“A sinner’s redemption is an instructive thing”
In this novel which takes place soon after the events of The Scarlet Letter and the devastating deaths of her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and her husband, Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne is surprised to discover that all of Roger’s considerable wealth - both in America and England - is to go to her daughter, the beautiful young Pearl. In the hope that Pearl’s money will produce opportunities to her that Hester’s family’s poverty had denied her,
the two sail for England with the intention of staying in London long enough to settle the estate.
mourning her eight years of shame and the dark shadows of the role Roger played in Arthur’s death, Hester hopes that Pearl has finally been given the means to find their own happiness. With plans to raise Pearl quietly and cultivate the connections a baron’s granddaughter is due, Hester stays with her childhood friend Mary Starke Wright at the
richly ornate Wright House.
Mary’s husband, the devout puritan Colonel Robert Wright, is currently in service to Oliver Cromwell and his Rump Parliament. But, to be sure, the political winds have shifted, with England retreating into an inward-facing gloom, the country now without a
king. Charles I is dead, and the Lord Protector Thomas Cromwell is in charge, but he wields a tenuous grip upon the country.
Mary and Robert offer Hester social connections as Robert moves ever more deeply into Oliver Cromwell’s inner-circle.
Hester soon finds herself dining at Whitehall Palace and then placed in the service of Cromwell as he seeks to harness the vestiges of her talent - and her sight: “the illuminated sin stays upon every breast and the dark confessions are whispered between innocuous words.”
Hester is more knowledgeable in the ways of the world and the appetites of men than she lets on, becoming a woman intent
on exposing the truth and “leading men back to righteousness” at the hands of Cromwell. For dashing, enigmatic Major John Manning, however, Hester is a passionate muse, only too willing to meet for secretive sexual trysts
as she is drawn into Manning’s conflicts - first by expediency and then by intimacy.
Even when Reed forces the reader to suspend disbelief at much of what transpires,
she imparts a persuasive rendering of the battle between the royalist cause, the plots, suspicions and counterplots, along with the cruel reign of Cromwell and the eventual restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, in which Pearl and Hester play a pivotal role.
Tightly in Cromwell’s confidence, Hester finds herself drawn into accounts disseminated regarding the evasive behavior of accused traitors whenever they try to look at her. Throughout, Hester continues to be haunted by the effects of the scarlet letter and Arthur, her one and only true love. The shadows of her adultery are constant reminder of her sin as she finds herself teetering on the precipice between truth and falsehood in this unique, entertaining rendering of one of the world’s most beloved literary heroines.