The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale
(The Yale Trilogy, Book 1)
By David Ebsworth
“You’ll find few around here, madam, with a bad word for Elihu Yale.”
But plenty for me, I suppose. A wicked wife? Is this what was in his mind? Was this what fed those deathbed words of his?
Catherine Yale had to admit that there was some truth in her husband’s statement, but the wickedness was not of her making. She had simply done what she had to do to survive, and she was not going to apologise for that. But to understand the end, one really needed to go back to the beginning. Back to a time before Elihu Yale…
With an elegant sweep of the quill, and an equally impressive narrative, David Ebsworth has composed a tale in which the historical backdrop has been meticulously researched, and the characters seem larger than life. The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale (The Yale Trilogy, Book 1) is a novel that is not only immensely readable but incredibly successful too. This story is, above everything else, a compelling account of an extraordinary time.
Mistress Catherine Yale, the protagonist in this tale, is a woman caught up in a web of conspiracies and lies in a land where superstitions, famine, war and piracy ran hand in hand with whispered threats of regicide. Catherine is a character that is quick of wit and has a crystalline understanding of the world around her. She sees people for what they are, and she uses her judgement accordingly—although this leads her down a dangerous and murky path to a place that she cannot come back from.
Ebsworth starts this first book in his trilogy not at the beginning but at the end of Catherine’s story. Catherine suffers the dishonour of being branded as a wicked woman in her husband’s will, which leads her to contemplate her life and how she had fallen so far from her esteemed husband’s admirations. By telling Catherine’s story through the use of diary entries and letters, Ebsworth allows his readers to glimpse into the most intimate thoughts of his protagonist. There is always a slight risk when approaching a story in such a way for sometimes the delivery can feel disjointed, but I felt that Ebsworth pulled this style off admirably. The letters, which are mentioned and dictated in this novel, also help the reader to understand the political situation in England, but more importantly, they give an understanding of just how cut off these people were from London, from home. A brave new world this may well have been, but it was also an extremely isolated one.
Catherine is a character who suffers tremendously throughout this novel—her loss, her grief, and her comprehension of the levels of corruption that is all around her made this book an enthralling read. Despite the setbacks, despite the loss, Catherine is determined to secure her future and that of her sons. Wealth, and the determination to require more of it, drives this story forward, but at the same time the sacrifices and the enemies that are made along the way demonstrate that wealth may well be able to cover over a multitude of sins, but the one thing it could not buy is happiness and, more importantly, peace of mind. Catherine does not live a life filled with joy, and several of the trials she faces are brought about by her own hand. Saying that, however, I could not help but sympathise with her. The loss of her husband and children, and then her subsequent marriage to a man who married her only to increase his position and personal fortune, made me somewhat sympathetic to her plight even though it was her idea. She is also plagued with bouts of mental illness. Unfortunately, her mental health is not easily understood, nor does her husband try to understand it. At times, Catherine’s diary portrays a woman who is trapped in a prison of her own making. And yet, she is silently screaming for someone, anyone, to help and comfort her. It is a deeply touching portrait.
As is so often the case with history there is more documented evidence of the men in this era, and therefore Ebsworth had slightly more to work with when it came to his depiction of Elihu Yale. Yale’s determination as well as his ambition sees him rise in station. He views his marriage to Catherine as a means to help his dreams come to fruition. I found it exceedingly hard to like Yale, simply because of the history behind the name, but I thought Ebsworth penned a fair portrayal. Yale is a man of commerce—if he sees an opportunity to make money, he will do it. However, this book does not give us a balanced account of his life because it is told through Catherine’s perspective.
The majority of Catherine’s diary entries are composed of conversations that have occurred around the dinner table and a few lavish garden parties. The rich, complicated and at some times shameful history of Fort St. George in the 18th Century is brought back to life in a story that is set in a time so profoundly different to our own. When slavery was a legal form of commerce any moral arguments at the abomination of such a cruel and heartless trade were easily excused by quoting the scriptures. This was an era so foreign to our own that at times the complete lack of compassion and the unfathomable excuses made for some harrowing reading. The flourishing slave trade in Madras and the attempts to curb the practice of English merchants kidnapping young children and selling them for profit seems almost counterproductive when the buying and selling of fellow humans continued to flourish legally. Add to that a muddled mix of religions, beliefs and practises reminds the reader that this novel encompasses the collision of eastern and western culture, with the western cultures believing that their idea of civilisation had to be adopted for the greater good—the irony of that statement is not lost on Catherine. I thought Ebsworth really captured the essences of what it must have been like to live in Fort St. George during this time and, although we only see things through Catherine’s perspective, her narrative does allow the reader to envisage the suffering that those less fortunate natives and other discriminated populations experienced under Company rule.
The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale by David Ebsworth is astoundingly ambitious, but it is also one that is utterly triumphant in its delivery. With a vast cast of characters and a compelling protagonist, Ebsworth has given his readers a book that was next to impossible to put down. I am looking forward to reading Book 2 in what promises to be a mesmerising series.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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