Ingrid Ramsdale’s debut novel, Emilie, is perfect for fans of historical fiction. The story follows sixteen year old Emilie Lefroy, a young Huguenot noblewoman leagues ahead of her time, who dreams of studying herbal medicine. Fiercely intelligent and passionate about learning, Emilie struggles to come into her own amidst her strict and highly devout parents who are bent on setting her up with Marcus Duval, a sly, vicious man with sinister affairs brewing. All the while the bloody conflict of the 16th Century French Wars of Religion simmer in the background.
Despite the numerous obstacles in her way, Emilie sneaks away to speak to her family’s gardener Thomas and his mother, a gifted herbalist, at every opportunity. Her dream is to become a healer as well, and to learn all that she can about plants and their properties.
Emilie’s plans are cut short by the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Her parents are murdered in the carnage, but Emilie manages to flee with the help of Thomas. What follows is a series of hair-raising events as Emilie, Thomas and his family attempt to navigate the treacherous new climate of their country, and evade Emilie’s betrothed and malicious brother Pierre.
Thoroughly researched, Emilie is a story with many layers; religious war and persecution, politics, adventure, family and romance. It is also a coming of age tale about a girl trying to find herself in the most trying of circumstances. Ramsdale’s vivid descriptions of place and characters instantly drew me into her world and brought it to life, despite the vast differences of the 16th century compared with today.
The dialogue in Emilie feels authentic to the time period, whilst remaining accessible, and each character has a unique tone and voice, making their individual journey’s rich and compelling.
Despite being set over 500 years ago, the themes in Emilie are still relevant today, namely intolerance of religious difference and the unsettling knowledge that humans are capable of both great kindness and sickening atrocities. As such, this novel feels like an important and timely read, while its fast, engaging pace means it can still be picked up and enjoyed for purely escapist purposes.