The Cornish Captive by Nicola Pryce – a woman fights to find her identity in the early 1800s

The Cornish Captive by Nicola Pryce

This is a vivid historical novel which has as its main theme the way women could be accused of insanity as a way of control and even imprisonment in the early 1800s. The main character, Madeleine Pellingrew, has been imprisoned in a series of asylums for those seen as “mad”, moved every two years to more destitute and decrepit institutions. Her identity has been challenged and every effort made to silence her short of death. Indeed, she has fought to keep a sense of self by scratching her name on the walls of her cell. Physically she is a wreck, and in desperate need of decent food. At the beginning of the novel she is released by the offices of someone she does not recognise, and her mantra that all men lie to her means that she has lost her trust in everyone except the girl she has come to regard as her daughter, Rowan. The novel proceeds to follow her struggle to discover who is truly on her side, who has her best interests at heart, and who is to blame for her effective imprisonment. Old acquaintances, new friends and powerful people are confusing, especially as she is worn down by her recent treatment. This is all against the background of a war with Napoleon and the violence which has swept post revolutionary France, where Madeleine grew up and her family may have survived. As the way women are treated in this period, the accusations that can be thrown at them and the lengths to which they must go to survive. This is a carefully written novel which I became enthralled by, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

One of the themes that emerges from this book is identity, and from the beginning Madeleine has to adopt various identities to survive and come to terms with her past, present and future. One of the people she meets early in the novel is Captain Pierre de la Croix, a French naval officer who is technically a prisoner but seemingly has some freedom providing he stays in the town. The complex situation in France means that Madeleine suspects that Pierre may not be all that he seems, that he represents danger as a possible spy, given that she has a French family. Marcel, the man who rescued her from the asylum, also seems to be behaving strangely, saying that he is waiting for instructions from a mysterious woman in France. Madeleine is confused about which man to trust, especially as there is a thief on the scene who is showing an interest in her. Happily she is welcomed into the household of an older woman who has good connections with influential people in the area. She is helped to begin eating fruit to clear scurvy, and a friendship is established with a local dressmaker who takes pleasure in helping to sort out her appearance. She begins to adjust to freedom, but seizes the opportunity to visit the house where she once lived and try to find out what really happened to her late husband. She is desperate to discover who was responsible for her imprisonment, and who will therefore want to keep her quiet now. 

This is a complex book which makes reference to a lot of characters, some of whom do not actually appear in the narrative for some time. It has warm descriptions of the coastal area and its natural beauty, as well as the life of a busy port. It is narrated in the voice of Madeleine, and the reader learns much about how she feels about those around her and her plight at the start of the book. It is a fascinating portrait of a woman fighting battles to survive, and living with an awareness of an injustice in the past and present. I recommend this as a memorable historical novel with real insights into women’s lives. 

A Cornish Betrothal by Nicola Pryce – An historical novel led by strong women

A Cornish Betrothal: 5 (Cornish Saga): Pryce, Nicola:  9781838950903: Books

A Cornish Betrothal by Nicola Pryce

Amelia Carew is celebrating her twenty fifth birthday in Cornwall, 1798. She is wondering if her new love, Dr Luke Bohenna, will propose marriage, after some time of courtship. There is one consideration; she was in love with another young man until she was told of his death. This historical romance is steep in the atmosphere of a locality familiar with life at sea, with naval officers, sailors of all sorts, a community involved with the insuring ships, receiving goods and helping with those affected by war. This powerful novel has much to say about the place of women in society and the importance of marriage in their lives, but also depicts some women who are unusual in their interests. Amelia is a woman who is very knowledgeable about the healing power of plants, especially herbs. In that respect this book overlaps with another by Pryce,  who has obviously gained a wide knowledge of historic medical uses for plants as well poisonous possibilities. A solid knowledge of the area is eident, as well as the transport favoured by the genteel classes of the times. Not that research ever intrudes on the narrative in a negative way, but Pryce has obviously immersed herself in the small details of life in the late eighteenth century. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fascinating book.

Amelia’s life in her happy family has been marked by her long time love for Edmund Melville, a young neighbour from a large house, son of a baronet. She grew up in the area in the company of Edmund and his cousin Francis. They were deeply in love, but for complicated family reasons Edmund joined the navy, and went away to sea . Since then Amelia was told of his death, which was confirmed by her godfather, and for the past eighteen months she has thrown herself into planting and caring for a herb garden. Distributing medicinal herbs and other charitable works has brought her into contact with a local doctor, and they have discovered a mutual attraction. Just at the point when everyone expects a declaration, Amelia receives a letter from Edmund, who has been a prisoner and very ill. In getting the letter translated Amelia makes another contact. Visiting Edmund’s childhood home she discovers that his mother is very ill and his sister Constance is threatened with an arranged marriage. Amelia becomes determined to keep her promises to Edmund and become his wife, but there is something very disturbing about him on his return beyond his scars and symptoms of trauma. As Amelia struggles to decide if she should honour her promises to Edmund, she cannot forget her love for the devoted Luke.

This is a powerful and emotional book which deals with romance in a realistic way as it portrays problems faced when more than one person is attractive. There are some fascinating historical details of naval life in the period, as well as family issues, commercial details and the political realities of French prisoners. The herbal recipes and knowledge are carefully inserted and made relevant as an important part of Amelia’s life.  I found this an exciting and fascinating book, full of twists and turns, which kept me guessing throughout. While characters from another book inhabit this story, this is very much Amelia’s narrative as supported by other memorable characters. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in well written historical fiction, especially with the focus on strong women, in an exciting setting. 

The Cornish Lady by Nicola Pryce – a surprisingly complex historical novel

A relaxing read set in grand houses and glorious gardens, this is a historical novel of some delicacy with a driving narrative. As Angelica Lilly moves through society and some less than fashionable haunts, the author carefully brings in details of social history, herbal remedies and other aspects of life in the late eighteenth century. This is more than a romantic novel with a historical setting; the main character is a woman who is desperate to make a difference in her world, suspicious of her father, concerned about her brother, imaginative and resourceful. As befits such a novel, she is attractive to many men, wealthy and working alike. Clothes, letters, naval matters and other Austen- era themes make this a readable, always interesting and significant book. I was pleased to be sent a copy to read and review.

In the opening of this book we quickly learn many things about Angelica. She is a wealthy and self willed young woman, who organises an illicit trip to the theatre unknown to her father who is departing with a lady who seems determined to marry him. She is unusually close to the servants in her father’s household which she has run for a number of years, after the death of her beloved mother who started out as a poor actress. Her brother Edgar unexpectedly turns up at the house in the company of the untrustworthy Jacob Boswell, and she wonders if his influence explains why her brother seems so different. As she visits the theatre in disguise she becomes more involved, and is mistaken for an actress with unfortunate results. She cleverly escapes, and encounters the attractive Henry Trevelyan, who proves to be not what he seems. As she visits her friend Amelia ( an unfortunate choice of initial given the main character’s name) she encounters a rich titled man who shows great interest in her, and against a background of various families, social life and civil unrest she makes discoveries which make her rethink many of her assumptions, and begins to realise what she wants from life.

With some nods to the subject matter of some Austen novels and the social themes of Graham’s Poldark, this is a book which could have slipped into a standard romantic historical regency novel. This is a more complex and mature work however, as the concentration is definitely on the female protagonist, who refuses to be swept up easily by the wealthy and eligible suitor without more consideration. I am a fan of the straightforward romance, so was appreciative of the greater scope of this book which features a woman who is resourceful in every sense, rushes to assumptions, and has a character with real depth. There is a lot of research and crucially atmosphere of the time in this book, and it offers a complex read without needing to resort to alternative time periods and other themes. The character of Angelica is well developed, as are several of the other female characters, and the novel offers many interesting perspectives and references to the period. I recommend it as a good read, cleverly constructed and with more substance than would first appear.


On Friday we went to the Foundling Museum in London. An institution established in the eighteenth century by Thomas Coram and supported by such as the artist Hogarth and composer Handel, there are some fascinating things to see in settings which were accessible (hurray!) . An institution which took in children who could not be cared for by their mothers, there are some moving things to be seen such as the dozens of tokens left by mothers as they left their babies. The exhibition of Bedrooms of London is just amazing and surprising.