Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Exquisite Siren: The Romance of Peggy Shippen and Major John André by Edwin Irvine Haines

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Open Library Loan
Read: October 17, 2013

The most glamorous story in the annals of American history is that of the lovely Peggy Shippen, arch-conspirator of the Revolution, of her love for the gallant young Major John Andre, and of the part she played in the treason of West Point. This novel, which is based on a new and authentic interpretation of the events leading up to that treason, is one of great dramatic intensity. Young, beautiful, ambitious, Peggy Shippen was inevitably drawn into the web of intrigue, of plots and counter-plots woven by Major John Andre, the man she loved, and by Colonel Aaron Burr, his adversary. Benedict Arnold, Peggy's husband, is revealed as a selfish, unscrupulous scoundrel to whom gold was the only god. Major Andre appears, not as the hated spy of orthodox history, but as a brave and talented young man, who placed honor above everything else, and for it sacrificed love, happiness, even his life. Mr. Haines brings the hectic, dramatic background of the Revolution vividly to life in this brilliant historical novel.

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I discovered Edwin Irvine Haines' The Exquisite Siren after reading Allison Pataki's The Traitor's Wife. The latter had left me wanting a more compelling fictionalization of Peggy Shippen and while I feel Haines' interpretation succeeded in fulfilling that desire, I can't deny this wildly imaginative narrative has its own unusual particularities.

The story begins just after Washington is chosen commander in chief of the army by the Second Continental Congress and closes with Benedict's betrayal and André's death. Notable appearances include Banastre Tarleton, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, Elizabeth Loring, Charles Cornwallis and William Howe.

At four hundred and forty-four pages, The Exquisite Siren is a fairly lengthy novel and the language and prose are certainly indicative of older fiction, but even without these hurdles I would have great difficulty recommending this piece to other readers. Haines you see, plays fast and loose with history, refusing to allow the facts to dictate the story he wanted to tell. Is his work amusing? Yes. It is creative? Certainly. But is it accurate? Surely not. Not unless you believe Peggy to have frequently ridden incognito around the country, delivering messages and information as one of Henry Clinton's most trusted agents. 

That being said, there were a few things I really liked about this book... you know, once I'd accepted the author's freely adapted point view. Peggy's motivations and personality for example, are believable and remain constant throughout the novel, the relationship she shares with André has some actual depth, and Benedict, despite falling prey to the manipulations of a conniving young woman, still boasts a certain degree of integrity. I also liked that Haines was able to illustrate the American Revolution without glorifying the rebel cause and in so doing, managed to maintain a rather neutral tone of voice. 

There is without a doubt a time and place for tellings such as this and while The Exquisite Siren was in no way the story I was looking for, I can't deny that it appealed to both my quirky sense of humor and appreciation for the unconventional. 

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"A woman saved France. Another ruled it and built an empire. A woman made England great and powerful and defeated the tyranny of Spain. A woman destroyed the mighty nation if the Aztecs. A woman can save England's colonies and end the rebellion."
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