Book Review by Brenda S. Cox
“Did you notice that the ladies of the vicarage are proclaiming their literacy in their dress? . . . I would hardly have suspected you to be an avid reader of novels, but one of Miss Austen’s books includes a strawberrying party, and what do you suppose the parson’s wife wore?”—Where Love Triumphs
When I was in college, I discovered historical fiction one summer. I read a book about Queen Isabela of Spain; it might have been Norah Lofts’ Crown of Aloes, but I’m not sure. In any case, it made me realize for the first time that history could be interesting and even entertaining!
Since then I have read hundreds of historical novels. For years I read them with my children, to help them appreciate history. Historical novels have also led me to read books of “real, solemn history,” as Catherine Morland says.
This time, the history led me to the novels. I’ve been reading a lot of history of the church in Jane Austen’s day, working on my own book. And recently I discovered a series of excellent historical novels about the very people I’ve been researching. So if you prefer to get your church history through novels, here’s a place to start.
Each of these novels by Donna Fletcher Crow is a light, clean romance. Sometimes the main characters are fictional. More often they are real people whose story has been fictionalized. The characters are well-developed and interesting; you get involved in their struggles and challenges.
Each is centered around major developments in the Christian church in England. Historical people appear as major and minor characters, and real events are part of the plot. Sometimes we hear bits of preaching from famous ministers of the time, always as part of the story.
And, the historical setting is beautifully incorporated into the story. In this respect, Crow reminds me of Georgette Heyer, who Crow also enjoys. We get to see a cricket match, a gambling party, a boat race, a fox hunt, university life, society balls, and lots more. Lovely clothes of each time period are described. I felt I was there.
These six books by Donna Fletcher Crow are now offered in a series called Where There is Love. (Most of the books had other titles earlier.) Crow includes notes telling what parts of the novels are history and what parts are fiction. I love that, since I always wonder how much of what I am reading or watching is true. She also includes a timeline, maps, and glossaries, for those of us who want more details.
If you read books on kindle, right now the set is available on kindle unlimited, or you can buy it for only 99 cents. What a deal!
The stories extend from about 25 years before Austen was born until about 70 years after her death. Many of the historical characters were alive during her lifetime.
These are the books (which are also available separately, and in paperback):
(1749-1750) Catherine Perronet teaches at a Methodist school for the poor in London. She had hoped to marry Charles Wesley, but he marries someone else. Another circuit-riding Methodist minister, though, begins to win her heart.
Catherine was the sister of Edward Perronet, who wrote the hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Little is known about her real life, though, so most of the story is fictional. The circuit rider is a composite of various Methodist preachers of the time, facing trials that actually happened to the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield. The father of one of Catherine’s students is imprisoned in Newgate for debt, so we see the horrors of London prisons.
John and Charles Wesley appear in the story, as well as the Countess of Huntingdon and William Law. The Great London Earthquake adds some excitement; many thought it meant the end of the world was coming. But life, and romance, continued as always.
(Formerly published as A Gentle Calling.)
(1772-1773) Mary Tudway, a young woman from high society, struggles with her feelings for Methodist Rowland Hill. She is also being courted by the wealthy son of a bishop. Hill, meanwhile, is having difficulties getting permission to graduate from Cambridge and get ordained. His father, a baronet, cuts his allowance to a pittance because Rowland refuses to abandon his “enthusiasm.” But Rowland continues preaching in the fields and hoping for Mary to turn to God and to him.
Rowland Hill was a real church leader. Other real-life characters in the story include the Countess of Huntingdon, her daughter Selina, and church leaders Charles Wesley, John Berridge, and Bishop Twysden. The shocking story of a highwayman (I won’t give it away) is a real-life event. We also get to enjoy society and balls in Bath and London, and see a real-life elopement. (Have you heard of the Countess of Jersey, patroness of Almack? It was her mother who eloped!)
(Formerly published as Something of Value and Treasures of the Heart.)
(1823-1825) At Cambridge, Brandley Hilliard, a crippled scholar, is attracted to Elinor Silbert. But the Marquess of Widkham seems a much more suitable match for Elinor. Elinor and Brandley are both searching for God’s love, even as they find romantic love.
This story is mostly fiction. It’s a Regency romance, complete with the jargon of the day, food, lovely clothes, and entertainment.
Crow says she had been enjoying a lot of Georgette Heyer’s novels. She was fascinated by the crippled younger brother in Venetia. So she wrote this story based on him; her first novel. I didn’t realize this before I read it, but there were a number of hints in the novel that it was connected to Venetia, and I was delighted to see that it actually was! Crow did change the names and the family dynamic somewhat, though.
The author recognized that, delightful as Heyer’s novels are, they totally leave out all the wonderful things happening in the church at that time. So she wrote this novel to give us a bigger picture of the Regency, including its spiritual elements.
The novel shows the connection between the Regency era and the early Evangelical movement. Charles Simeon (Evangelical clergyman at Cambridge), Robert Hall (popular Baptist preacher), and the Duke of Gloucester (an Evangelical prince, who was much ridiculed) all make appearances. The Countess of Huntingdon is also mentioned, though this is after her time.
(This one was published earlier as Brandley’s Search and as Where Love Begins, to make things a little confusing.)
(1820-1825) This story is the most historical one. The author says, “Even the dogs are a matter of record.”
Granville Ryder’s father criticizes Granville so strongly that Granville’s faith is shaken. He feels he can never be worthy of God’s love. His dear friend and cousin Georgiana, daughter of a duke, faces her own conflicts. And she is having trouble repelling her “worthy” suitor, George Agar-Ellis.
In this novel, we see everyday life for noblemen’s sons at Cambridge University, with all the temptations they faced. Charles Simeon and William Wilberforce are involved in the story. The Cato Street Rebellion brings a brief element of danger and excitement.
I felt Granville’s struggles to find personal faith went on a little long (though that might be what really happened!). But the romance is lovely. The letter Granville writes to the woman he hopes to marry, actually a prayer to God, is a gem. As the lady says, it would make any woman “tumble into love” with him.
(Earlier published as To Be Worthy.)
(1854-1856) The story begins with the famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” and Florence Nightingale. One of Miss Nightingale’s nurses, Jennifer, helps save the life of a wounded soldier, Richard. Back in London, they meet again. But Jennifer is already in a relationship with Arthur, who does factory inspections for the Earl of Shaftsbury. He is involved in reforming the country’s industries, fighting for shorter working days, etc.
This was the great Victorian age of voluntary societies that confronted the evils of their day. The Earl of Shaftesbury, who continued Wilberforce’s campaigns and added many more, is central to this story. Jennifer does charity work for one of his organizations. Richard’s family’s wealth is based on abusive child labor, which must be confronted.
Charles Spurgeon is also part of the story, awakening England once again to the need for God’s grace. There is also an element of science, as we see how a pottery factory worked.
This novel is somewhat graphic in parts. The opening is a bloody military scene. We see the horrors of the Scutari hospital where Nightingale tried valiantly to rescue suffering soldiers. And Jennifer is horrified by the miseries of chimney sweeps and other child laborers.
Jennifer struggles to see hope amidst the terrible abuses of her society. She learns to trust God rather than depend on her own good works.
(Formerly published as Encounter the Light.)
(1883-1885) Hilda Beauchamp and Kynaston Studd (real people) meet at Cambridge, amidst boat races and cricket matches. Hilda thinks Kynaston would be perfect for her sister, while she has her eye on Stanley Smith. But things don’t work out the way she plans.
Kynaston is a leader of the Christian Union at Cambridge. He invites D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey, visiting from America, to lead an evangelistic campaign there. At first many of the students are hostile and heckle them. But eventually some are receptive.
The book follows the spiritual struggles of Hilda, Kynaston, his brother C. T. Studd (world-famous cricket player), and other friends and their families.
Hudson Taylor’s work in China inspires a group of these students, “the Cambridge Seven” (including C.T. Studd and Hilda’s brother) to go overseas to serve God. They speak all over the country, to great crowds who are challenged with God’s calling. But what are God’s plans for Hilda and Kynaston?
(The title of this one hasn’t changed.)
These books are all good stories, especially if you enjoy plenty of history and vivid settings along with your stories. They’re a great, fun way to learn about the church in England at a fascinating time in history.
Each of these stories follow the spiritual journey of several people. Where are you right now in your spiritual journey? What might help you to keep growing?
Also by Donna Fletcher Crow, if you’re interested in the earlier Christian history of England: Glastonbury: The Novel of Christian England.