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.