Friday, December 04, 2009

Review of The Heartbreaker, by Elisabeth McNeill

If you prefer your heroes romanticized and untarnished, you may not want to read this novel. Elisabeth McNeill's The Heartbreaker takes an unflinching look at Prince Charles Edward Stuart -- Bonnie Prince Charlie -- and the woman who saved him from the English, Flora Macdonald, following how their lives diverged after the Battle of Culloden.

Both of their lives were dramatically changed after she spirited him away to the Isle of Skye, him disguised as her Irish serving maid, after the Jacobite army's devastating defeat in 1746. McNeill's story picks up five years later. Flora, who aided her prince on her stepfather's orders, was never really a fervent supporter; she helped him evade the English redcoats because he was in desperate straits. She gains many admirers, and her status attracts a handsome, well-placed husband, but not everyone wants to associate with a Jacobite heroine. Her happy marriage brings her contentment and many children, though money troubles force their family to abandon Scotland for the Carolinas -- right before the American Revolution begins.

Charles, formerly the charismatic figurehead for the Jacobite cause, traipses across Europe in a drunken, spendthrift haze, uncaring that many Highlanders gave their lives for him. A self-absorbed wastrel who ignores his ailing father and beats his devoted mistress, Clementine Walkinshaw, he grows more pathetic every year. The Pope doesn't take him seriously, and not even his faithful followers believe he could successfully invade Britain, though Charles persists in his delusion. It's a harsh portrait, and McNeill spares him not an ounce of sympathy. (While this interpretation is based on fact, the negativity does go over the top in places.)

Disowned by her family for her loose behavior, Clementine raises her illegitimate daughter Charlotte alone, refusing to condemn her former lover but aware of his many faults. Her good sense and circumspectness impress Charles's father and brother, who agree to fund their upkeep.

Rather than write a lengthy epic, McNeill opts for a streamlined fictional history that emphasizes action, fact, and character. She covers nearly forty-five years of history in less than 200 pages, so don't expect lavish detail, but it touches on the major events in Charles's and Flora's later lives. The ending chapters move briskly, reading almost like nonfiction with conversations added in.

The novel paints insightful portraits not only of Charles and Flora but also of Clementine, Charlotte, Charles's brother Henry (a Roman Catholic Cardinal) and Charles's late-in-life spouse, Louise of Stolberg. In this version Henry is a homosexual with a longtime lover in the church, which may or may not be true, but otherwise sticks closely to common interpretations. Clementine did leave Charles because she feared for her life, and left a note saying so. The novel also follows the latest revelations on the Stuarts' genealogy, mentioning Charlotte's son and two daughters -- a closely held secret -- and the latter's marriages with Polish noblemen.*

McNeill has a gift for personalizing tragic moments in Scots history, while looking beyond the myths and examining their long-term effects. While hers is a lively, gripping tale, it's also one of sorrow and deep regret. The women's resilience through troubled times is admirable, and it contrasts with the dissolute tragedy of the man they once looked up to. Here Charles Edward Stuart is a heartbreaker indeed, a man who symbolized Scots nationalism but who failed his supporters in more ways than one.

The Heartbreaker: A Novel of Bonnie Prince Charlie is officially published in January 2010 by Severn House at $27.95/£18.99 (185pp, hardbound, 978-0-7278-6837-4). The US release date is March 2010. I preordered it from Book Depository and received it in early November, and it seems to be available now.


* For an eye-opening account of Charles Edward Stuart's Polish descendants (which has been judged as meticulously researched and likely accurate), read Peter Pininski's The Stuarts' Last Secret (Tuckwell, 2001). The author was interviewed by Burke's Peerage and Gentry, which will give you the basics of his claim; I requested the book via ILL several years ago and found it absolutely fascinating.


  1. That sounds fascinating!

  2. This is the book that I wanted to contact the author about. It looks so good!

  3. I hope you get the chance to read it, Marg!

  4. Ooo this one sounds great! My dad used to listen to The Skye Boat Song when I was growing up and when I first realized it was about the Bonnie Prince I became fascinated with his story.

  5. Darn you, Sarah Johnson, for introducing me to BookDepository!!

  6. I most sincerely apologize. (But isn't it great?)

  7. I've always been a bit puzzled by the devoted following James Stuart and his son Charles attracted, as they seemed a pretty hopeless pair altogether. The romance of the doomed cause, perhaps? And of course, the Catholic cause.

    This review makes me even more interested to see what Elisabeth McNeill did with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots; yet another novel with the title "Blood Royal". It sounds as if EM doesn't allow sentimentality to colour her interpretation of character.