This is a historical adventure story, set in late 17th/early 18th century France, New England and Quebec … and rather exaggerating the conditions of the time, which I suppose at least made it dramatic! There’s a strong religious theme to it, but it isn’t nearly as preachy as I was expecting: I actually rather enjoyed it. And it was one of only two of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s books which I hadn’t read, so I’m very glad to have got a copy of it at last.
The foreword takes a reference to its being 100 years before the French Revolution literally, and therefore takes the start of the book as being in 1689; but there’s also a reference to having heard of Cotton Mather, so maybe it’s meant to be just after the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Or maybe they’d heard about his earlier witch trials. And was he really that notorious in France anyway? Am I overthinking this?! Anyway. What isn’t mentioned at all is the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. I appreciate that the book was written just after Elinor’s conversion to Catholicism, but the emphasis on Evil Puritans persecuting Those of the True Faith, with not the slightest reference to the fact that Catholics also persecuted Protestants, gets a bit much. I could also have done without all the thees, thous, dosts, etc, but I suppose they were meant to make the book seem more historical.
Our family are forced to flee after 10-year-old Marie-Jose slaps the local seigneur’s spoilt daughter, who’d drowned her kitten and whom she was frightened was going to kidnap her baby brother. It’s a jolly good job that they do so, as we later learn that the said seigneur was going to send both children away to do hard labour in factories. And it’ll be 100 years before the Revolution happens, and frees the oppressed peasantry.
I’m not entirely sure that ancien regime France was full of child-kidnappers, or indeed juvenile aristocratic kitten-murderers, but it’s interesting to see Elinor taking such a strong stance against the ruling classes and in favour of the peasantry, and praising the French Revolution as a time of liberation. There’s also that idea of Simple Peasants and True Faith which we get when Elinor writes about Oberammergau in The Chalet School and Jo, and also in 19th century movements such as Russian Slavophilism.
With the help of some kind people met along the way, Maman, Papa, Marie-Jose and baby Jeannot take ship for Quebec. Unfortunately, their ship is hit by a hurricane, and is unable to make it to Quebec but instead has to put our family and some of their shipmates ashore in New England. They’re initially helped by some English Protestants who are, wa-hey, actually nice and kind, but unfortunately the local schoolmaster sends for the extremist Baddie Puritan authorities.
The French party are then immediately grabbed off the street and hauled off to prison for being the wrong religion, which sounded more like something from Isabella I’s Castile than something from Puritan New England, and the priest was burned at the stake. Our family are told that they can either convert and be split up and set to work separately or, if they won’t convert, they’ll be sold south into slavery.
There’s no doubt that Puritan extremism existed in late 17th century New England. Massachusetts notoriously executed a number of Quakers in the early 1660s – and, partly as a result of that, was put under English rule and forbidden from doing so again. But things’d calmed down a bit by the 1680s and 1690s, and, even before that, people weren’t just grabbed off the street and burnt at the stake. And the last person I’d have expected that sort of exaggeration from is Elinor Brent-Dyer. In the Chalet School world, Catholics and Protestants co-exist in perfect harmony. A Catholic priest and an Anglican vicar ride around together on a motorbike. When a pupil questions by Protestant pupils are attending a Catholic service, she’s told firmly that the different denominations are just “different paths to God”. The goings-on in this book are all very dramatic, but not particularly historically accurate and certainly not very Elinor.
Obviously, our family cannot possibly renounce the True Faith. However, help is, of course, at hand. Some of the Goodie Protestants whom they’d met earlier break them out of prison, and they set off to a port from which they can get a ship to Quebec. But then they get attacked by bears.
However, they fight off the bears, and make it safely to Quebec, where they settle and prosper. Everything’s going swimmingly for them, when who should arrive but the baddie seigneur and his kitten-murdering daughter, who’ve got into trouble at home. The daughter is inspired by Marie-Jose’s example to become a good person and a True Believer, and eventually realises who she is and asks her forgiveness, and they become best friends.
Then one of the goodie Protestants from New England arrives, looking for Marie-Jose. They fall in love, but, oh no, she can’t marry him, because he’s not of the True Faith. But, hurrah, he sees the light and converts, and they get married and live happily ever after.
Despite the rather melodramatic storyline, I did quite enjoy this; and, as I’ve said, I’m very glad to have read it at last.