The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Emmuska Orczy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Nest of the Sparrowhawk is an intrigue placed in the upheaval following the execution of Charles I and during the Protectorship of Cromwell. Lady Sue, orphaned daughter of royalist parents, has been placed under the guardianship of Cromwell supporter, Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, until she comes of age to take control of her sizable inheritance—you might call it a nest egg. Courted by half the eligible gentry of the neighbourhood, including the low born Richard Lambert, Lady Sue has her affections snared by a mysterious French prince who has arrived quietly nearby. He swoops down on her with grand designs to help the royal cause and catches her imagination with his courtly, cavalier manner. Though her guardian becomes suspicious of the gentleman’s intentions with regard to the lady’s inheritance, and young Richard Lambert of his intentions with regard to Sue’s heart, Sue falls prey to the temptation of loving the man of her dreams. Sue’s widowed Aunt Amelia is pulled into the net of the intrigue from another side when she learns the true identity of the French prince. So begins a plot of disgrace and isolation to secure Lady Sue’s fortune, through murder, assignations, a secret marriage, disfigurement, entrapment, and kidnapping.
I really like certain aspects of Orczy’s writing. She, unashamedly, tends to tell rather than show in places, yet she does it in such a way that it seems more fitting and effective for the story. For instance, the characters of Sir Marmaduke and the aunt, Amelia, are rather early on explained per narrative omniscience as having histories and natural inclinations more attuned to the courtly life than their current situation of frugal living in the tumble-down country abode of their family. The candid admission of their weaknesses and lack of real conviction in their “puritan” faith and politics leads to interesting developments in their later actions and reasoning. Investing early care in giving them motive, their subsequent actions seem much more justifiable and prevents them from becoming one-dimensional caricatures.
As far as plotting goes, the interest created by the mystery of who the French prince really is, is taken away fairly early in the story. Yet knowing who he is adds a whole different dimension to the intrigue. After all, learning who a mysterious character is can only be shocking for a moment, while watching how that no-longer mysterious person hatches a plot can lead to endless interest. But while the revelation of the French prince is obvious and intentional, the obviousness of another point of mystery is perhaps less intentional. There is a subplot involving the missing sons of the aunt, Amelia, and when the circumstances of their disappearance are first related it is an easy guess who they will turn out to be. However, as much as the revelation of who Amelia’s sons were wasn’t as much of a revelation as it could be, some of the implications of it in light of later events did lend some shock value to the extent of the crimes perpetrated, as well as the character of the perpetrator.
A word on the characters of the two young people we’re obviously meant to be rooting for from the beginning: Lady Sue and Richard Lambert, Sir Marmaduke’s secretary. Lady Sue is an impressionable girl at the time she forms her attachment to the French prince, yet she is never portrayed as a blind, unsuspecting fool. She exhibits decision and commitment to her choices and stands by the consequences, carrying her resolution with a strong hand. Richard Lambert is the noble commoner, the underdog suitor who really has the woman’s best interests at heart. He is a thorough Orczy hero, who must win the trust and love of a competent but flawed woman.
There is another aspect of the story I would be remiss if I didn’t mention: the interludes with the domestic staff of Sir Marmaduke. The story opens in the kitchen on a conversation of three Quaker domestics who are the standard caricatures of the serving class in almost any period. Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy is a carping, self-righteous old coot who loudly condemns all worldliness, somehow managing to be almost the opposite of both his ridiculous names: he is no cheery fellow, nor is he usually busy in a way that is admirable. The maidservant whose name I can’t be bothered to remember is a silly, sneaky brown-noser who encourages the attentions of both Master Busy and another domestic who is much less ostentatiously virtuous, less rich, but much closer to her own age than Master Busy. These forgettable, comical servants serve as the opening framing for the story, which is a choice on Orczy’s part that I can’t say I stand by. Not only do they open the story, they keep popping up and getting too much airtime. Master Busy realises there is some mystery about the French prince and Sue’s relationship with him, and determines to skulk about and find out what, but every time he tries to he ends up in some scrape, either up a tree or a chimney or spying on the wrong people or hearing nothing of importance. I was sure that the set up of Master Busy wanting to nose out the secret would have some bearing or influence upon the resolution of the story, but, alas, it was not to be. In the end, they seemed to serve as more of a comedic interlude section of a 17th century play, which frequently featured the hijinks of foolish servants.
There is passion and conflict at the centre of the story that manage to keep the focus on a small group of people while drawing in the direct influence of the surrounding political and national landscape. The fostering of Lady Sue, the romantic appeal of the exiled French prince, and other incidents of importance to the plot are all the upshot of the state of England at the time. Orczy employs the historical period as more than an incidental setting to a generic story, instead perfectly weaving the plot points from realities of the time period. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction that uses the time period and place as more of a method of exoticism or simply window dressing to an otherwise completely modern or generic tale. However, this is not a story you could just place anytime and it wouldn’t make a difference; the specific elements could only be generated in the period and place where it is set, and that is the best use of historical period in fiction to me.
But there were things I both really liked and somewhat disliked about this story and its execution, so I think it will probably only be a one-time read for me. I’ll have to read Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel books again.
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The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Emmuska Orczy