Edition reviewed, Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-141-02679-4. 390 pages.
White Rose Rebel is set in the Highlands of Scotland in 1744-1746,
at the time of the second Jacobite* Rising, and tells the story of 'Colonel'
Anne Farquharson, Lady McIntosh, who raised her husband's clansmen to fight
for Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie
Prince Charlie). The main characters are all historical figures. I haven't been able to figure out whether Anne's half-sister Elizabeth is fictional or a historical character whose career has been modified.
Anne Farquharson, daughter of a chief of the Clan Chattan federation, has been a staunch Jacobite all her life and has no time for the Union with England or the government in London. When she marries the disturbing and devastatingly attractive Aeneas McIntosh, chief of a neighbouring clan and head of the Chattan federation, politics is the last thing on Anne's mind. But when Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland, Anne is furious that Aeneas refuses to raise his clan to the Jacobite cause, and soon she and her husband find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter war. Torn between her husband and her lover, the handsome warrior Alexander MacGillivray, Anne faces peril and heartbreak as the Jacobite rising sweeps to its bloodstained climax at Culloden.
White Rose Rebel is a fast, easy read with plenty of exciting action. Even the misunderstandings between husband and wife are as likely to occur on the battlefield as in the bedchamber. The battle scenes are vivid and bloody, giving a clear picture of how it might have been to fight with musket, bayonet and broadsword on the Highland moors. Sometimes less is more; one memorable scene in which a horse balks at crossing a river running red with the blood from Culloden was (for me) more chillingly evocative of the scale of the slaughter than the full-on description of carnage that follows a few pages later.
The characters are boldly drawn and some of the secondary characters, such as the hard-drinking Dowager Lady McIntosh and the decorative but useless Bonnie Prince Charlie, are at least as memorable as the leads. Anne is the central character, and most of the story is told from her point of view. Anne is clearly intended to be feisty and independent, but I'm afraid she struck me as wilful and egotistical. She attributes her husband's actions to a desire to anger her, without even trying to understand his real reasons, and is inclined to act first and think later, even if she risks other people's lives as well as her own. This might reflect her youth; most of the story takes place when Anne is aged a year either side of twenty. Her lover MacGillivray is a classic warrior hero, as brave and handsome as Anne herself, and also not overly given to thinking. Anne's self-centred half-sister Elizabeth is an interesting character, and her desire for MacGillivray creates a pair of interlocking love triangles that drive some of the key plot twists. I found Aeneas the most interesting of the leads, perhaps because he is some years older than the others. Aeneas does not lack for courage, but he sees further than Anne and MacGillivray and has a better grasp of political and military reality. He understands that a successful war needs more than patriotic fervour - and that an unsuccessful one can be an unmitigated disaster for the losing side. However, I found the romance between Anne and Aeneas disappointing, perhaps because it seems to be founded mainly on lust. They can't keep their hands off each other even when they are on opposite sides of a war (and there's no shortage of explicit bedroom scenes to prove it), but they don't seem to know or understand one another very well on other levels.
The novel makes a point of the culture clash between England / Lowland Scotland and the clan-based, almost tribal, society of Highland Scotland. Culture clash there undoubtedly was, but I'm not altogether convinced that pre-Culloden Highland Scotland was such a paradise of women's rights and free love as depicted in the novel. We are told that Highland women decide when and whether the clansmen will fight, and that a Highland woman can expect to have as many affairs as she likes with any man she likes, quite openly and without any condemnation, both before and after marriage. Were Highland chieftains really as much under the thumb of their women as this? I'd be interested in the evidence supporting this social structure, and was disappointed to find that it isn't discussed in the Author's Note. But then, this is also a Highland Scotland with nary a mention of the midge; I could understand the hardy Highlanders being indifferent to this characteristic species of Highland wildlife, but surely the English characters sweating through a Highland glen on a hot August day would have had something to say about midges?
White Rose Rebel wears its Jacobite heart on its sleeve. There's never any doubt which side the reader is supposed to support. The pro-Jacobite Highlanders are brave, joyous, tolerant and honourable. The first Englishman we meet is a cowardly bully who makes his wife walk on a hot day and refuses to allow her a drink of water, but who backs down when confronted by three women armed with knives and a pitchfork. The English high command are incompetent and/or brutal psychopaths, and the anti-Jacobite Scots feature a slimy lawyer and a homophobic churchman (and one decent man, to be fair). If the Jacobites had their share of creeps and thugs, we don't meet any.
The novel is mainly written in modern English, with a peppering of Gaelic, Scots and French phrases in the dialogue. I'm not quite sure whether these indicate the language the characters are speaking, or whether the characters are speaking English and inserting occasional phrases of another language. Either way, the Gaelic and Scots phrases are translated in a helpful glossary at the back of the book (you're on your own with the French), though the meaning is usually reasonably clear from the context.
There's no map, so readers who want to trace the campaigns across Scotland may find it useful to have an atlas handy. It's worth noting that Moy Hall in the novel refers to the Moy on the modern A9 south of Inverness, not the Moy near Loch Laggan in the Central Highlands (which puzzled me for a good half of the story, as I'm familiar with the Loch Laggan Moy and had trouble understanding the geography of the novel until I found the Inverness Moy on a road map).
Entertaining swashbuckler for readers who like their heroines feisty, their heroes handsome and sardonic, their bedroom scenes plentiful, their battle scenes gory and their politics clear-cut.
*James Stuart (James II of England and James VII of Scotland) was exiled
in 1688 when his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange were invited
by Parliament to take over the throne. Supporters of the exiled James, his
son James Stuart and his grandson Charles Edward Stuart (aka 'Bonnie Prince
Charlie') were called 'Jacobites', from the Latin for James 'Jacobus'.