Friday 23 August 2019

Forsaken Vows by Katherine Pym

Forsaken Vows

"It must be said right from the start: Ms Pym delivers a rollicking read."


London / Mediterranean

It must be said right from the start: Ms Pym delivers a rollicking read, throwing the reader from Restoration London to the Mediterranean, peppering her story with everything from Moorish pirates, abusive husbands and false lawyers. Throw in a disgruntled former Puritan, a handful of closet Catholics and the resulting brew is not only quite heady, but also distinctively seventeenth century. 

Forsaken Vows is the story of Edgar and Emmathene, unfortunate enough to be born twins and therefore automatically branded bastards in these superstitious times. Well, at least one of them has to be a bastard, as everyone back then knew that a father could not sire two babes at the same time. I must admit I have a bit of a problem with this premise: twins have been around for as long as man has walked the earth, and while undoubtedly there were those who truly believed a man could only sire one babe at the time, I am of the opinion many more did not. Especially not an experienced midwife, who would reasonably have known the woman she was helping through her pregnancy was carrying more than one child.

Still: despite this quibble, I found Ms Pym's story most enjoyable—and very gripping. At times, she threw me a tad too abruptly from one sequence of events to the other, like when she leaves us hanging at Emmy’s disastrous bedding and instead dedicates the coming chapter to Edgar’s amorous woes. Huh: Edgar’s sister is in a disastrous, terrible marriage and he (and the author) scamper back to London? I have not forgiven him for that—but it is indicative of how invested I became in the story that I still think someone needs to wallop Edgar hard for not having stood up for his sister.

Ms Pym brings to life a not-so-pleasant seventeenth-century London. Things are murky and slippery, they smell of rot and mildew. Alleys are dark and narrow, doors swing on leather hinges (except for the sheriff’s door: he has iron hinges, as behoves a man of law who does not want thieves breaking into his home) ships creak and jostle in the London harbour. People die of consumption, in childbed, of hunger—at one end of the scale a harsh existence, while at the other the king and his courtiers flit about in a gilded reality.

Emmy, Edgar and their family are Catholics. After their mother fled her husband at the birth of her children, they live with their maternal uncle, Robert, who is a successful London merchant. He is also determined to ensure neither his nephew nor his niece risk eternal hellfire which is why he arranges for Emmy’s marriage with a Catholic gentleman farmer. However: Uncle Robert did not do his homework and so poor Emmy is sent off to marry a man who already has eight children (and one more on its way). I will not say more about this scoundrel as I think every reader should discover for themselves just what a worm he is. 

Ironically, once he has arranged this marriage for his niece, Robert decides the whole family must become Anglicans as he wishes to put his name up for the position of alderman. Throughout the narrative, the issue of faith recurs, highlighting just how difficult life was in the England of the 1660s if one did not belong to the Protestant church.  

Newly converted, Edgar is sent off by his uncle to sail with one of his trading ships. In yet another ironic twist, he and his crew end up marooned for some months in M├ílaga, where the local population is very distrustful of these heretic Englishmen. Edgar is not exactly in a position to reveal himself as a papist—nor does he want to. No, Edgar wants to become rich and successful, and such dreams are easier to realise as an Anglican than as a papist.

In conclusion, Ms Pym delivers a convoluted plot, two interesting characters and a well-researched setting—what more can one want as a reader? 

© Anna Belfrage

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