To read The Scattered Proud is not to read the words of a modern author sitting in front of a computer screen and looking back into the depth of some randomly-chosen history. Instead, it is to read the thoughts and emotions, the soul, of someone who is living that history, someone who is there, someone touching the very fabric of the late 18th century, someone a part, indeed, of that fabric.
What I mean to say with this, not being one who recites plot and characters' names and gives half the story away, is that the book reads as if it was written in the period of which it tells. To start this book is to become immersed in a woman's diary, to all intents and purposes, and to live with her through the turbulent times just after the French Revolution and the ascent to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, even when the great Napoleon is nothing but a bit-part player in this story, which really is a Bildungsroman, the growing up (and all the problems and tribulations that brings with it) of the main character, Janet.
I was engrossed in this from the first page to the last. This is what real historical fiction should be written like - demure, fiery, desolate, despairing, joyous, all in one, with a voice from the time it belongs to.
Others have said it here but I add my voice to say that Ms Sweeney has written a beautiful epic story set in the aftermath of the French Revolution when Napoleon was rising to power. The story is seen through Janet's eyes and her reflections on herself. we learn of her deep love for a childhood friend and her lack of faith in herself. Slowly she begins to recognise her own worth and the constancy in her youthful ideals and the love that wins through no matter what. The story is beautifully written, the prose is clear and unaffected, never too ornate or over written and the background detail sets the scene to perfection without any sense of 'info dumping' which mars so many historical novels. It feels as if one was there in those times, smelling the smells, hearing the noises. Oh, and I love the guinea pigs that have found their way into the story. Gev Sweeney obviously loves them too; she describe the cute creatures with such detail and tenderness. In fact her love of humanity shines through this book without being preachy or moralistic. Just caring and loving.
An essential feature of good historical fiction is not simply getting the facts right, but getting the feel right! Of course, we can't really know what it was a like to live several hundred years ago, but a good writer, armed with a sound knowledge of the period and a gift for clear, vivid communication, can give us an authentic flavour of the times.
Gev Sweeny does exactly that. Her main character comes from Philadelphia to Revolutionary Paris as an insecure young girl. Against the tumultuous background of great events, she grows and learns lessons of life, love, faith and guinea pigs. A deep and well written historical romance, but also a fascinating insight into a great period of history.
The only thing I regret about buying this book is that it sat on my 'to read' shelf for as long as it did. From the moment I was introduced to the heroine, Janet Watters, as she looks down from her window upon the coffin filled streets of Philadelphia, I was captivated. The imagery is so crisp, so poetic. The book begins in 1793, when "the yellow fever was emptying Philadelphia with the zeal of a child gouging out a pumpkin." Janet, a mere thirteen at the opening of the story, is painfully aware of her insignificance. At the same time, she is painfully aware of the longing she bears for the young Kit DeWaere, a friend of the family, and a young man several years her senior. Beyond her reach, "Kit DeWaere was a cherished agony," destined for greater things than she could ever aspire to.
One tragedy follows another as we follow our heroine from plague infested Philadelphia to the tumult, terror and chaos of Revolutionary France, where she is, after a long absence, reunited with the now married Kit. No longer a child, Janet has grown into a young woman with her own ideas and aspirations, humble though they may seem. Subtly and by small means, Janet becomes, through trial, heartbreak and experience, and almost without our realising it, a figure of great significance in the lives of those of her acquaintance, the shining light in the lives of those fortunate to be touched by her selflessness and kindness. And yet, as a true heroine ought, she never suspects that this is so.
This is a tender tale of love and longing, of frustration and disappointment, of heartbreaking tragedy and suffering. Of overwhelming joy despite the obstacles that beset us on life's journey. I found this story, and the gorgeousness of its telling, a refuge from the confusion and conflict in my own life.I was sincerely sad to close its final pages.
The Scattered Proud is a beautiful, beautiful book. A tale masterfully told and eloquently written. A gem among modern historical fiction!
The first thing to say about this book is that the writing is beautiful. That doesn't mean flowery or over-inflated, it means that, whatever the aspect of her story she's handling, the author uses words carefully, achieves sometimes gentle, sometimes hurrying rhythms, each totally appropriate to its context and subject matter. It's a warm, first person account which is completely of its period, the late 18th century.
The narrator, Janet, keeps a tight, intense focus on the people and events she's experiencing as well as a pitiless gaze on her own inner reflections and emotions so that we see all the shifting subtleties of their contact, the development of their characters, as well as the good and bad manifestations of the French Revolution and its aftermath. The author's sensitivity to the period is clear and it's filtered for us through the perspective of someone who's part of what's happening - a technique that gives the narrative a persuasive immediacy.
At its centre, Janet speaks of how she `wanted to shape [her] woes into literature' and the prose she produces is laced with observations and insights that are finely and carefully honed. One character is `one of those people who always prefer to be elsewhere no matter where they are'. As she watches another character reading, she sees that `his eyes acquired the tell-tale glaze of introspection'. These aren't evasive, generalising descriptions, they work because they capture the truth of a moment. Of the other main character, Kit, she writes `Kit's decline was no mere deficiency of character. It was the creeping decay of self that comes from knowing one has not merely made a mistake, but has lived for a long time thinking all was well.' Like so much of the narrative, this has other meanings swirling beneath its words. Oh, and the author can do visceral too. She describes one aspect of love as `a festering, the unplucked splinter stewing amidst fluids deep in the flesh'.
The characters are complex, but clearly drawn, with their virtues but also their shortcomings. There's humour, passion, anger, conflict - all held together by Janet's voice and her determination to be a true witness of what she experiences. It's an entertaining and thoughtful book, a book of great humanity.
Reading The Scattered Proud, as with any other Gev Sweeney novel, is like reacquainting yourself with one of the great classic authors as you settle back on a velvet cushion, to sink into it, be embraced, warmed and comforted by it as you take a journey that will wrench at every emotion - heartbreak, joy, tragedy, redemption and ultimately, courage. You name it, you'll feel it. The writing is faultless, neither overblown nor understated, carefully constructed without appearing to be. A true classic in the making. Perfect.