A book review – warning this review includes minor spoiler alerts regarding the character of Titus Oates.
I love history presented in fictional form. I enjoy the feeling that I’m learning something as I read, but don’t want to feel like I’m stuck in a history lesson. The real indication that I’ve enjoyed a historical novel is that, immediately the story ends, I can’t stop thinking about it and I’m straight away digging around trying to find out more corroborative facts. The Road to Newgate combines meticulous research with a real mystery which continues to intrigue right through to the very end of the story.
I didn't know anything about the Popish Plot. Most people have heard of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, but, perhaps not the Popish Plot and the role Titus Oates played in it. And guess what, Titus Oates is from my part of the world, Oakham, Rutland. It is not a spoiler alert to say that Titus Oates is the villain in all of this. Braithwaite presents him as odious – her description of him made my flesh crawl – he is like ‘a fat toad on a lily pad’ with an ‘ugly way of speaking’. But what I couldn’t get over was how he managed to rise to such high prominence and all this even though he was considered a ‘great dunce’ during his time at Cambridge. It would appear that his very sharp memory and ability to speak well in public assisted his meteoric rise to power.
The character of Nat Thompson is based on an amalgamation of Sir Roger L’Estrange, who was instrumental in the examination of Titus Oates’s claims, and a man called Nathaniel Thompson who published pamphlets against Oates, but whose personal details aren’t detailed. Similarly, many of the other characters have their names embedded in history but Kate breathes life to them with her beautiful depiction of their imagined relationships and their everyday struggles to forge a place in society.
Ultimately the story is a mystery. It starts with finding of the body of missing magistrate, Sir Edmund Godfrey, and how events escalated after this which resulted in a major persecution of the Jesuits. But Godfrey’s death is a puzzle – why did he end up in a ditch in Primrose Hill? There is also the ongoing dilemma of William Smith’s secret which you will be desperate to see resolved. Combined with this historical weave is the very real setting of life in London 1678 and the dismal coffee houses. It’s a cruel, often bleak world, and Kate doesn’t stray away from some fairly unpleasant details. The presentation of Newgate and ‘Little Ease’ – a hole some poor unfortunates were placed inside as a form of torture, gave me nightmares. So, I’m not going to lie, you might need to brace yourself at times.
I really, really loved this book. If you want to find out more do go and check out Kate’s website www.kate-braithwaite