My recent read of Bellewether, the 2018 historical novel by Susanna Kearsley, left me slightly dissatisfied, but I knew (and was assured by historical novel-loving friends) that she was capable of far more engaging storytelling, so I dove into her older duology of Jacobite-era novels, The Winter Sea (2008) and The Firebird. Both of these books ― in which Kearsley employs her favored dual-timeline approach with romance subplots, a paranormal element, and stellar historical research ― were thoroughly enjoyable.
In The Winter Sea, Carolyn (Carrie) MClelland is a successful author of historical novels who is having trouble settling on the subject of her next book. She’s been staying in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, researching the role of the French in supporting the Jacobite uprisings in the eighteenth century, but can’t find the right approach for her novel. While driving to visit her agent in Scotland, she impulsively stops at Slains Castle in Cruden Bay, where the Earl of Erroll and his mother met with Nathaniel Hooke and other Jacobites to plan young James Stuart’s return to the English throne that had been held by his father, James II and VII, until he was deposed in 1688.
Carrie finds the ruins of Slains Castle unexpectedly appealing to her imagination; she hears the voice of a woman in her mind saying, “So, you see, my heart is held forever by this place. I cannot leave.” Neither can Carrie leave: she promptly rents a cottage in the vicinity of Slains Castle and begins writing her novel at a rapid pace she’s never before achieved. She hears the characters in her mind and even dreams about them, and decides to name her novel’s main character Sophia. Carrie knows her McClelland ancestors had crossed from southwest Scotland into Ireland, and that one of her ancestors from the 1700s was named Sophia Paterson. It’s a bit spooky when Carrie finds out that Sophia actually lived for a few years in Slains Castle. But when Carrie’s research shows more and more connections with the novel she’s writing ― not just names, but the events she’s dreaming and writing about ― Carrie and those around her begin to wonder what kind of connection she has to the past, and to Sophia.
Kearsley’s use of “genetic memory” as the reason for Carrie’s vivid dreams and recollections of events in the life of Sophia Paterson, down to knowing Sophia’s thoughts and feelings, was a bit of an eye-roller for me. (Scientifically speaking, genetic memory isn’t the physical encoding of specific memories in a body, but “a much vaguer tendency to encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli.”) But if you’re able to suspend disbelief and accept it as a story-telling device, The Winter Sea is a deeply interesting look at the lives of characters who were instrumental in the 1708 attempted invasion of Scotland by naval forces supporting James Stuart. Kearsley deftly weaves together both historical and fictional characters in her novels, and invariably provides a detailed afterword where she explains the historical background and where she’s taken liberties with actual history in writing her story.
The Winter Sea switches back and forth between Carrie’s story in modern times, researching and writing her novel and dealing with the competing romantic attentions of the two attractive sons of her Scottish landlord, and Sophia in the early 1700s, an orphaned young woman who has come to stay with her relatives at Slains Castle. Anne, the Countess of Erroll and an actual historical figure, is a fascinating woman in her own right, independent, determined and capable of playing a significant role in the Jacobite rebellions. Sophia finds both love and heartbreak at Slains, as she meets some of the movers and shakers of the time. The Winter Sea has some sorrowful moments and gets extra tearjerker points for making me weep in public (I’m sure the person sitting next to me on the plane was amused).
Sophia’s daughter’s story, and Russia’s role in the Jacobite cause in the years following this novel, are explored in its sequel, The Firebird. I highly recommend this pair of novels to readers who enjoy historical fiction with a side of romance and a slight paranormal element.