"The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange" by Sue Lawrence is a fascinating historical novel based on real people and events that shines a deeply disturbing light on the role and treatment of women in Scottish society in the first half of the 1700s. Rachel Chiesley, usually known as Lady Grange, was the wife of James Erskine, Lord Grange, an important Scottish advocate, judge and politician. Over the course of a 25 year marriage they had nine children together, two, or possibly three, of whom died young. Lady Grange did not conform to the norms of the day in that she had strong views and expressed them, acquiring a reputation for a violent temper. Lord Grange, on the other hand, was seen as a pillar of society, despite his womanising and heavy drinking.
The two eventually split, acrimoniously. Notwithstanding his position, Lord Grange had strong, but secret, Jacobite sympathies. His problem was that Lady Grange knew of them and in the context of their separation threatened to denounce him. At best this would have cost him his career. At worst it could have cost him his head. His solution was to arrange the kidnap of Lady Grange and her imprisonment, first on the Monach Isles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides; then further out into the Atlantic on St Kilda; and finally on the Isle of Skye where she died. Lord Grange continued as before, becoming a member of parliament in 1734, two year's after he had Rachel kidnapped. After Rachel's death in 1745, he married a long-term mistress.
Sue Lawrence has taken the strands of the lives of these two real historical figures and woven them into a novel that is utterly compelling. The story is told from multiple perspectives. Initially we see events unfold though the alternating points of view of Rachel and James and both, especially Rachel, remain central voices throughout the book. But there are also chapters recounted by maids; by the kirk minister on the Monach Isles; by Rachel's eldest daughter Mary; and by others. The result is a patchwork quilt that comes together beautifully to tell a story that is consistently engaging.
There's a debate about the extent to which historical novels should adhere to the history that underpins them. Sue Lawrence's approach in "The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange" has been to stick sufficiently closely to historical fact to ensure anyone who knows the real story doesn't have their enjoyment of the book undermined. But she's also been happy to alter less central elements to help with the storytelling, to very good effect. The "Author's Notes" at the end set out clearly where the author has moved away from actual history: as she says, "Mine is a story based on historical fact, but it is written with the freedom that fiction accords." This is a book we'd highly recommend.