For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the Castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the Castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance. But will it be enough?
A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the English Civil War. It is also the true account of one English castle and the men who defended it.
Originally published in 1985, this is a review of the new ebook edition, which has been revised by the author, published 8th December 2012.
Romantic Historical Fiction
English Civil War (1644-46)
Heat level – 2
Review rating – 5 stars
Review by Caz
A Splendid Defiance is one of those books that’s stayed with me in the almost thirty years since I first read it. It’s a wonderful blend of history and romance, set in the latter part of the English Civil War, and takes place mostly in the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire. Although the town itself was staunchly Parliamentarian, the castle was captured by the Royalists in 1642 and remained a Royalist stronghold until 1646.
The stage is therefore set for a good, meaty tale of how a small but determined garrison managed to defend a strategically important position in an overwhelmingly hostile environment; and later, for a Romeo and Juliet style romance – although in this case, instead of Montagus and Capulets we have Cavaliers and Roundheads as Justin Ambrose, a Captain in the Royalist army meets and eventually falls for Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas is a local well-to-do merchant and tyrannical, die-hard Puritan.
The first chapters of the book deal with the first siege of Banbury castle by the Parliamentarian forces under the command of John Fiennes. The historical detail is impeccably researched and the life of the castle and the people inside it is described so vividly that the reader feels part of it. Sir Will Compton, the young commander of the castle actually existed as did Hugh Vaughan, John Lilburne and a number of the other characters we meet in the book (there is a short author’s note at the end telling us who’s who) and they are all seamlessly integrated with Stella Riley’s own fictional creations.
The picture she paints of Abby’s life under her brother’s joyless roof is similarly authentic. As a woman, Abby knows she has no control over her own future or any real choices in life; even the decision whether or not she will marry will be Jonas’. He is a bigot and a bully, and her fear and dislike of him are palpable.
I feel I should point out that Justin and Abby spend much of the first part of the book meeting only occasionally, which perhaps some readers may find frustrating. But to my mind, this is no bad thing; not only does it make those scenes when they are together that much more satisfying, it also adds to the realism of the story. Justin is, after all, a serving officer in His Majesty’s army with duties to perform, not a gentleman of leisure who is able to devote what time he wishes to his own pursuits. And Abby, who is just eighteen at the beginning of the story, lives in a strict Puritan household under the watchful eye of her fanatical brother and has to work for her living.
The slow pacing of the romance within the novel also allows the reader time to become well acquainted with the characters, and gives a more realistic time-frame for Abby to grow from the rather downtrodden and self-effacing girl she is at the beginning into the woman who is confident enough to defy her brother and to pursue the life (and love) she wants later in the book. This is no overnight transformation – it’s gradual, as with Justin’s encouragement, Abby begins to realise her inner courage and strength.
We also need plenty of time to get to know Justin Ambrose. He’s a very complex character, and there are times when he is not especially likeable – indeed, in the hands of a less skilful author, he could have turned out to be a rather unappealing hero. At the beginning of the story we learn he’s been posted to Banbury for making an unguarded remark about one of the King’s favourites; and as an ambitious, trained field officer, the last thing he wants is to be kicking his heels somewhere with no prospect of action. He hates it, but his sense of self-respect won’t permit him to petition for a more attractive posting elsewhere, and his frustration often leads to a rather caustic manner. But he’s an excellent officer, and – to paraphrase his own words – if there’s a job to be done, he does it; which means that he can be ruthless, authoritarian and manipulative. He’s got an unpredictable temper, an acerbic tongue and frequently displays a tendency towards self-destruction. But as we move through the story, it becomes clear that there is much more to him than meets the eye, and that there is something buried in his past which has hurt him deeply. And on top of all that, he’s sexy-as-sin, clever, witty and capable of great kindness; honourable and loyal to a fault, his men would do anything for him and they know he would do the same for them. Yet ironically, it’s that very strong sense of honour that threatens to deprive him of the thing he wants most in the world.
In short, Justin is utterly compelling, and the extra time devoted to getting to know him is time very well spent.
The romance is beautiful, unfolding gradually and thus feeling all the more plausible for it. Justin is not at all interested in Abby at the outset, although his innate courtesy leads him to help her on more than one occasion. She is dazzled by him, not having had a great deal of contact with men of any sort, let alone someone as worldly as the Captain, but expects to have very little to do with him.
Once the siege is over however, the growing friendship between the pair begins to take centre stage. Although his initial intention is to incite some feelings of rebellion in Abby as a means of getting one over on her brother, Justin comes to realise that in her, he has found someone who offers understanding and comfort while asking nothing in return; and at the same time, he is both broadening her horizons and fostering her growing self-confidence.
As their relationship progresses, the undercurrent of sexual tension and attraction between them that has been simmering throughout most of the story begins to escalate until, when faced with an almost intolerable situation, it reaches boiling point. I always enjoy reading novels in which the author creates and sustains a high level of romantic and sexual tension; and here, Stella Riley proves once again that a romance doesn’t need lots of sex in order to be steamy. There are a couple of love scenes which are both romantic and sexy – but not overly explicit, and none the worse for it.
As with all of the novels I’ve read by this author, there is also a well-rounded out cast of supporting characters, including Samuel, Abby’s younger and idealistic brother; Rachel, her repressive, puritanical sister-in-law; Ned Frost, one of Justin’s lieutenants and Nancy Lucas, the tart with a heart of gold(!) There are sub-plots concerning spies, familial rivalries and a massive crisis of conscience for Justin, which almost costs him and Abby everything they’ve come to hold so dear.
But ultimately, this is the true story of an act of defiance on the part of a garrison of around three-hundred-and-fifty which held out against an opponent ten times its size; and of a fictional one which enables a young woman to break free from the bonds of duty and fear in order to find love.
A Splendid Defiance is every bit as enthralling and emotionally powerful as it was when I first read it; a truly wonderful, beautifully written and characterised novel in which all the different plot strands are masterfully woven together to produce a story full of adventure, courage, honour and love. If you’re looking for a gripping story, richly described historical detail and an against-all-odds romance that features a flawed, brooding, devastatingly attractive and unforgettable hero, then this is definitely the book for you.
I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two girls and have always been an avid reader. I was introduced to the novels of Jean Plaidy at the age of eleven and have never looked back! I love good, meaty, well-researched historical fiction – whether it’s about real figures (Sharon Penman) or fictional ones (Dorothy Dunnett), but I’m a sucker for a well-written historical romance, too.