Now for a bit of unashamed historical fiction covering an era I am hugely interested in – the Black Death. Call me odd, but I’ve been interested in the history of disease for some time – Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read – and one of my favourite books ever involves time travel to a plague-ridden village near Oxford in 1348. What I find most interesting is the way people cope during such an event – how they deal with the disease, how they explain its existence to themselves and, tellingly, who they blame for the outbreak.
In The Last Hours, the first of Walters’ forays into historical fiction, the Black Death sweeps through the county of Dorset in the summer of 1348. The Lord of the manor of Develish is away at a neighbouring estate, arranging the marriage of his only daughter, and his wife, Lady Anne, takes the bold decision to isolate the community to prevent the disease spreading. This comes as a shock to Sir Richard when he returns, with only three of his retinue left, and to his steward, trapped within Develish’s moat, and enrages his daughter, a thoroughly spoilt fourteen year old who idolises her father and seems to loathe her mother. The estate serfs and servants, however, love and admire Lady Anne who, since her arrival as a teen bride has worked to improve their lives. Her greatest admirers are Gyles, eventually the only survivor of Sir Richard’s trip, Thaddeus, the illegitimate son of one of the more feckless serfs and Isabelle, a young girl who acts as a maid to Eleanor, Sir Richard’s daughter: but it won’t be easy for a woman of Saxon heritage to lead her people during such a time of peril. Their seclusion doesn’t prevent them from pondering the cause of such devastating sickness (given the times the majority are willing to blame sinners and blasphemers) or from there being a murder within the village. Eventually dwindling supplies lead one brave man to lead a small group to search for food, other survivors and answers: but greater dangers seem to remain within the community as Eleanor continues to fight against her mother’s rule.
We read the Last Hours for our Book Group in October and one comment we all had was that the ending was fairly abrupt. The version I read even said ‘to be continued…’ which was a little frustrating. Luckily the second volume was available – albeit just in hardback – so I dove straight in to discover what became of Lady Anne, Thaddeus, Gyles and the rest of the people of Develish. Thaddeus and the young men who left the estate in the first book report back on the terrible consequences of the plague – deserted villages, unburied dead and crops left to rot in the fields – and the whole community is aware of the bands of villans (ironically, mostly nobility rather than actual villeins, or peasants) who are travelling the countryside taking whatever they can find: food, gold and women. However, after surviving the worst of the sickness it seems that many of the serfs are now starting to contemplate what the future will bring – the work they were forced to do as virtual slaves of the nobility will have to be done by a much reduced workforce so could they now be in a position to demand a better life. Maybe even freedom. To do this they need to go back out into the wider world and to make things happen.
I enjoyed the glimpse of history Walters gives us in these books – with the added touches of gruesome detail of victims of both the Black Death and villany which you’d expect from the author of numerous crime thrillers – and I enjoyed the way that she has thought about the attitudes to gender, class and religion of the times. While the Black Death obviously didn’t do away with the power of the church or medieval attitudes to women and the labouring classes I find it easy to believe that some people began to question the status quo. My only quibble would be that I think the pacing of the two books was a bit uneven – lots of discussions of Church versus faith, whether women having any power is a sign of witchcraft or heresy etc mixed in with the more dramatic scenes – but I’m not sure I could identify which scenes could be cut. Maybe instead of a two book series it should have been spread out over three slightly less weighty tomes – but then, of course, I’d have to have waited longer for the satisfying conclusion to the story of Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell, and the other inhabitants of Develish.