Another Side of History: The Vanished Days by Susanna Kearsley
BY ELIZABETH CORBETT
In Susanna Kearsley’s The Vanished Days (Source Books, 2021), we find ourselves in a conflict-ridden Scotland of the early 1700s, where the Jacobite cause holds sway. This book is a prequel to Kearsley’s 2008 novel, The Winter Sea.
The Vanished Days is a tale of a young woman by the name of Lily Aitcheson who claims to be the widow of a man who died during the ill-fated Darien expedition nearly ten years before. She seeks to collect her late husband’s wages despite the fact that she cannot substantiate her marriage. When her claim is disputed, a former soldier by the name of Adam Williamson is invited to investigate her petition. This is all while he is visiting and staying at his friend Lieutenant Turnbull’s house. The more that Adam sees the young widow, the more he finds himself attracted to her and becomes personally entangled in her legal matter.
Kearsley talks about her interest in the setting of early 18th-century Scotland. “The first time I wrote about Jacobites was in The Winter Sea because I found the 1708 Franco-Jacobite invasion so interesting. It all really began with a nonfiction book I pulled off the shelf that was titled Playing the Scottish Card by John S. Gibson, a Scottish author. It was a thin book but it explored this invasion that was virtually ignored by history. We never learned about it. It almost succeeded. It was so close to succeeding. There was King James on a ship, ready to invade Scotland.”
This King James was the son of James II of England and James VII of Scotland and was not recognized as king by the English establishment. His sister, Queen Anne, is on the British throne while her brother seeks to regain control of what his father lost. Since James II/VII was a Roman Catholic, he was considered a threat and in 1688 was replaced by his own daughters who subscribed to the Church of England – first Mary, with her husband William of Orange and then Anne. The usual tale historians tell is that James II/VII lived a sad life after being deposed and failing to take back power.
The author tells a different story. James II/VII never gave up trying to regain his throne and, after he died in France in 1702, passed that legacy to his son.
The Vanished Days takes place in this time period where there is a divided Scotland: some supported James, others his sister Anne. “We never learned about the  invasion because it was so close [to being successful],” Kearsley explains. “As a former curator, I know the power you hold when you choose what goes on display and what goes in the back room. Historians are not very different. In my research, it was the first time that I came up against the reality of how much power historians hold when influencing history. Historians have the power to interpret and present history according to their own views, effectively shaping public opinion. It was the first time I really sat down and thought about how the Jacobites had been curated both by their contemporaries and through the ages by English historians. These historians had a vested interest in portraying the Jacobite cause as something that was sad, bleak, and doomed to fail when it was anything but that.”
For Kearsley, it is not just about writing about a specific time period or event in history, but so much more. In writing this book, she shows a different perspective than the one we’ve been told. “If King James stepped off that ship, Britain would looked completely different [today]. History is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Historians told us that King James’s father ran away and sat in France and everything was very sad. That is something I try to correct in The Vanished Days. He never stopped trying to regain his throne. There were invasion attempts every spring. He continually tried again and again and again. We only ever hear about 1715 and 1745. It was a continual battle and we were never taught that. I am a big believer in putting the truth on the page and putting people’s voices back on the page.”
The Vanished Days has a cast of fascinating characters, many of whom were real-life historical figures. Kearsley engages in extensive research into the backstory of these real-life characters, so that they are represented in an ethical manner. She discusses her process for writing historical figures into her novels. “As far as real-life characters go, I feel a huge responsibility because I am holding their lives in my hands. They can’t speak for themselves anymore. I always try to remember that I am holding a person’s life and reputation in my hands. If you are going to put words into the mouth of somebody, you better be sure in your own heart that this is something that person would have said. For me, I can’t look in the mirror if I make somebody a villain and I don’t even know if they were.”
About the contributor: Elizabeth K. Corbett is a writer, researcher, and book reviewer. She is the owner and operator of the Queen of Hearts Review where she writes historical-centered book reviews. Based in coastal New Jersey, she enjoys researching local history and is currently working on her first novel.