Reviews: What You Call Free

James Robertson, poet, short story writer and author of novels including And The Land Lay Still and Joseph Knight.

In this wonderful debut novel, Flora Johnston prises open a forgotten window to give a rare view onto the lives of women in one of the darkest periods in Scotland’s history.

A sullen atmosphere of unrelentingly wintry weather and impending personal disaster looms over What You Call Free, which is set mainly in the lee of the Pentland Hills and Edinburgh in 1687-8, a time when Scotland was riven by religious and political differences. The two principal characters, Helen Alexander and Jonet Gothskirk, were real women, but little is known of the detail of their lives, and the novel’s triumph is to make them whole in flesh and blood. They could have remained passive victims of the times in which they existed, but Flora Johnston’s acute and sensitive writing reveals their intelligence and courage as they face hypocrisy and cruelty masquerading as righteousness and honour. Yet Helen and Jonet are not saints but whole human beings, full of faith, doubt, hope and fear, and so are the sisters, mothers, daughters, husbands, brothers and suitors who surround them.

The story also features a remarkable portrait of James Renwick, the last of the Covenanter martyrs, whose arrest and trial lead to the novel’s stunning climax. What You Call Free is historical fiction of the highest quality.

Cynthia Rogerson, short story writer and author of novels including Wait for me, Jack and I Love You, Goodbye.

Flora Johnston has written a literary page turner about one of Scotland’s most turbulent and least talked about periods. It opens in 1687, the time of the Covenant. There are those, like Helen – principled widow with three young children – who bravely offer shelter to religious refugees, whose only crime might be worshipping in a field instead of a Kirk.  And there are those like Jonet – pregnant unmarried teenager – who wear the sackcloth every Sunday in the Kirk, and suffer the scourge of a community for the sin of falling for a scoundrel.

The novel follows these two women in alternating chapters, their fates interwoven in a tight-paced progression through perilous adventures.  Johnston has created a highly convincing narrative not just of an historic time in Scotland, but of specific individuals with all their quirks and weaknesses and unexpected flashes of both inspiration and despair.  Jonet and Helen are memorable, not because they are perfect heroines with just causes, but because they are utterly recognisable as people.  It’s a bleak story because it’s a bleak time, but the characters retain their warmth and humanity.

All in all, a compulsive read.  As addictive as chocolate, and as nourishing as a bowl of Scotch broth.   

Jenni Calder, literary historian, poet, novelist and author of numerous titles

Flora Johnston has created a gripping narrative with engaging, often conflicted characters, and evokes time and place with great skill. She tells a powerful story, steering a sure-footed path through perhaps the most complex and divided period in Scotland’s history in a way that resonates with many issues today.

Rob McInroy, author of Cuddies Strip

I suspect if What You Call Free was written twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, it would be a very different novel. Instead of the two women – both real historical characters – around whom the novel revolves, the central character would have been James Renwick, the charismatic and driven Covenanter who was ultimately martyred for his beliefs. Helen Alexander, a principled, fiercely independent and intelligent woman, would have been relegated to a supporting role emphasising the charisma of Renwick. And Jonet Gothskirk, a young woman from a poor family, would not have appeared at all. She simply wouldn’t have existed. 

Flora Johnston’s brilliant historical novel tells the story of a dark period in Scotland’s history – the conflict between the Covenanters and the Crown – through the prism of these two women and in so doing casts a wholly different light on the times. 

Read the rest of the review here.

The Herald review by Alastair Mabbott

3 July 2021

The backdrop to Johnston’s novel is the conflict between King and Covenanters in 17th-century Scotland. It opens with pregnant Jonet in sackcloth, shunned for unwittingly falling for a married man. Her mother sends her to stay with her sister, who Jonet discovers is a Covenanter, and whose neighbour, Helen Alexander, frequently aids and harbours their leader, James Renwick. Jonet is shocked, seeing them as snared by a dangerous cult. However, when her marriage to a sleazy old merchant is arranged, she is drawn closer to Helen and the Covenanter cause. Once opened, this tale of division, persecution and clandestine gatherings is hard to close again, Johnston ably evoking sympathy for her characters’ plights in a climate of oppression and jeopardy in which high stakes accompany even the slightest defiance of Kirk and King.

Scottish Field

30 November 2021

A piece of historical fiction loosely based on the lives of two women, Helen Alexander and Jonet Gothskirk (who was forced to wear a ‘sackcloth’ or ‘gown of repentance’ as punishment for adultery during the period of the Covenanters. After falling pregnant, 18-year-old Jonet seeks refuge among a group of religious dissidents with the help of widow Helen. Johnston’s exploration of religious tensions, female oppression, and what it truly means to be ‘free’ within the context of a turbulent 17th-century Scotland, is enlightening.