After a fifteen year hiatus, Jay Taverner’s fourth novel is finally here. Liberty tells the story of Rebecca ‘Jude’ Wiston, a Quaker who leaves her puritanical community behind to claim an inheritance in England, and Annette Lavigne, a French noblewoman who joins with the people’s efforts to overthrow the aristocracy. Their paths cross in Paris, a city on the cusp of revolution. But both women have secrets. Jude has been passing herself as male so that she can safely travel alone. And Annette’s new comrades don’t know about her high birth.
The story begins in 1789, when Rebecca sets out for England. Not wishing to marry or spend the rest of her life ruled by her brothers, Rebecca finds passage abroad. When her ship is wrecked, Rebecca reinvents herself as Jude and finds work as a sailor. As a man she enjoys greater freedom and may travel safely by herself – and many of the book’s more playful passages are built by Jude learning to perform masculinity. Liberty is a tale packed full of adventure, gender-bending, and – of course – lesbian love.
When she arrives in Paris, Jude falls hard for Annette – a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to her own ancestor, Bell Wiston. Annette has been packed off to a convent while her noble family scheme their way to her fortune. Her only friend in the city is Father Lamontaine, the socialist priest who was banished by Annette’s father after being caught with a male servant. As Annette and Jude are drawn into a community of revolutionaries, the passion between them grows.
But for all the men talk of liberty, women in Paris remain vulnerable and ill-used. And there is no place for same-sex relationships, even among the forward-thinking. Through the story of Jude and Annette, Liberty asks an evergreen question: why are women’s rights always expected to wait until after the revolution?
Though Liberty is the fourth instalment of the Brynsquilver books, it can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel. That being said, there are questions answered and familiar characters met – both of which will satisfy anyone familiar with the series. And Liberty has shades of Rebellion; like her ancestor Belle, Annette is a noblewoman who becomes disillusioned with the class system. And like Belle she comes to understand that there is no place for lesbian relationships among polite society. So Annette and Jude must find a way to forge their own alternative.
Through the story of Jude and Annette, Liberty asks an evergreen question: why are women’s rights always expected to wait until after the revolution?
Every bit as interesting as their story is that of Jacky Bratton and Jane Traies, the two women who publish as Jay Taverner. They began writing as a couple, and telling stories to pass long car journeys, and collaborated on three books within five years. But when they split up the manuscript for Liberty was left unfinished. After reconnecting as friends. Bratton and Traies decided to finish Liberty during lockdown.
Liberty, like all of the Brynsquilver books, is seamlessly written. It’s impossible to pick out two distinct voices. Even after fifteen years apart, Bratton and Traies write as one. In recent lesfic collaborations, a trend has emerged: each writer takes a POV character. And what sets Jay Taverner apart is that both writers play an active role in every sentence, paragraph, and chapter. They share in the writing and editing, and the fullness of this collaboration is what makes their work truly outstanding.
In Liberty they create a beautiful, nuanced portrait of lesbian love. There’s just one problem. Be warned: spoilers ahead. After the family mystery is unravelled and the connection between Rebecca and Annette revealed, they’re described as “distant cousins.” But Annette’s father is Rebecca’s half-brother. Which, by this reviewer’s calculations, makes them aunt and niece. Granted, Jude and Annette grew up on different continents and had no idea of this connection when they met. But the issue of consanguinity is still there. And it makes their passionate coupling a little bit too much on the Michael Field side of things to be entirely comfortable reading.
That being said, Liberty is Taverner’s most accomplished novel. It’s an impressive feat of imagination, executed with all the flair of Marie Antoinette. Liberty takes place across three nations and resolves generations of family mysteries. Every plot and subplot is drawn to a satisfying conclusion – though the door was left open for another novel.
Taverner has a knack for bringing historical settings to life through making the concerns of yesterday feel as real and urgent as the topical issues of today, giving real texture to these characters and the world they inhabit. And the scope of this book extends well beyond romance, which defined the parameters of the first Brynsquilver book. Liberty is a highly original story that could not have been told by any other writer.
Liberty and the previous Brynsquilver novels are available now from Tollington Press
Claire Heuchan is an author, essayist, and Black radical feminist. She writes the award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.