Brimstone is a story of temptation, ambition and their consequences. The year is 1793. The Terror is at its height in France, Britain is at war with her old enemy once more, and along the coast of Sussex the smugglers’ trade in spirits and tobacco is flourishing. The novel’s two heroes are brothers bound by love, but separated by opposing characters which come to represent two the two faces of eighteenth century England – its brutality and its enlightenment. For the reckless Aaron Corbyn, there are adventures to be had and profits to be made from contrabanding. While his elder brother Rafe, a sobrely steadfast physician, runs the family estate of Chalkdean, Aaron builds an illegal empire as master smuggler across the Channel, at Fecamp in Normandy. Ellin Rimmer, daughter of a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, marries one brother to escape the loneliness of life in a parsonage, only to find herself hopelessly attracted to the other – and to be compelled through him to an impetuous decision that will have drastic consequences for all three. Sweeping from the open downland and flintstone villages of Sussex to the coast of revolutionary France, from Newgate prison and the subhuman conditions of a convict transport ship to the penal colony of New South Wales, Brimstone weighs the destructive aspects of sexual obsession against the healing power of generosity to bring its heroine an unexpected redemption.
Of the four books I have read by Richard Masefield, starting with The White Cross, Painted Lady, Chalkhill Blue, and winding up with Brimstone, I do believe that Brimstone has been my favorite. You see, I like to get emotionally involved in the books I read and there are numerous opportunities for that in Brimstone.
In 1793 in Sussex, a prim and proper preacher's daughter (Ellin) is sketching one day close by the ocean when she sees a young man (Aaron) emerge from the ocean ... without any clothes on. She hides and then runs away, and he pursues her on horseback (with at least some of his clothes on). Ellin has difficulty getting Aaron out of her mind...even after she marries his brother, Rafe.
Then there was the whole deal with the smugglers, who seemed to abound in their town. Aaron was apparently quite skilled at it, and had built himself quite the business. Unfortunately, the government had outlawed smuggling and the importation of French goods. But I seriously question whether or not they were against it for more patriotic reasons (because of the Terror in France, and the historic enmity of the two countries), or because they would miss out on the income. I suspect at least part of it was the latter issue.
Then Ellin, heavily pregnant with her second child, learns of a government raid on the smugglers and goes to warn Aaron, given that he is family. (She still kind of has a thing for him, but she does love Rafe as well.) She ends up having to flee by ship, and the next thing she knows, she is in Aaron's house in France and she's miscarried the baby, and has to spend some time there in recovery.
When Aaron returns Ellin to England, they are both caught up by the authorities and sent to Newgate Prison. At their trials, they are both sentenced to the penal colony in Australia. Rafe arranges for Ellin to be listed as Aaron's wife, so that they might at least have each other for the years of their incarceration. Their voyage from England to Australia reminds me of the descriptions of the shipment of slaves from Africa. Packed in as much as possible, because they were paid by the head, nutrition poor, hygiene even worse, the prisoners started dropping like flies from disease.
And the penal colony sounded more like cheap slave labor for the landowners colonizing Australia for the English. The only redeeming thing I can see about the whole set-up is that after their term of incarceration was over, the people were able to make lives for themselves.
Any more than that would be straying into spoiler territory and y'all know how I feel about that. But, OMG, the last chapters are NOT TO BE MISSED!!!
MEET THE AUTHOR
Richard Masefield comes from a family of writers – John Masefield was his cousin – and with a love of animals and the outdoors he decided at a young age that he would farm and write, if necessary both at once.
It took years of hard work before Richard could realise his dream, and in fact his first published novel was written while milking a herd of Friesian cows. He still lives on his farm in Sussex with his wife Lee and together they spend as much time as possible with their large family of children and grandchildren.
You can visit Richard’s website at www.richardmasefield.co.uk.
(Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author and publishers via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.)