1794. England. The government is in the grip of paranoia about the effects of the French Revolution on Britain’s political stability. Any Republican sympathizer is seen as potentially a traitor. Among them is idealist Sir John Middleton, now in France. Back home, his wilful and passionate 17-year-old daughter, Sovay, is also in trouble. Disguised as a highwayman, she holds up her fiancé to see if he will hand over the ring she gave him. When he does, she throws him over and, unwittingly, precipitates a chain of events which take her to London, Thursley Abbey (part Strawberry Hill Gothic, part Hell Fire Club), and to France, a country in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Can Sovay and her friends unmask the power-crazy Sir Robert Dysart before he installs a murderous Committee of Public Safety along the French model in London?
Celia Rees certainly knows how to write a page-turning adventure story – the pace never drops – and she captures well British fears about possible Republican repercussions in Britain, and the dangerous volatility in Paris during the Reign of Terror.
However, I must be honest and say that I have some historical quibbles. For example, no 18th-century young lady would ever receive a man at home without a chaperone, as Sovay receives Sir Robert Dysart, nor would she go to his party, no matter who he provides to chaperone her. She is under age, it would be impossible to do such a thing without her father’s consent. Nor would her friends leave her alone in the middle of London to find her own way home. Such anachronistic behaviour destroyed my suspension of disbelief and made the book difficult to read.
Still, Celia Rees is an immensely successful author and most readers probably won’t notice the various social solecisms.