Devil Water by Anya Seton


There is very little to say about Anya Seton’s historical fiction work that is not positive. Published in 1962, after four years of exhaustive research, Seton chronicles the life of Charles Radcliffe, the titular 5th Earl of Derwentwater, the last Scotsman to be executed for the uprising of 1715, to replace Catholic James on the throne and remove Protestant Hanoverian George I (the Pretender as he is referred to by the Catholics).

Charles is reunited with his older brother James, who at the time was the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and made his home at Dilston. While James is re-settling in his home after 6 years of absence, Charles begins a dalliance with a peasant girl, Meg. Their trysts seem harmless until Meg realizes she is pregnant. Without telling Charles of her condition, she flees back north to family. Blissfully ignorant and very confused by Meg’s sudden departure, Charles beings a formal courtship and engagement with Lady Betty Lee, a match considerably more acceptable than a peasant girl. On the eve of his marriage, Charles is kidnapped and taken by Meg’s father and a friend, Rob, and forced to marry Meg just as she is about to give birth. A little girl is born and named Jenny.

Charles is surprisingly proud of his daughter and wants to take her with him, knowing that she will live more comfortably with him than among her mother’s poor kinfolk. But Meg and her family are done with him and she tells him to leave, never to return upon the threat of being killed if he does.

Reluctantly he leaves Jenny behind. Knowing that he cannot commit bigamy, he confesses what has happened to Lady Betty Lee, who is furious, but is allowed to end the engagement herself, with her reputation in tact.

web logo

Charles follows his brother James as they try to rally support for the exiled King James to reclaim the throne. They expect King James to return to Scotland very soon and use that as their basis for gathering supporters. King James never shows up and the rebellion is squashed by King George. Charles and James Radcliffe are thrown into Newgate Prison.

James is tried and convicted for his part in the Rebellion, although most of the rebels are acquitted or released. A year later, rebellionresearch James is beheaded. Charles is also convicted, but the Lady Betty Lee, who has never fallen out of love with him, comes to his aid. She takes Jenny, who has re-entered Charles’s life now that Meg is dead, in to her household. She is also able to get reprieves from the Princess of Wales, knowing that the princess’s father-in-law George I, will be most annoyed.

Charles is well aware that the stays of execution will not continue, especially not after King George returns. Charles escapes with the help of Lady Betty Lee and his manservant, and goes into hiding. He takes Jenny and returns to Dilston, which has fallen into ruin since James’ capture and execution.

Jenny’s heartthrob Rob who appears throughout the book, when Charles first met Meg, when Charles is forced to marry Meg and when Charles escapes from Newgate, travels with them. He takes Jenny to visit the place of her birth. Her grandfather has deteriorated in health and mind, since Meg’s passing.

Charles cannot stay long in England and sails to exile in France, while Jenny remains with Lady Betty Lee. Jenny befriends a young girl, slightly older, whose family is returning to their home in Virginia. Having learned that Rob is now there as well, Jenny sails to Virginia with her friends, against the will of guardian Lady Betty and her father. Rob was convicted of murder, while saving Jenny from certain rape.

Eventually, she locates Rob and buys his freedom since he is an indentured servant and an escaped criminal. They marry and settle on a large parcel of land about 100 miles west of Richmond on the James River.

Here, like her earlier work “Katherine”, Seton moves very quickly forward in time. Up to this point, Seton separates sections with only 5 or 6 years. Now in Virginia, Seton skips ahead 11 years for a short section, and then another 9 years. Soon, Rob and Jenny have been married for 20 mostly uneventful years. They had a son who did not survive and this has become a source of pain between them.

When Jenny learns that her father has been recaptured in England and faces certain execution, she flees back across the Atlantic. She and Rob exchange hateful parting words as Jenny leaves.

She spends as much time as she can with her father, even taking a job at a local tavern to earn her keep. All of her friends she left behind in England, including Lady Betty Lee, have died, with the exception of her father’s faithful servant.

Jenny soon accepts the fact that she is pregnant again with Rob’s child, but refuses to believe there is any future for them now, after their painful parting.

Unbeknownst to her, Rob has followed her to England to patch things up. He finally catches up with her just as Charles is executed. The story ends with Jenny recovering from the shock of seeing her father beheaded to find her beloved husband, whom she is happy to see, standing over her. They reunite.

Like “Katherine” Seton has crafted a well-written story based on extensive research. In a note Seton, stated that she had spent 4 years researching this story, and remained scrupulously true to the facts, from England to Virginia. This story is somewhat of a genealogical study since Ms. Seton is a descendent of the Snawdons, Meg’s family.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.