“Now We Shall Be Entirely Free”

I never read historical novels, so why I chose Andrew Miller’s “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” is consequently a little beyond me. It must have been a review somewhere, or being seduced by the fact that it was shortlisted for a prize and Miller was already a Costa winner.

Indeed, when I started reading I felt a little release that I wasn’t going to be reading anything too challenging or demanding for a change. It was just ‘a story’. No pressure. For some reason, mentally I equated it with reading Agatha Christie (though that’s something else I don’t do!).

And as a ‘tale’, it’s fine. Competently written with some fine and evocative descriptions. But I nearly dropped it after relatively few pages. Why?

The first thing that annoyed me – indeed, frankly it amazed me – was a glaring inaccuracy early in the book. At one point Calley is standing on the banks of the Avon at Aust near Bristol and Miller suggests he can see Swansea across the water. Swansea is on the southern Welsh coast not the Avon estuary, 90km away as the crow flies. So unless the town was on the Welsh side of the Avon at the turn of the nineteenth century and then subsequently lifted it up and moved, that’s some error. If I hadn’t wanted to see how the story turned out – even though at that early stage it was entirely predictable – I might well have packed the book in there and then.

Then later, when Lacroix is in Glasgow, there’s reference to ‘a murder in Bristol’. It’s clearly meant to be a device plot to refer back to his sister and her husband. Lacroix tries to find a newspaper report of the incident, but can’t. Two things: in the Napoleonic era, would a single Bristol murder have made news in Glasgow? Surely not. Surely there were lots of murders in those days, and for one to make ‘the news’ so far away…? And secondly, once he can’t find any details of the crime, the incident is never mentioned again. What did Hitchcock say? Something like “if you show the audience a gun it has to be fired at some point in the film”…

I’m afraid both of those incidents are just sloppy. Probably not Miller’s fault, but a reflection on the failing standards of editorial control at major publishing houses these days – and especially woeful for an historical novel where accuracy needs to be a byword…