de Condorcet out of Paris, she encounters resistance from a member of Ffoulkes band of friends who had been secretly saving aristocrats from the Guillotine. Philippa is astounded then angered at the lengths the man seems intent on going to in order to prevent her from getting the forged documents needed to spirit the family out of France. Finally, with her mother’s lifelong example of getting involved spurring her on, Philippa decides to take the documents to France herself via the Devon smugglers the family met 15 years ago.
At first, Makepeace is too busy financing her brother’s company of actors in staging an abolition play to notice that her eldest daughter isn’t up in Northumbria where Philippa said she was going. Add to that the fact that Makepeace’s old friend John Beasley has got himself arrested for distributing Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” and now has to stand trial for treason plus having to deal with the Irishman in the company who fights pinchpurse Makepeace at every turn, it takes her awhile to figure out Philippa may be in trouble. Her mother is horrified to have to send Andrew into the dangerous situation in France after Philippa but it’s either risk both them or be sure of losing her eldest daughter to the horror of Madame Guillotine.
Once again, you gift us with supurb writing and plotting. Every piece fits and the tension ratchets higher and higher as the story progresses. I had read the discussion questions at the end of the book and knew what faced Philippa yet I couldn’t put the book down as daily the danger increased for her just trying to survive in the terror ruled Paris. Imagine having to use the blood soaked tumbrels on their grisly way to death as a distraction to the spies watching your every move? Imagine living in a city where every word said, every action taken could lead to denouncement by your fellow citizens and death? And then add the constant fear of a foreigner determined to wrest a condemned man from the sentence already passed on him nine months ago? The matter-of-factness of Philippa and Andrew’s trial was coldly horrifiying. The conditions they faced in the Concergerie while waiting each day to see if their names were to be called to die tomorrow were worse. But you show Philippa to be her mother’s daughter which means she’s more than equal to the task.
As I mentioned earlier, liberty is the central theme of the book. The French were fighting for liberty against the upperclasses and Church who had oppressed them for centuries. Some enlightened English were fighting to abolish slavery yet very few men of the era seemed ready to extend liberty to the women in their lives. Men, as is dramatically shown in the book, could do almost anything to their wives and not only would nothing be done to stop them, most men would applaud a fellow man for putting his wife in her place.
Despite the pretty clothes and the fact that this was the Age of Enlightenment, it’s not a time I would ever want to have to face. Just reading it makes me appreciate all the rights, liberties and privileges I so often take for granted. Thank you for the reminder and for another wonderful book featuring the Dapifer/Hedley family. A-