Book review: Winchelsea, by Alex Preston

alex preston

“Imagine,” writes the historian Tom Holland, “Daphne du Maurier crossed with Quentin Tarantino”, and I’m sorry only that he got in with this description of Alex Preston’s novel before I did. There are also echoes of Stevenson in a novel that leaps from bloodthirsty smuggling gangs in Sussex to the ’45 Jacobite Rising, though Stevenson would not have had a Jacobite describe the Rising as a “revolt” and might have thought some of the admittedly rich descriptive passages a bit overdone. Nevertheless, much of that is permissible in a Romance, a novel of adventure which flirts with the improbable, but stops short of the impossible. At the same time, Holland is right: Winchelsea has moments like a Tarantino movie, no shortage of stylized violence or corpses on the ground.

If Winchelsea harks back to the great years of the historical novel of adventure, it is also in tune with contemporary fashion. The main character, first-person narrator of most of the novel, Goody Brown, adopted daughter of a Sussex merchant, is both heroine and hero, given to cross-dressing and as quick with the sword as any villain. Ella’s brother, Francis, also adopted, is a young black man who escaped from a slave ship. When their adoptive father Ezekiel is murdered by a smuggling gang and his wife is mutilated, Francis and Goody very rightly seek revenge. If it seems a far cry from smuggling in Sussex to Culloden Moor, Preston has cast Ezekiel as a Catholic and crypto-Jacobite, while the adventurous Francis has been a Jacobite agent for years. So it is natural that the cross-dressing Goody will be known in the Prince’s army as Will Stuart. Daphne du Maurier, who thought herself a boy at heart, would surely have delighted in Preston’s heroine/hero.

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The early chapters, describing the history and geography of Winchelsea, are excellent. This strange town, with its huge cellars and thousands of tunnels serving what was known as the” free trade” – that is, the smuggling of goods, especially wine and tobacco, that escaped the notice of the Revenue officers and Excisemen – is atmospherically evoked . This description isn’t, as description often is, self-indulgence or mere window-dressing. It serves the mood and helps to make those elements of the plot which strain credulity acceptable and, just as importantly, enjoyable.

Winchelsea, by Alex Preston

Best of all, Preston is a splendid storyteller. In many highly-praised novels of today there is a very little story or only a short story of incident, one that scarcely grips, scarcely makes the reader eager to know what happens next, or indeed involves the reader with the fate of the characters. Preston does this admirably. Moreover, he eschews the wretched present tense, so unsuitable for storytelling. It’s noticeable that popular and successful crime novelists usually do this too.

The 18th century is often known as “The Age of Reason”, being the age of David Hume and Adam Smith, of Dr Johnson and Edward Gibbon, of Montesquieu and Voltaire in France. But if it was a time of politeness, it was also one of plunder and piracy, when in London highwaymen made the road between Kensington and Chelsea dangerous. It is this 18th century that Alex Preston splendidly evokes, when John Gay’s hero, Macheath, in The Beggar’s Opera, could ask if highwaymen and thieves were “more dishonest than the rest of mankind”, especially politicians, courtiers and hanging judges. It was often a brutal and dangerous world. Happily, Preston makes the dark side of the age great fun for his readers of him.

The historical novel, long treated with contempt by academic critics, has recently been brought back to splendid life, notably by Hilary Mantel and Sebastian Barry. Both authors have won the Walter Scott Historical Novel Prize. Preston will surely be a contender, though the date of publication may mean he will have to wait until 2023. Still, the genre is experiencing a happy revival. One thinks, immediately and obviously of, for example, Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, published last year. Meanwhile, Winchelsea is to be enjoyed. Its plot may at times seem far-fetched, but it is full of fine things and, as Scott asked, what else is a plot for?

Winchelsea, by Alex Preston, Canongate, 325pp, £14.99

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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