Blood Red Roses is the second book in Margaret Lawrence’s trilogy about Hannah Trevor. I read the first – Hearts and Bones – in 1999. I found Hannah, her main character, very compelling, and the storytelling was excellent. I obtained the two sequels as soon as they were published in paperback. And yet for some unfathomable reason I’ve only now got round to reading them – a matter of some two dozen years later! In mitigation, I have acquired several hundred books still to be read… Unfortunately, I recall little about the first book after such a lapse of time, save that I recall admiring it greatly. (Since that time, beginning in 2008, I have attempted to write brief reviews of the books I’ve read, if only to remind me what they were about, for it is unlikely I will re-read a book when I have so many lingering on the shelves unread).
‘Lucy Hannah Trevor turned thirty-eight years old on that foggy St Valentine’s Day of the year 1786. She had the ripeness of a woman who had borne four children and the unconscious sensuality of one who thinks she has long since cured herself of needing men for more than idle conversation’ (p11, Heart and Bones).
Hannah is a midwife in the town of Rufford, Maine. Three of her children died and her fourth, Jennet is a loving deaf mute, now aged eight. ‘She had listened in vain for the birth cry, and when her aunt laid the girl-child on her belly, Hannah was sure she had given birth to the dead. Even when her hands found the warm, slippery shape of a living baby there, it seemed to her an alien gift that had nothing to do with her own body nor with anyone else in the world – and was more precious, being only itself’ (p47).
Her husband James had abandoned her while she was pregnant with Jennet, leaving gambling debts, and was presumed dead. Hannah’s secret lover was Daniel Joselyn – Jennet’s father.
The three books are written from the omniscient point of view. However, each book begins and ends with an extract from Hannah’s journals in the first person: 1) 14 February 1786 and 22 February 1786; 2) 12 July 1786 and 12 September 1786; 3) 6 November 1786 and 24 December 1786. So the three novels barely cover ten months of the same year – though event-filled months indeed!
A recurring theme is the making of quilts, which Hannah endeavours to accomplish when she is not in conflict with officialdom and some thoroughly unpleasant individuals. And the three books tend to follow a pattern, too.
Each book begins with a prologue. 1) How he killed her; 2) How she made God weep; 3) How he killed the ghost of shame. None of the individuals are either Hannah or Daniel; at this point they are anonymous.
The penultimate chapter headings are relevant: 1) The breaking of hearts and bones; 2) Blood and roses; 3) The refiner’s fire. Each echoes the titles of the relevant books. The book title Blood Red Roses is from a children’s dance.
Interspersed are chapters relating to legal proceedings investigating the murders – they’re all murder mysteries besides being historical novels: ‘Piecing the Evidence’.
When they first met, Daniel’s wife was living in England. Hannah wanted him merely to give her a child; she did not seek love. Yet inevitably love followed – on both sides: ‘His life turned always upon the sight of her – even more intently since the winter, for now he knew her heart better. As she went upon her nursing visits, Hannah was a bright fleck of colour – her hooded red cloak against the winter snow, and in summer, a plain linen bodice and a homespun skirt that might have been dyed in the same pot of cochineal as the cloak’ (p27).
Midwife Hannah was independent, and did not stand for any nonsense. ‘It was no matter of dying; surely Molly’s case was, the midwife judged, more messy than desperate, the girl cried for a nurse if she suffered a hangnail. Hannah could witness, and besides, men always got liverish, and histrionic at bornings’ (p44).
Many of the characters are neatly described. ‘Andrew Tyrell held a long-handled glass to one eye and peered through it. He had spent much of his life poring over badly-printed books and now, at five-and-forty, he could not see more than a yard beyond his nose without a lens’ (p52). And: ‘He was a tall man and heavyset, with a long, lugubrious countenance and grey eyes set deep in his skull, like musket balls in a bore’ (p177). And: ‘Honoria Siwal eyed Hannah down a nose so long and thin it might have served a heron for a beak’ (p217).
And the author’s descriptions of Jennet’s travails are beautifully done: ‘But when there was music, Jennet Trevor seemed to see it in the very air, and something that had slept in her since before she was born awoke and climbed the blank walls of her silence, demanding to be heard’ (p87). And: ‘Hannah could feel the pounding of her daughter’s heart like a fist, slamming, slamming, slamming at the invisible door that locked her out of the world’ (p89). Jennet ‘did not wake from her drugged sleep till near six that evening, but in the clock of her bones it was morning still’ (p278).
This period – like many before and after – was a time where women were considered chattels, second-class citizens, if considered at all. ‘Known and unknown, seen and disregarded. All women are nobody. Poor women are nothing at all’ (p161). [Have times really changed? Women have had to fight for recognition for centuries and now a certain vociferous minority want to eliminate the definition of ‘woman’. Really?] ‘Nothing. I am nothing human. I am a weed to be torn from the world’ (p170).
The murder mystery is resolved.
The times were perilous, violent and in many instances unjust; that’s history for you. Certainly, if anyone is ‘offended’ by factual historical events, then these splendid novels are not for them. For the majority who enter Hannah’s world they will feel they are almost there, and will be moved by her gripping tale.
The final book is The Burning Bride, which I have begun and will review next.