Smuggling and skulduggery

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The latest novel by Alex Preston, Winchelsea, is a rip-roaring adventure in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet – a tale of smuggling, murder and mayhem on the land and at sea.

Set mostly in and around 18th century Winchelsea, Rye and Romney Marsh, and loosely based on the exploits of the Hawkhurst Gang and their rivals, the Mayfield Gang, the first part of the story is told from the viewpoint of Goody Brown. She had been rescued from the river as a baby and adopted by the kindly doctor, Ezekiel Brown. Like many in the area at that time, Ezekiel had become wealthy controlling the smuggled wine hidden in the labyrinthine network of cellars and tunnels that lay under the houses of Winchelsea.

Corruption was rife in the pursuit of “Free Trade”: the mayor, aspiring politicians, the Customs and Excise men, farmers, the ferry men and others, all actively took part in the trade or turned a blind eye to the comings and goings of the smugglers.

From the start, the reader is thrust into the violence and lawlessness of the place as Goody witnesses the murder of her father and the mutilation of her mother by her father’s friends, members of the Mayfield Gang. This sets the tall, boyish and strong Goody on the path of revenge and when she is reunited with her estranged brother, Francis (an African who as a boy had escaped a slave ship and had also been adopted by Ezekiel), they join the feared and ruthless Hawkhurst Gang in pursuit of bloody retribution.

As the action unfolds, Goody transforms from “the clumsy looking girl in a dress” to a woman who learns to wield a sword and fire a musket, gets drunk at the Mermaid and the George, dresses in breeches, a long coat and tricorn hat and fights as determinedly and ruthlessly as any of the men. With the freedom this gives her, she can live as she wishes, “neither as a man or a woman but in the space in between”.

The plot thickens through thrilling twists and turns and to the discovery that the Catholic Ezekiel and Francis are involved in sending funds to support the Jacobite struggle to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne. From the mists of the marsh, Goody disappears only to reappear as William Stuart in the wilds of Scotland fighting in the disastrous Battle of Culloden (this section no longer from Goody’s point of view but written by a Jacobite plotter, Chevalier de Johnstone). Finally, he/she reappears back in Sussex taking on the infamous Goudhurst Gang in a graphic and bloody battle worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film.

The exciting plot is itself enough to keep readers gripped but the great strength of the book is its wonderfully evocative sense of place. A chase scene in the tunnels and caverns under Winchelsea is exhilarating and cinematic. The sounds and sights of Rye during the Rye Mop Fair and Bonfire Rejoicings are recognisable to us today. Mermaid Street’s houses “leaned their facades from either side as if bending the ear of their neighbour. Moonlight silvered the cobbles and the street echoed with hoof-beats.” Goody’s mother, an herbalist, mixes her medicinal concoctions in a glasshouse where “weird mists and miasmas emanated with the scents of earth, vinegar and blood.” Straddling two worlds, Goody attends sumptuous and shimmering dances where she shocks and enthralls with stories of her exploits.

But the best descriptions are of the mists and mizzle of the Marsh: a world of redshank, fieldfares, lacecap, dewfall hawks, night-churrs and swaying reeds found amongst “the hidden pools … that would suck down a coach and four as if it had never been” and “the high sedge, the osiers and expanses of water, the endless mud and slub of the Trecherie.”

Winchelsea brings the 18th century vividly to life; it is a swashbuckling, blood-soaked and salty tale but one laced through with 21st century themes of fluid gender identity, shifting sexuality and race.

Image Credits: Melody Foreman http://www.melodyforeman.co.uk.

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