The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Reviewed by Julie Barham

This is an historical novel with much to recommend it, and as it is created by a world famous crime writer there is also the probability that it will be well written. It is a memorable novel for excellent reasons. Set in the Civil War in England, it features the way that families were divided between King and Parliament, and how even within those opposing camps there were leaders and commanders whose abilities varied widely. Also, the main protagonist is a remarkable woman whose firm belief in neutrality is all the more significant because she is working as a physician, willing and able to treat those fighting on both sides, whether fighters or civilians. This book has its brutal moments and some injury details which shows its author’s background, but also says much about the realities of the time. The treatment that Jayne Swift becomes involved in is fascinating, very much of its time, but remarkable for its good sense and the fact that a woman is trusted to act. After all, “wise women” had attracted unwanted accusations in the reign of the King’s father, as well as the ambiguous status of those practising as physicians at the time. 

The other element of this book which I really appreciated is the shadowy figure of William Harrier, who has the unaccountable talent for turning up when most needed in a variety of guises, ranging from servant to army commander. He is loyal to Lady Alice Strickland, and that lady is portrayed as remarkable in so many ways. This is a novel of disguises, improvisation, dangerous situations and yet humour and dedication, beliefs and love. It is a tremendous novel, set in a fascinating period of history, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

The novel begins on a significant date in Dorset, as on 19th August 1642 two priests are due to be publicly executed in public. Dorchester is thronged with people as the manner of religious observance is important to everyone; the Puritans are gathered in great numbers to witness the torture of two Catholics charged with the spreading of a troublesome interpretation of faith. Jayne Swift is trying to get to the house of her cousin Ruth. Pressed by a suspicious and angry crowd, she falls into the doorway of an older woman who seems to side with the Protestants surrounding her. There are soon hints that all is not as it seems in this strange household, and when Jayne eventually moves on to the desperate Ruth’s house she is grateful for the protection of a servant who turns out to be unexpectedly useful. Indeed, when she arrives at the house it is in the absence of Ruth’s husband, whose return after his bloodthirsty actions will require all the assembled women’s fortitude to withstand. It provides a taste of the desperate times Jayne will have to cope with in a siege that fully shows the brutality of war and the desperation of those determined not to surrender.  

This is a richly textured novel with strands of humanity, family affection and humour, as well as the complexities of a war fought in the homes of so many people throughout the country. With some tremendous characters throughout, Walters constructs a story of those who fought on both sides as well as those who tried to remain neutral and do no harm. As well as the quiet courage and intelligence of Jayne Swift herself, there are other women who either quietly or publicly state their allegiances to family and friends in all sorts of situations. I really revelled in this novel, appreciating its twists and turns, its surprises and satisfying working out of characters. It is superb historical fiction providing a portrait of a time when tensions and loyalties could mean life and death, when war was on the streets, roads and fields of England. The research it represents is immense, though hard facts are never allowed to get in the way of the strong narrative. The Civil War is possibly a time which does not attract as much fictional interest as it could, but this novel makes a strong entry with its female led story, and I recommend it as a really good read. 

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Minette Walters, The Swift and the Harrier (Allen & Unwin, 2021.) 978-1838954529, 495pp., hardback.

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