Scapegallows, by Carol Birch

A gnarly old tale of love, virtue and stolen horses

There has never been a dull time for slang in the English language. A time traveller going back 200 years might miss everything that's gnarly and banging about our own world, but he could join a crowd of blowsabellas, bene-feakers, twiddle-poops and niffy-naffy fellows (slatterns, counterfeiters, sissies and time-wasters), order up a tiddly (drink), and, if so inclined, between sips he could admire the innkeeper's Newgate knockers (curly, oiled moustaches).

If the tiddly didn't turn out to be a wibble (a bad drink), the traveller might stay long enough to get into conversation with a scapegallows: a person who had been sentenced to hang but had managed to escape. It might even be the celebrated double scapegallows Margaret Catchpole, a convicted horse thief and smuggler's moll who evaded the noose twice, and whose unusually adventurous life is the subject of this new novel by Carol Birch.

Birch's Catchpole, a woman of verve and determination, would be stimulating company for a night out in any century. Born in Suffolk in 1762, she grew up on its bleak, smuggler-haunted coast. As a young woman, she found work as a servant in Ipswich for the poet Elizabeth Cobbold and her wealthy husband. She clung to this prized job for years, although her position was repeatedly compromised by her boyfriend, a dashing "free trader" named Will Laud.

Will was not a bad man, but he was "a rake and a charmer, a rambleaway", and a dangerous man to love. As a smuggler, he lived outside the law, brought genuinely bad friends to her employer's house, and often needed Margaret's help. It was on his account that she finally got into serious trouble. In 1797, hearing that he was imprisoned in Newgate, she promptly stole a horse from the Cobbolds and rode pell-mell to London, disguised as a boy, to try to free him. Before she had fulfilled her mission, she was caught, tried and sentenced to be hanged: the usual punishment for horse-thieving.

Birch vividly evokes the terror of this, but Margaret did not live in fear for long. The Cobbolds intervened to get the sentence commuted, first to transportation and then to a seven-year term in Ipswich Gaol. Margaret served three years of this before making a disastrous attempt to escape. Caught, she received another death sentence, then another commutation, and this time she did get shipped to Australia. She lived the rest of her life there, eventually becoming a respected colonial midwife.

Despite its title, the real drama of Scapegallows emerges not in the two reprieves, which were relatively straightforward, but in Margaret's long and doomed struggle to carve out a secure life for herself while staying loyal to the man she adored. She was also repeatedly undone by her own strength of character. Her willingness to rise to every challenge was what ruined her – from the mad ride to London to the prison break. In the end, her bravery even killed Will, the man she tried to protect. Being so courageous was a curse; so was her capacity for devotion. This mixture of qualities makes Margaret a compelling heroine.

Ultimately, the novel resolves itself into a redemption story, in which Margaret's sterling character provides the basis for her success in Australia. The narrative arc is not entirely unlike that of the published Victorian account on which it is chiefly based, a moralised fable which has Margaret supposedly redeemed by her "virtue". For Victorian virtue, Birch substitutes feistiness – a quality that we 21st-century readers happen to admire more.

Scapegallows may be more rooted in its author's century than its subject's, but it is an intelligent and gripping novel – and gnarly enough to make your knockers curl.

Virago £14.99 (435pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition