The Crimson Ribbon is set during the English Civil War and tells the story of fifteen year old Ruth Flowers who is forced to leave her home village after her mother is hanged for witchcraft. Being hunted herself, Ruth meets Joseph Oakes, a troubled young man who has deserted from Cromwell’s army, and they decide to travel to London together. However, Ruth is suspicious of Joseph’s true motives so she runs away from him as soon as they arrive in the city and makes her way to the Poole household where she is given a place as a maid.
Ruth quickly falls under the spell of the enigmatic Elizabeth Poole and decides to use one of her mother’s charms to bind their lives together. However, it isn’t long before Ruth’s path crosses once more with that of Joseph but Ruth is oblivious to his growing attachment to her as she is still blinded by Elizabeth’s powerful personality. As days turn into months, Ruth’s happiness is soon shattered when her past comes back to haunt her and Elizabeth finds herself in trouble with her pastor. Forced to flee London, the two women set up home in Abingdon where they take their relationship a step further by becoming lovers but their new life is threatened by Elizabeth’s growing fervour for religion.
When Elizabeth claims to be receiving messages from God urging Oliver Cromwell to spare the life of Charles I, she becomes caught up in a dangerous game of politics which may prove fatal for both her and Ruth.
The Crimson Ribbon is an amazing debut which is not only set in one of my favourite historical eras but also explores the fascinating topic of the witch hunts where many women were falsely accused of consorting with the devil and were tortured into confessing their unholy crimes. The spectre of witchcraft hangs over Ruth for much of the novel, however it is never better portrayed than in the opening chapter when Ruth’s mother is unjustly blamed for the delivery of a deformed child. The villagers work themselves into a frenzy denouncing both Ruth and her mother with wicked accusations about their behaviour and Ruth is forced to witness her mother being hanged.
The book is narrated by Ruth in the present tense which is not normally to my liking, however I’ve been reading a few books in this tense lately so I actually found it easy to read and barely noticed which hopefully means I’m getting used to it. Despite being told solely from Ruth’s point of view, it was easy to discern when Ruth was being blinded by her love for Elizabeth and I desperately wanted to shake her at certain points.
Elizabeth Poole is a real life historical figure of whom little is known but I think the author did an intelligent job of filling in the gaps and bringing Elizabeth to life. Elizabeth isn’t really a character you can have sympathy with as she uses people and causes them a lot of heartache as her mental health declines. The relationship between Elizabeth and Ruth is marred by Ruth’s inability to see Elizabeth’s true colours and I felt it was given too much attention to the detriment of Joseph. Joseph could’ve been a really interesting character if he had been given more of a voice and not consigned into the background.