The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

The opening of ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ is stunning.

In an English village, as the Civil War is drawing to a close, a child is born. The child is dead and deformed, and the mother tries to spare his mother the pain of seeing him, but her pain and her grief make her insistent. Her reaction turns the community against the midwife; they claim that the blame lies with her, that she must be a witch, and that must be the reason for the present tragedy and for other troubles.

The fear is palpable. The fear of the community, and the fear of the widwife and her young daughter.

When the night is over the midwife is dead, and her terrified, grief-stricken daughter is hiding, at the property where she and her mother were in service.

The home of Oliver Cromwell.

The portrayal of those event was compelling, visceral and horribly, horribly believable.

it whetted my appetite for the story to come.


Ruth – the midwife’s daughter – knew that she couldn’t stay. The master of the house was away but the nistress was quite clear: she had to go, and she had to go immediately before the mob threatened her household. And so Ruth was sent on her way with a little money and an address in London where she would find work.

A young soldier named Joseph – on the way to London for very different reasons – helps Ruth when she runs into trouble on the road. She saw that he was concerned for her but she was still fearful; unwilling to let her guard down because she was fearful that the allegations of witchcraft would follow her.

The address that Ruth had been given took her to the home of a merchant. A haberdasher. She became a maid there, and she was soon in thrall to the daughter of the house, Elizabeth – Lizzie – Poole, a beautiful, charismatic, free- thinking young woman. Ruth used one of the charms from her mother’s precious book to bind Lizzie to her, and it seemed to work.

The story then follows Ruth, who struggles to escape her past; Lizzie, who is determined to have her voice heard; and Joseph, who has become a pamphleteer, trying to win the war of words.

It’s a story of danger, intrigue, passion, witchcraft, treason ….

There were some interesting and unexpected twists, and I was so caught up in the story and the atmosphere that it took we a long time to notice that the boo was written in the present tense.

The final days of the Civil War; the streets of London, the turbulent, unpredictable times; the state of the national that would allow an anointed King to be executed; that was all so wonderfully, vividly alive.

And so, at first, was the relationship between Ruth and Lizzie. But there was a point at which the story tumbled into unbelievability. The story lost its hold, and then I began to question other things: the likelihood of that relationship in the first place, one or two events that were less than credible.

‘The Crimson Ribbon’ was a wonderful entertainment from start to finish. And it was a wonderful finish, set against the background of the terrible execution. But I had hoped for a little more. Or maybe a should say something a little different. There was a little too much passion and romance, a little too much of the story of the characters, and not quite enough of the story of the times.

I would have loved to know a little more of the story of the pamapleteers. I loved the story of Ruth and Lizzie, but I would have loved it more if it had been a little more restrained. And I was concerned with the liberties that the author took with the story of Lizzie Poole, who was a real woman who had lived and breathed. The author acknowledged them, but they were too significant.

But I think that maybe confirmed the type of story that she wanted to write: a romance, a drama, an entertainment with solid historical underpinnings. As that ‘The Crimson Ribbon’ worked very, very well, it’s just that I can’t quite shake the feeling that it could have been, should have been, something more ….

3 responses

  1. This sounds an interesting read, I know nothing about Lizzie Poole but my interest is piqued especially as the English Civil War is not a period I have read around when it comes to historical fiction. It has been added to my wish list.

  2. I’ve just read this too and had similar feelings about it. I enjoyed it but found Ruth and Lizzie’s relationship a bit unconvincing and I would also have preferred more history and less romance.

  3. I haven’t come across this writer before, other than in Helen’s review. Is it her first novel? If so, perhaps that explains the unease you both have. Maybe she hasn’t yet found her balance.

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