Book Review: A Tainted Dawn by Barbara Peacock

At the beginning of the first chapter of her book, A Tainted Dawn, Barbara Peacock quotes Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven!”

The final quarter of the 18th century was time of immense change and progress in western civilization. There were two momentous political revolutions, one in America and one in France. Radical new ideas were in the air-democracy, liberty, equality, brotherhood (fraternite en Francais) and the rights of man. Nevertheless, these principles were, as they are today, honored more in the breach than in the observance, and, if you had asked any of the three young men whom Barbara Peacock features in her book, A Tainted Dawn, Edward, Louis or Jemmy, none of them would likely have described his life as anything remotely resembling heaven.

Edward is a well-bred young Englishman who attends Eton. His parents have long been estranged and when his sea-captain father dies he wills his property to Edward and mandates that his guardian should be his grandfather, Admiral Ben Deveare. Naively, Edward, wanting to break free of his overbearing mother, agrees to the arrangement. Admiral Deveare is a man of no good will, and Edward soon finds himself at sea in appalling circumstances.

Louis is the son of a solidly middle-class bourgoise tailor and is pursuing legal studies at the University. He is much attracted to the revolutionary ferment going on in France and begins to neglect his studies and become involved in revolutionary activities such as storming the Bastille and forcing King Louis the 16th to leave Versailles and come to Paris. His father staunchly opposes the revolution and when he learns of Louis’ activities he disowns him. Louis falls in with some French soldiers and travels with them to Antiqua. He finds himself indentured to a plantation owner to pay for his passage. So strong is Louis’ belief in the ideals of the revolution that he continues to try to propagate them even in his new circumstances-something that can only get him into trouble.

Jemmy is the son of an unemployed carpenter. His mother has died and he has a somewhat feeble-minded little sister. He makes a meager living playing the fiddle for coins. Ill-fortune has  transformed his father from loving to unkind, and after receiving some harsh words from his father, Jemmy succumbs to the temptation to go to sea. He signs up on the Amphitrite, the same ship on which the hapless Edward is now serving as a midshipman. Jemmy has been endowed with “the gift,” sometimes known as “the sight,” and when he dreams that his father’s life is in danger, he becomes determined to jump ship and go back to England to try to save him.

Barbara Peacock has a masterful knowledge of both nautical lore and the history and politics of the age. Her characters are sympathetic and they come alive through her writing. She deftly captures the spirit of this fascinating and critical time, both its positive and negative aspects. Her characters inhabit a world that is squalid, gritty and dangerous, but not without hope

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