The Tyrant’s Shadow
ANTONIA Senior’s third novel is set during the Interregnum, the 11 years between the execution of King Charles I, and the restoration of his son, Charles II to the throne. With various factions struggling to gain power, it is left to Oliver Cromwell to impose a measure of order. With the horrors of the English civil wars behind them, it was a time to remake society along more God-fearing lines.
Patience Johnson is thrilled by the possibilities for change and when she meets charismatic preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she feels it is her destiny to marry him and assist his vocation. Patience is a naïve character, annoyingly so at times, but she is a young woman of her time, and Senior has been careful not to impose modern ideas of women’s lives on her female characters. Sidrach Simmonds is a Fifth Monarchist, a sect which believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and he must prepare the way for the Lord. His public charm is contrasted with his private cruelty, and it is Patience who suffers most.
Patience’s widowed brother, Will, is a lawyer in the employ of Oliver Cromwell. Will’s observations of Cromwell form a far more nuanced view of the man than is often the case. As Cromwell tries to negotiate with the various squabbling cliques, Senior subtly shows him being presented with many of the same problems that led to the downfall of Charles I. Cromwell lives a humble life but slowly the trappings of power seduce and when he becomes Lord Protector, king in all but name, Will is confused and wonders if he was wrong to hold Cromwell in such high regard.
Sam Challoner, brother to Will’s late wife, is a royalist, and follows first Prince Rupert and then Charles II into exile in Europe. He tires of the aimless life at the shadow court and decides to return to England. When he turns up at Will’s door, penniless, Will finds his loyalties divided. Patience is struck by Sam’s cheerful disposition even as he finds himself in such penury. The contrast between her husband’s way of life and Sam’s means that Patience’s loyalties are also divided.
At times Senior’s characterisations verge on cliché. Sidrach Simmonds is an archetypal baddie, devious and cruel under his charming façade. Sam Challoner is a typical Cavalier, merrily enjoying life and having a far more relaxed view of religion than the Puritans. Patience, the heart of the novel, is innocent and wildly idealistic. Her brother Will is the least developed character, grieving for his wife, but he is an important observer of the political upheavals of the time.
Senior’s title is ambiguous and could refer to several men; the executed king, Cromwell, or Sidrach Simmonds. As a picture of a family trying to survive in unsettling times the tale lacks emotional depth. However, as a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times, it never fails to engage.