Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforeseen shot from an unheeded bow. Sometimes death comes slowly, like the first small sparks of a green-wood fire, smoking and smouldering for the longest time before the kindling flares and the heart of the blaze glows with fierce, consuming heat.
Published by Headline in March 2014
England 1646. The Civil War is raging and society turned upside down.
What should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn and Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a deserting soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it’s in the Poole household that she finds refuge.
Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth, who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie’s world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie’s radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country’s conflict, to the trial of a king.
Based on the real figure of the extraordinary Elizabeth Poole, The Crimson Ribbon conjures a mesmerising story of two women’s obsession, superstition and hope.
This vibrant novel is set between the Fens and London during the English Civil War. It is the story of Ruth, a servant of Oliver Cromwell, and her relationship with Lizzie, an enigmatic character based on Elizabeth Poole. The book starts at the point where Ruth must leave her home, on the run, after her mother is killed in a witch hunt, knowing that she will face the same fate if she doesn’t escape.
Ruth’s mother was a midwife who knew the old ways of charms and herbs, a God-fearing woman, not a devil worshipper. But these were dark days of terror, a time when there was a thin line between the words of God and the words of Satan, a point in English history where the kingdom turned in on itself, bringing about civil war, regicide and genocide.
Lizzie Poole is a charismatic figure. Strong-willed, outspoken and highly politicised, she has a religious fervour and a desire to do God’s will. Clements cleverly allows us to work out for ourselves how far Lizzie’s zeal is God-given, and how much is of her own making. She is a woman out of her time, a writer, a pamphleteer, a preacher, a sexual being, a prophetess. It is no wonder Ruth is entirely under her spell.
Clements uses a first person, present tense narrative that is immediate and engaging. It throws us into Ruth’s unraveling world and we travel with her, holding her hand and feeling her fear, excitement and love. Ruth is naïve in many ways, but she grows in strength over the course of the novel, whereas Lizzie appears more erratic and diminished – both physically and emotionally.
And then there’s Joseph, a troubled deserter from the army. Ruth and Joseph form an unlikely, uneasy bond that threads its way throughout the book. We also meet Oliver Cromwell himself, portrayed in a different way to his usual ‘warts and all’ image. But we also know that power corrupts. Power does terrible things to men; women bear the brunt of this power – here the horrific, brutal aftermath of the Battle of Naseby is shown through Joseph’s experiences and Cromwell is revealed to be a man who has lost his compassion for the individual in pursuit of his desire to be Lord Protector, a king by any other name.
This is a time of upheaval. The printing press means that political pamphlets can be circulated to the common person. New voices are heard, including Lizzie’s. It’s a time of great change in the church, the non-conformists pursuing religious freedom from ‘Popery’. It’s a time when distant places become possibilities as ships sail for the New World.
This story may be set centuries ago, but it is relevant today, its language fresh and lively. An astonishingly assured debut novel.