The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley


It is 1666 – the year when people who take prophecy seriously believe that the world is going to end.

For Chloe Herveaux – twenty years old, half-French and practical – marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, it is a refuge of a different kind. But while the marriage remains in name only and both, for reasons of their own, agree to seek an annulment, other forces are gathering.

England is once again at war with the Dutch and Prince Rupert, now commanding the Royal Navy, suspects that sabotage is at work within the fleet. Instructed to find the arch-traitor, Alex enters a dark labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the malice and scandal of Charles 11’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the surprising facets of Mr Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed to her, the long-awaited annulment becomes a double-edged sword.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for his bride – until a hot June night on the Falcon Stairs when he and Chloe stand united by tragedy.

As the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, Alex and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk … their choices may save it.

Rating: A+

I had a copy of this book in the early 1980s and remember it was one of my “go-to” reads. But it disappeared from my collection several years ago – I don’t know if I lent it to someone and didn’t get it back, or inadvertently donated it to a local charity shop – but I’ve been looking to get another copy ever since. It’s been out of print, along with Stella Riley’s other titles, and second hand copies are few and far between and ridiculously expensive – so I was doing a happy dance when I discovered that this title had finally been reissued in e-book form.

The action is set in London in 1666. Charles II has been restored to the throne, London has survived the Plague but there is more tragedy to come, and amongst all this, we meet the dashing Alexander Deveril and his friends, and Chloe Herveaux, a young woman of anglo-French descent who resides with her wastrel brother.

Alex Deveril, while in the midst of an almighty bender following rejection by the woman he (thinks he) loves, is on a winning streak at the gambling tables and when his opponent runs out of money, he puts up his sister’s hand in marriage as the stake. Of course, Alex wins, and, stil magnificently drunk insists they get married right away.

Next morning, they agree to seek an annulment. Chloe continues to reside with Alex and forms firm friendships with his friends and with his “old retainer”, Matt.

The characterisation in this book is superb. Alex is splendidly witty, charming and clever, but he has a tongue that can wound at twenty paces, and frequently uses it to that effect. In anger, he pushes people away, making hurtful comments as though he wants to see just how far he can push his friends before they admit he’s worthless and give up on him for good. But at other times, he knows exactly the right thing to say in order to ease a difficult situation or alleviate someone’s grief. He’s a fascinating contradiction and in the hands of a less-skilled writer, he could have been easy to dislike; but Riley keeps to the right side of the fine line and balances Alex’s sometimes cruel side with his sense of goodness and honour. He’s gorgeous, well-read, a consummate swordsman and horseman and, bereft of employment somewhat dangerous as in order to alleviate the boredom of inaction, he embroils himself in all sorts of high-jinks and pranks.

Riley writes the relationships between Alex and his friends, Giles Beckwith and Daniel Fawsley very well indeed and in fact all the secondary characters are very well fleshed-out.

Chloe is clearly Alex’s ideal partner. She is able to match him when it comes to their verbal sparring, although she doesn’t have the same propensity to cruelty when things don’t go her way. I love the scene at the ridiculously over-the-top banquet when they are so “in tune” with each other; and later, following a tragedy, the way they can be quietly supportive of each other. The romance unfolds beautifully and while it is the main focus of the story, it is woven in with the other elements; Alex’s search for the traitor who is aiding the Dutch in their war against the English; the Great Fire of London; the tragic death of a dear friend.

Several historical figures feature in the story, most notably Charles II, to whom Alex and Chloe have to apply for the solution to a particularly pressing problem. Even though his appearances in the novel are brief, he’s painted as more than just the “Merry Monarch”; he’s clearly very shrewd and has an excellent sense of humour – and despite the fact that he did actually flaunt his mistresses before his wife, he’s a difficult character to dislike. Prince Rupert is shown to be an exceptional military mind who inspires great loyalty in those – like Alex – who follow him; and there are appearances by other well-known figures of the court such as Lady Castlemaine and James, Duke of York (later James II) and other significant figures such as Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren.

Some historical novels set in London don’t really make much use of it as a location, but in The Marigold Chain, the author uses her clearly extensive knowledge of the City as it was in Restoration times. Her descriptions of the narrow streets, lined with crammed-in buildings, of the bridges and the river are very evocative, and her locations are very precisely detailed. Her eye for historical detail is faultless and while there is a fair amount of detail about the war with the Dutch and a number of Naval actions, we’re never bogged down in a history lesson at the expense of the story. The scenes that deal with the Great Fire are fast-moving and exciting, and those that deal with its aftermath don’t shy away from just how devastating it was, and the profound effect it had on the City.

I really don’t know why Stella Riley’s books haven’t become “classics” in the genre, because her writing is so good. As far as I know, she only published a handful of titles, including A Splendid Defiance, which is set during the English Civil War and Black Madonna. I really hope that the re-emergence of The Marigold Chain means that her other novels will appear shortly, too – and if we’re incredibly lucky, perhaps she will even write some more novels.

ETA – Since this review was originally written, Stella Riley has indeed been republishing her back catalogue as e-books.