Peveril of the Peak by Walter Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I started Peveril of the Peak I had no idea what it was about, which turned out to be fine because the first chapter or so pretty much lays it all out. There are, in fact, two Peverils of the Peak, a father and a son, and the story gives some attention to both of them, though it ends up being mainly about the son. The Peverils are the nobles of the area, supporters of the king during the English Civil War and therefore utterly reduced to desolation during the rule of Cromwell. Fortunately for them, they had a good neighbour, Bridgenorth, who was of the Roundhead party who pulled enough strings for them to live unmolested on their family’s old estate. Bridgenorth’s wife then died in childbirth and he, unable to cope with the newborn in addition to the loss of his wife, let the Peverils take temporary charge of his baby daughter to raise with their young son. (So far, without any additional details of the plot, it was pretty much obvious that the infants would end up falling in love later, which spoiler is exactly what happens.) So the two neighbours live in relative harmony until, in the governmental scramble following Cromwell’s death, the monarchy is restored to the exiled Stewart heir, Charles II. Both sides looked with anticipation to the restoration as a return of stability and prosperity to the country long divided by war and religion, but soon the old prejudices boil back to the surface, and the Peverils and Bridgenorth are no exception.
From being the Peverils’ protector, Bridgenorth becomes the underprivileged of the two and with that change in dynamic comes resentment and offense. An execution that took place during the time of war is dredged up and Bridgenorth demands the punishment of the perpetrator, while the Peverils maintain that a wartime act is not subject to ordinary courses of justice and in fact assist the escape of the executioner in question, the Countess of Derby, and ruler of the Isle of Man. Things spiral and Bridgenorth finds sympathy for his affront with other Puritans, whisking his now-toddler daughter away from her foster parents, his former friends, and disappearing with her into the shadowy world of plots and religious fanaticism. Meanwhile, the Peverils commit their son to the service of the Countess of Derby for his education in the ways of a courtly gentleman. And so the two children grow up apart, as the Restoration gets into full swing and the aggravation of difference between two branches of Christianity result in the insidious proliferation of the Popish Plots.
As an aside, there is a mention about how Bridgenorth might follow fellow-Puritans to the New World to avoid some kind of retribution that might be imposed on them by the government or their fellow citizens. Somehow my brain never really made the conceptual, contextual connection between the Puritans of Cromwellian England and the Puritans on, say, the Mayflower. It seems obvious, but I failed to realise that the Restoration of the monarchy (which was distinctly Catholic-leaning, if not openly Catholic) after the English Civil War seemed like it would spell disaster for some Puritans and they chose to leave the country and settle in the colonies like New England to avoid persecution. Oh well, either I wasn’t paying enough attention in school, or the direct connection between the political and religious unrest in England and the exodus of the Puritans to North America was not really stressed. Anyway, I can directly connect them now, so I’ve learned something. Points for the educational power of historical fiction.
I really enjoyed how this novel explored the nuance of the culture at this time of political upheaval. There was a prevalence of public belief in a “Popish Plot” which was supposed to target Charles II. As a result, a frantic group of “Witnesses” arose, denouncing people left and right for being Catholic sympathizers and possible perpetrators of the fictitious plot. It grew to the ridiculous point that, in Peveril of the Peak, Charles II—the king who is supposedly the target of the Popish Plot—is cautious of being too friendly with known Catholic nobles, for fear of being charged with plotting against himself. Yikes. Meanwhile, the domestic terror of the ubiquitous Popish plot serves as the cover for other more political plots: plots that involve manipulating the king and making bids for his throne. And these are the plots that Bridgenorth’s grown daughter finds herself embroiled in by her smooth uncle who wins confidence by being all things to all men, while Peveril is involved in others by the Catholic Countess of Derby. The two young people are forced to navigate the increasingly dangerous political situation on polar opposite sides, while trying to find a place for their budding love for one another.
The intrigue of this story is carefully laid out with different threads, motivations, relations, and machinations. The disparate elements of the story pull together throughout, as subsequent plots are revealed, layered under the ever-present Popish plot. It really expounds the difficulty of loyalty at such a delicate time, when family loyalty goes against party loyalty, party loyalty against religious, religious against governmental, governmental against personal…and on and on it goes. But yet, each development seems reasonable, and the characters make choices and changes consistent with their personalities. Even the increasingly radical Bridgenorth does not devolve into a caricature, and every distinct personality is given some compassionate understanding, if not by the other characters, then by the narration. With the possible exception of the all-things-to-all-men uncle, who is quite the consummate villain.
I loved the characters, the plot (the story plot, I mean), and the sometimes too-real novelizations of prejudice, factions, and politics, as well as the flawed people who carry it all on. I’m finding it hard to give more detailed outlines of things because this book is so complex. I just recommend reading it if you like intrigue, politics, historical fiction, a varied cast, or the writing of Sir Walter Scott in general.
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Peveril of the Peak by Walter Scott