The Popish Midwife:
A Tale of High Treason, Prejudice and Betrayal
by Annelisa Christensen
Christian Historical Fiction category of Readers’ Favorite
International Book Awards 2017
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The Popish Midwife
There is a reality to my co-existence with seventeenth-century London: I’m not all that well versed in it. The little information stuffed into my head is probably what most people already know, affairs such as Charles I’s execution; rise of the Commonwealth and Protectorate; and return of Charles II, previously driven into exile following his father’s death in 1649.
Annelisa Christensen’s The Popish Midwife is set against the backdrop of this era’s heir: nearly twenty years into the Restoration and twelve following the Great Fire of 1666. Cromwell is long dead, but his vehement and divisive anti-Catholic bias endures, a lesson our popish protagonist learns after she is beaten in the streets by an entire thuggish family, solely for her religious beliefs.
Inspired by papers the author purchased merely for the thrill of holding 300-year-old documents, and which turned out to be from the historical trial of Elizabeth Cellier, Christensen pieces together true events of this era, when Catholicism was suspect and one Titus Oates speaks of a plot perpetrated by Catholics to remove the Protestant king and replace him with his younger—and Catholic—brother. Power had been shifting back and forth between the two religions since before Elizabeth I, though anti-Catholic sentiment prevailed with the Gunpowder Plot on this day in 1605. This must have weighed heavily on Cellier’s mind upon her arrest as party to the conspiracy.
Before her 1680 trial, Elizabeth Cellier, a midwife devoted to the health and safety of others, fervently follows news and the welfare of those unjustly incarcerated—often her co-religionionists. As a frequent visitor to Newgate Prison, Cellier dispenses assistance in the form of sustenance as well as emotional and monetary support. Here she comes into contact with Captain Willoughby, a debtor inmate who provides her information in aid of her petition to the king regarding abuse of prisoners. Her involvement in what we know today as the Popish Plot endangers her family as she battles injustice on top of religious bigotry.
The novel opens with a strong and succinct preface providing background on the preceding years, then moves into Cellier’s first-person account, where Christensen succeeds marvelously with Cellier’s sketch of her individual and family history, and where that places her in society. The author’s point of view choice allows readers to more intensely relate to the protagonist and her work, indeed why she does it. This increases the overall narrative’s strength, providing a foundation for the midwife’s reasoning as to why she ignores her beloved husband’s pleas about the peril she places them all in.
Christensen also has a way with dialogue as well as her prose, as her management of it surrounds readers with a real sense of the time. More modern than much of the historical fiction we tend to read, it nevertheless retains an aura of formality with its hierarchal speech patterns and conduct.
Lady Powys was undertaking to arrange a marital alliance between her nephew and the daughter of her close acquaintance, Lord Peterborough. She designed to appeal to him to agree a meeting with me that I could introduce him to the Captain, with the further hope that Lord Peterborough would then in turn introduce us to the Duke of York. The beauty of this meeting was that, not only had Lord Peterborough served beneath the Duke with the war in the Netherlands, but he had also set up, and defeated objections to, the marriage between the Duke and his chosen wife, Mary of Modena. The Duke was accordingly indebted to him and was, as hoped, prepared to make allowances for our using him to reach his brother.
In other instances, such as during and after the afore-mentioned assault, the author’s atmospheric language immerses us within the ways of the time, not unlike the manner in which a word such as cobblestone might, even when characters engage in similar acts we still ordinarily perform or encounter, albeit with modified character. Falling into the grimy water (reminiscent of waste disposal discussed in her preface), the “comforting crackle of the fire,” coins jangling into men’s palms as payment for a kind service provided, and the “clunking of the door latch” into place all reach into Elizabeth’s sensory experience of her time in a moment when she, like us, is removed from full participation of it.
Perhaps more than any other characteristic is Christensen’s ability to really touch an audience with this story of Elizabeth Cellier, fighting inequity as she endeavors to keep her family safe and intact. Her descriptions are vivid and jolting, and Cellier’s honest self-reflections are portrayed in such a way that we feel her keen embarrassment paired with upright defense of self against mob rule. The novel’s pacing—not quite as fast as some—not only places us in the moments, but also enables our ongoing feel of them as the characters might experience. Cellier isn’t a braggart, not by a long shot, yet we see her through her own eyes and recognize her courageous stand against brutality, as well as her reminder that freedom to opine never existed to protect popular positions. This is also acted out in dramatic scenes in which Cellier—Catholic, woman, married to a foreigner—speaks up, bold and daring. She is not what today’s feminists would envision, nor should she be, and Christensen stays true to the era.
It bears repeating that The Popish Midwife immerses us in the time, an especially impressive feat for those of us who tend to wander through other eras or, as in my own case, aren’t really as familiar with Charles II’s London as we might be. As I traversed the pages, I felt myself wandering the rainy streets, the shadows pulling around me as I avoid waste and mud in the streets, feel the still re-awakening of the people from a succession of horrific events, this newness tainted by fear and suspicion that the torture of Protestants in Mediterranean countries might reach their own shores.
The forbidding darkness of mood is periodically pierced by references to color, such as the bright red of Cellier’s distinctive and identifying midwife’s cape. Shown on the novel’s cover, it stands in stark contrast to the dark shade of the floor, kitchen implements, even Cellier’s clothes beneath it. There is a golden hue in the background, reminiscent of a light in darkness, though still in opposition to the vivid material of the cloak, which at one point Cellier loses, signaling both her fight against discrimination and the choices she must make as to how she will proceed: remain in the shadows or embrace her identity utilizing the internal as opposed to material?
From the lead up to “’Tis a plot, Madam, of the direst sort[,]” all the way through Cellier’s battles and acceptance of what she has done and plans for her future, Christensen’s lovely style of storytelling, as if Cellier is talking directly to us, captures the imagination and leads us through a tale of brutality and betrayal, individual and collective upheaval, treason and courage. To be able to reach deep into history and find one of the more obscure figures from it, as the author did on that auction day, and animate her in literary style, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the era, is no mean feat, and readers should hope Christensen never tires of the scrape, chaos and shuffle of the auction houses any time soon.
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About the author …
Annelisa Christensen is a debut novelist, bringing history to life.
One day, several years ago, Annelisa won some pages of a seventeenth-century trial in an auction, merely to hold a piece of a 300-year-old book. That purchase changed her life. The defendant in the trial captivated her. The defendant’s story demanded to be told. Annelisa’s debut novel, The Popish Midwife, is based closely on the true story of Elizabeth Cellier, an extraordinary seventeenth-century midwife.
Annelisa’s research revealed Cellier to be known in three areas of interest – for writing books, being caught in the Popish Plot and as a forward-thinking midwife – but her story was all in pieces and scattered. The author found the story inspirational and wanted to link it all together and share it with people of today. The result is a fantastic and exciting true story, which will keep you wanting to know how it ends.
Annelisa Christensen is also the author of A-Z Monsters (Not) for Bed, The Navigator, Pink River and Eve. You can follow her website, Script Alchemy, sign up for her newsletter, and keep up with news and views at Twitter and Facebook.
Author image courtesy Annelisa Christensen
This post originally appeared at The Review