The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh by Marina Fiorato

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Word PressThis was quite entertaining, but it would have worked better as a Victorian adventure story for children: it was just way too unrealistic for a historical novel for adults. Having said which, some of it was based on a true story.  There was an Irishwoman called Kit Kavanagh, who disguised herself as a man and joined the English (later British!) Army, originally looking for her husband but becoming a successful soldier.  She fought in the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession, and it was only discovered that she was a woman when she was injured at the Battle of Ramillies.  She was later presented to Queen Anne, became a Chelsea Pensioner, and was buried with full military honours.  Strange but true!

Marina Fiorato’s changed Kit’s story to suit the purposes of her novel: in her version of events, Kit didn’t join the Army until the War of the Spanish Succession, and lived happily ever after with her second husband – which sadly didn’t happen in reality. I could have forgiven that, but I wasn’t very impressed with the liberties she took with the actual events of the war.  She likes to write about Italy so she placed Kit’s military career in the Northern Italian theatre of the war … but the fighting there was between the French and the Austrians.  The English/British weren’t involved.  There’s no way that the Duke of Marlborough, who appeared several times in the book, would have been anywhere near there!   Nor would his troops.  Not impressed!  The real Kit was at Blenheim, the best-known battle of the entire war – why not write about that?!

It then got really bizarre – and this bit was definitely not based on a true story. Kit somehow ended up in Venice, Marina Fiorato’s favourite city, and fell in with the Duke of Ormonde.  Ormonde did, of course, eventually become the commander of the British forces after Marlborough’s dismissal towards the end of the war, and probably was, as in this story, jealous of Marlborough for many years before that. In this book, Ormonde took Kit off to the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.  Lovely palace (I was there only last week!), but why on earth would the Duke of Ormonde, who fought in Spain and was then appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, have been there?!  No sign of any of the Borromeos: the only other person there was Ormonde’s castrato lover.

Anyway, Ormonde coached Kit so that she could pretend to be a French countess and spy for the Allies … er, but it turned out that he actually wanted to use the info against the Allies, to get Marlborough sacked. In the middle of all this, Kit heard that her husband’s regiment had been involved in a battle near Modena, rowed over to Stresa, took a horse, rode all the way to Modena – via the Brenner Pass, which is very interesting as the Brenner Pass links Italy and Austria so how you use it to get from Lake Maggiore to Modena is utterly beyond me! – and to the battlefield, found her husband’s body, buried it, then rode back to Stresa and rowed back to Isola Bella, all apparently in the space of one night.

She then found out about Ormonde’s plan and betrayed him to the Allies, but then the Allies thought she was a French spy, and then she said she’d fought in the Army, and then they didn’t believe her, and then the bloke she’d fallen in love with in the Army turned up and realised that she’d been a woman disguised as a man and then she’d disguised herself as a French countess, and then the Duke of Marlborough turned up and sorted it all out. Right.

It was fast-paced and entertaining, and, with a few tweaks, it would have worked very well as an adventure book for children, but it really was way too far-fetched to work that well as a book for adults. And I know that the author likes to write about Italy, but messing about with the events of the war like that … bleurgh! But the real story of Kit Kavanagh’s a very interesting one, and it’s nice that Marina Fiorato’s drawn attention to that.   It just could have been done a lot better!

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