A House Divided
by Margaret Skea
[I received an advanced reading copy of A House Divided in exchange for a fair review.]
‘I have eaten crushed orchid leaves, powdered fox’s lungs and crab’s eyes; drunk wolf oil and tincture of foxglove; been bled and leeched till I think I have little blood left; told to lie on my side and on my stomach, even upside down. Few treatments convenient, and none effective.’ [Queen Anne to Kate Munro – A House Divided]
The year is 1597 and King James VI is on the throne of Scotland. The south-west is torn by the century-old feud between two families, the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames, temporarily on hold (in public anyway) by a royal edict. The whole country is in the grip of one of the vilest episodes of witch hunting in its history.
For six years, Kate Munro and her three children have lived in secret with Hugh and Elizabeth Montgomerie at Braidstane in Ayrshire. Kate has taken the name Grant to protect the family from William Cunninghame, her husband’s sworn enemy. But the children are growing up and have begun asking questions – about their identity, and about their absent father. Munro (we aren’t told his first name until late in the novel) is in France, fighting with French King Henri IV at the siege of Amiens. With him is Patrick Montgomerie, Hugh’s brother.
Kate, who has gained a reputation as a ‘wise woman’, is called to treat Margaret Maxwell, a woman abused by her loutish husband. Maxwell is cousin and friend to Cunninghame, so Kate is apprehensive of meeting him, not entirely secure in the knowledge that both believe her dead, killed in the fire that destroyed Broomelaw, the Munro home. However, Maxwell comes back unexpectedly. He thinks Kate’s face ‘familiar’ and although distracted by his wife later mentions the incident to William. William plans to rebuild Broomelaw, which lies on Cunninghame land, for his own use.
When Maggie, Kate’s elder daughter, curious to see her old home, pays a visit, William chases her off. However, he is struck by her resemblance to the Munro family. He makes enquiries about her. Meanwhile, Munro has returned to Scotland bringing news of Patrick’s death. It is a dangerous visit because if seen by William Cunninghame or his cronies he will certainly be recognised and killed.
King James hears of Kate’s skill and summons her to Edinburgh to attend his queen. Her arrival at court coincides with that of both Cunninghame and Maxwell. Now realising who she is, they plot against her as revenge for a former slight and for fear she may claim the Broomelaw property.
‘Mistress Aitken recoiled as if from an apparition, her voice rising an octave … “I see the devil, crouching on her shoulder,” she brought her hand down, “and there, by her side, her familiar.” She grasped at her neck, shrieking, pulling aside her blouse, and when she removed her hand they could see scratches with blood beading from them. “See where her cat attacked me.” ’
Kate has a powerful and unexpected ally in John Cunninghame, William’s uncle, who is sickened by the feuding and by his nephew’s conduct. She has the ear of Queen Anne. Her Montgomerie friends are high in King James’s favour. As the story twists and turns, sometimes in unexpected directions, and the action shifts rapidly from Ayrshire to Edinburgh and back again, we wonder if these advantages are enough. Will Munro be able to protect his wife against William’s determined malice? Can the Montgomeries save her from the dedicated witch finder John Cowper and the lies of the sinister Mistress Aitken. And is the King so obsessed with witchcraft that he is blind to blatant injustice?
‘They were past Dalry … when the fog struck. A blanket of white silence, blotting out the surrounding landscape as if it had never been. Kate could make out Cunninghame off to her left and the ground a few feet ahead of them, nothing more.’
The final chapters of A House Divided take us on desperate, breathtaking journeys across mist-enshrouded moors, through flash-flooded rivers and along robber-infested highways. We see humanity at its worst in the tragedy of war, the harsh treatment of women and the horrors of the witch trials. But we see it at its best too: in loyal friendships; in courage against the most appalling odds; and in the determination of a man who, risking name and title, will go to any length to see wrong righted and justice done.
The book contains some delightful passages of prose, descriptions of fields, woods and moors, and of domestic content. However, Margaret Skea doesn’t always do ‘nice’. When we need realism, she gives it to us. She does not draw back from the horrors of warfare, or of mob hysteria. Her descriptions of sickness, of wounds, of primitive medicine and midwifery display an intimate knowledge of the subject. However, she does not waste time on unnecessary detail, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. As a result, the story moves with pace and purpose.
The true historical novelist starts off at a disadvantage. Unlike the fantasist, she has to deal with facts and to make the story fit. Margaret Skea has done her research well. Such is her understanding of the period that when she does stray over the boundary into invention it is done credibly and convincingly. And if the duplication of Christian names occasionally risks confusing the reader, that is probably due more to the paucity of forenames in sixteenth century Scotland than to any carelessness by the author.
Most of the characters in A House Divided were real people, some relatively unknown and unimportant in British history. Skea gives both those and her own creations life and personality.
A House Divided is truly an atmospheric and suspenseful novel, well plotted and executed, and a worthy sequel to Turn of the Tide. (https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/05/23/in-the-name-of-our-fathers).
I found it difficult to put down until I had finished.