To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

It’s 1348, two years after England’s victory over France at the battle of Crécy, which led to the capture of the French port of Calais. And it is to Calais that we are headed in James Meek’s latest novel, in the company of a large and diverse group of characters.

First, there’s Lady Bernadine, a young noblewoman betrothed to a man her father’s age. Dreaming of the sort of love described in her favourite poem, Le Roman de la Rose, Bernadine has run away from her home and her arranged marriage in pursuit of the man she hopes to marry instead, the knight Laurence Haket. Haket has raised a band of archers to send to the English garrison at Calais and they are all on their way to Melcombe in Dorset where their ship awaits.

The newest recruit to the company of archers is Will Quate, a young bondsman from Bernadine’s village, Outen Green. Will hopes that Bernadine’s father, Sir Guy, will grant him his freedom in return for serving with the bowmen. The other archers are rough, battle-hardened men who were together at Crécy and are not the most pleasant of people, as Will quickly discovers – but it seems that they will not go unpunished for the crimes they have committed.

Finally, we meet Thomas Pitkerro, a Scottish proctor who has been working at the papal court in Avignon and is returning there after carrying out a commission at Malmesbury Abbey in England. The Abbot has asked him to travel with the archers and to listen to their confessions as the nearest thing to a priest they will have. And they certainly have a lot to confess!

To Calais, in Ordinary Time doesn’t have a huge amount of plot – the whole story consists of the journey through the south of England towards Melcombe, but there’s still a lot going on. We get to know more about the archers and the girl known as Cess who has come back with them from France; the characters find themselves asked to perform in a morality play; and there’s an exploration of identity and gender through the story of Hab the swineherd and his ‘sister’ Madlen. Meanwhile, unknown to the characters, every step they take towards Calais is taking them closer to the Black Death, the great pestilence coming in the opposite direction. The choice of Melcombe as the point where they will embark for France is significant because Melcombe will become known as the ‘Plague Port’ – one of the first locations where the Black Death would enter England. You can find parallels with modern catastrophes (James Meek has said that he was thinking of climate change) but any comparisons are lightly drawn and they are more something to keep in mind rather than an important part of the story.

But the most notable aspect of this book – and one you’ll probably either love or hate – is the language. Meek uses three very distinct styles to convey the different backgrounds and social classes of each of the three main characters or groups of characters. Thomas Pitkerro’s narrative, mainly in the form of letters to his friends in Avignon, is written in very formal prose with long sentences and big words, evoking the Latin used by the clergy at that time. As an English noblewoman in the 14th century, Bernadine would have spoken a form of Norman French, so this is indicated by peppering her speech with words like the French negative ‘ne’ (‘you ne understand’, ‘ne speak his name’). The others – Will, Hab and the archers – speak in their local Cotswold dialect (‘they say steven in place of voice, and shrift and housel for confession and absolution, and bead for prayer’). They also say neb for face, which I found quite jarring as where I live it means nose!

While I appreciated the imaginativeness and cleverness behind all of this, I have to admit that I just found it a distraction. Ironically, instead of helping to immerse me in the setting and the story, it kept pulling me back into the present day and reminding me that I was reading a modern work of fiction. As I’ve said, though, I’m sure other readers will love the use of language and so will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. It’s the sort of book I would expect to see being nominated for awards; it just wasn’t right for me personally.

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

This is the sequel to The Last Hours, which followed the fortunes of a group of people during the Black Death which reached England in 1348. When I finished the first novel last year, I wasn’t sure whether I had liked it enough to want to read any more, but in the end I couldn’t resist finding out how the story would conclude.

The Turn of Midnight picks up where The Last Hours left off, with the people of Develish in Dorsetshire living in quarantine while the plague rages across the land. The reason their community has survived largely intact while others around them have been wiped out is because of the precautions taken by Lady Anne, who gathered her people within the moat that surrounds her manor house and burned the bridges, cutting them off from contact with the outside world. Now that winter has come and food supplies are running low, Lady Anne’s loyal serf Thaddeus Thurkell, accompanied by several other young men from Develish, has crossed the moat and ventured into the countryside to see what he can find.

Despite the strong leadership skills of Lady Anne and the intelligence and courage of Thaddeus, Develish has no lord, Lady Anne’s husband Sir Richard having succumbed to the plague early in the previous novel. This has left the demesne in a vulnerable position, so together Thaddeus and Lady Anne come up with a plan to protect the people of Develish…but if they fail Thaddeus could find himself in serious danger.

I’m glad I decided to read this book because I enjoyed it quite a bit more than The Last Hours. It feels faster paced, with more going on, and of course, being the second of a pair of two novels, it has a much more satisfying ending. Where the previous novel was set mainly in and around the manor of Develish, this one has a wider scope, concentrating less on Lady Anne and her family and more on Thaddeus. Towards the end of The Last Hours I felt that Thaddeus and his companions were wandering aimlessly in the countryside without much happening, but this time they have adventure after adventure as they explore desolate towns and villages, make new friends and new enemies, and carry out charades and deceptions.

My main criticism of this book is that I still couldn’t really believe in either Thaddeus or Lady Anne as realistic 14th century characters. As I mentioned in my review of The Last Hours, I found their attitudes and thought processes far too modern and wasn’t at all convinced that they, unlike the rest of the population, could have had such an accurate understanding of how the Black Death was spread and how to protect themselves from it. I was also disappointed that Lady Anne’s stepdaughter, Lady Eleanor, is reduced to such a minor role in this book. Eleanor was very much the villain of the previous novel, but near the end some reasons were given for her terrible behaviour and there were hints that she might have been about to turn a corner. She is certainly much more likeable in this second book, but sadly the transformation of her character is not explored in any depth which I thought was a wasted opportunity.

This is such an interesting period of history to read about, though, and I did find the portrayal of a country devastated by plague vivid and convincing, even if the characters were not. Minette Walters is much better known as a crime author and has moved into new territory with these two novels; I’ll be curious to see whether she writes any more historical fiction in the future.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Yes, this is the same Minette Walters who is best known for her crime novels which include The Ice House and The Dark Room. I’ve never read any of those (at least I don’t think so – I did used to read a lot more crime than I do now so it’s possible I may have read one of her books and forgotten about it) but when I saw that her new book, The Last Hours, marked a change of direction from crime to historical fiction I was immediately interested!

The Last Hours is set in 1348 on the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire. Those of you who know your 14th century history will know that the Black Death, which had been sweeping its way across Europe, reached England in 1348 – and this forms the heart of Walters’ novel. Sir Richard of Develish falls victim to the plague early in the book, leaving his wife, Lady Anne, responsible for the demesne, the household and the serfs who work the land. Lady Anne gathers everyone inside the boundaries of the moated manor, believing that cutting off contact with the outside world will be the best way to avoid the pestilence.

With so many people forced to live together in a confined space, it is inevitable that problems will arise, old rivalries will resurface and tempers will be lost. The cause of most of the trouble at Develish is Sir Richard’s daughter, Lady Eleanor, a cruel and selfish fourteen-year-old who resents having to live with the serfs. In particular, her hatred is directed at Thaddeus Thurkell, a serf who has just been promoted to the position of Lady Anne’s steward, a move which Eleanor sees as evidence of her mother’s favouritism and unnatural affection for Thaddeus. When supplies at the manor begin to run low, it is Thaddeus who volunteers to venture out into the countryside to find food – but what is the real reason for his departure?

The Last Hours was an interesting read for me as I’ve always found the Black Death a fascinating topic (sorry if that sounds morbid). Walters explores so many different aspects of the disease: the beliefs and superstitions surrounding it; the physical effects it has on the body; the theories people had as to what was causing it; and the limited methods of preventing its spread. However, I knew as soon as I started reading that at some point our protagonists would make the connection with rats and fleas and recognise the importance of hygiene and cleanliness – and I was right. It would have been so much more convincing from a historical point of view if they had continued to think the plague was a punishment from God or that it was caused by breathing bad air.

I did like both Lady Anne and Thaddeus, even if they don’t always feel like believable 14th century people, and they (along with a young maid, Isabella) were certainly the characters I had most sympathy for. Lady Eleanor is the most unpleasant, unlikeable character I’ve come across for some time. She is horrible from her first appearance and remains horrible throughout the entire book – although we do eventually learn a little bit more about her and what possibly made her the way she is, so maybe we’ll see a different side of her in the sequel.

And yes, there is going to be a sequel. I had no idea this was the first in a series until I reached the words ‘to be continued’, so be aware that if you do choose to read this book it doesn’t have a proper conclusion and we are left with lots of loose ends. At the moment I’m not sure whether I will be looking for the second book; I found this one quite slow and unevenly paced – I enjoyed the chapters set in and around Develish, but struggled to stay interested in the adventures of Thaddeus and his companions as they wandered the countryside looking for supplies. I will probably be tempted, though, as I do have lots of questions that haven’t been answered!

Thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

the-plague-charmer The village of Porlock Weir appears to be under a curse. Janiveer, a woman rescued from the sea following an eclipse of the sun, has warned the villagers that plague is approaching and that only she can save them – for a price. It’s a price that nobody is willing to pay, but it’s not long before the disease reaches their small coastal community and there are some in the village who begin to wonder whether they have made the right choice. The year is 1361 and the horrors of the Great Pestilence of thirteen years before are still fresh in people’s minds.

In The Plague Charmer, Karen Maitland tells the story of Porlock Weir through the eyes of several different characters: Will, a dwarf; Matilda, devoted to her religion; Christina, who has given birth in secret at nearby Porlock Manor; and Sara, a mother trying to protect her two young sons. It’s a complex plot; each of these characters, and others, have storylines of their own, but they all come together to form a dark and magical mixture of myth, folklore and legend, love, murder, religious relics and secret cults.

There were so many things to like about The Plague Charmer. I particularly loved the setting – a little fishing village on the Exmoor coast – and learning about the lives of the people who lived there, steeped in tradition and superstition. It was interesting to watch the people of Porlock Weir deal with the arrival of the plague at a time when so little was understood about the causes of illness and death, a time when even a natural phenomenon such as an eclipse caused panic and terror. Whether or not Janiveer really possessed magical powers, it was easy to see how she was able to take advantage of the fears of the villagers to manipulate the situation to serve her own ends.

Although I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters, I did enjoy getting to know them all, especially Will, the ‘fake dwarf’. Not a natural dwarf, but one created by his master in a most horrific way, to be sold for the entertainment of rich noblemen. Due to his size and the treatment he has been forced to endure, Will looks at the world differently from the other villagers and is in the unusual position of being not quite ‘one of them’ but not quite an outsider either. He’s a great character and one of only a few in the novel who behaved with decency and humanity. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that there were too many characters and too many subplots (one in particular, involving Sara’s sons, Luke and Hob, added very little to the overall story, in my opinion). I found the constant switching between viewpoints distracting and would have preferred to have spent longer following one character before moving on to the next.

Getting back to the positives, I enjoyed reading the author’s Historical Notes at the end of the book. These provided an opportunity to learn more about the background to the story and some of the people and places that are mentioned (most of the characters are fictional, but a few, such as Sir Nigel Loring of Porlock Manor, are based on real historical figures). I was also pleased to discover that we are given the answers to the intriguing riddles found in the headings of Will’s chapters. Some of them were easy to guess, but others had left me baffled!

Finally, I should probably leave you with a word of warning. Like the other Karen Maitland books I’ve read (The Vanishing Witch and The Raven’s Head), this is a very dark story and can be quite gruesome at times; you need to be prepared for bad things happening to the people of Porlock Weir, and that includes the children. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a fascinating and atmospheric one.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

God and the Wedding Dress by Marjorie Bowen

the-1938-club After the success of last year’s 1924 Club, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are back with The 1938 Club, the idea being that bloggers read and review books published in 1938, building up a picture of the literary scene in that year. I found lots of possibilities – 1938 seems to have been a particularly great year for literature – but I knew I was only going to have time to read one of them. Luckily the book that I decided on turned out to be a good choice for me.

The intriguingly titled God and the Wedding Dress is set in the seventeenth century in the village of Eyam in England’s Peak District. William Mompesson, the new Rector of Eyam, has recently arrived in the village with his wife, Kate, their two young children and Kate’s sister, Bessie, but the family are finding it difficult to adjust to their new life. They have all been used to luxury and comfort, but Mompesson’s new position requires them to live within their means, avoiding unnecessary extravagance. With Bessie’s marriage to the wealthy John Corbyn quickly approaching, however, the women are determined to make it a day to remember and so they send to London for a beautiful – and very expensive – dress.

God and the Wedding Dress Unfortunately, both women are unaware that with plague sweeping across London, Mompesson has been advised not to have any contact with people or items coming from the capital. By the time the Rector hears about the wedding dress, it’s too late: it has already been delivered to the tailor, the box has been opened, and the tailor’s apprentice is about to die a rapid and unpleasant death. It seems that the plague has arrived in Eyam.

What follows is a story which is both depressing and inspiring; the story of a small community working together in the face of unimaginable horrors, making sacrifices for the good of others which will have deadly consequences for themselves. It’s also a true story, based on the real events of 1665/66 (it’s not the only novel to have tackled this subject – Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is also set in Eyam, although I haven’t read that one yet). Eyam itself really exists and is known today as ‘the Plague Village’, while many of the characters, including William Mompesson, were real people too.

Although we do change perspective from time to time, most of the story is told from Mompesson’s point of view, which I thought was the right decision. Mompesson, like his wife and sister-in-law, likes the finer things in life, but also has a desire to live the way his parishioners expect the Rector of Eyam to live. He is in conflict with himself, but also with the people around him. At first he views the villagers as little more than pagans, trusting to spells and charms to protect them from the plague. He finds it difficult to gain their respect and it is only when he joins forces with Thomas Stanley, the former Puritan minister of Eyam who was appointed during the time of Oliver Cromwell and who lost his position following the restoration of the monarchy, that Mompesson really begins to feel part of the community.

In her foreword, Marjorie Bowen states that there are many different types of historical novel and ‘this author has tried most of them’ which may sound conceited until you look at the very long and impressive list of books she wrote! I have read three of them in recent months (the other two being Dickon, a fictional biography of Richard III, and The Viper of Milan, a wonderful story set in Renaissance Italy) and I can say that the three I’ve read are all quite different in subject, style and tone. This is a quieter, more reflective novel, as much about a man’s inner struggles as it is about the history surrounding him.

I enjoyed God and the Wedding Dress, although it is obviously not the most cheerful of novels and not one to read if you need all of your characters to have a happy ending. It’s a fascinating story, though, and an important one because I think the sacrifice made by the people of Eyam deserves to be remembered.

~

Other 1938 books previously reviewed on this blog:

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Plague I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Plague of 1665. I know that probably makes me sound morbid, but it’s true – with my interest in the history of medicine, I love reading about the theories suggested by 17th century people to explain what was happening to them, the weird and wonderful ‘cures’ they came up with and the impact of the epidemic on English society. So when I saw a novel called Plague in my library’s ebook catalogue, I was immediately intrigued, especially as it’s by C.C. Humphreys, an author I’ve been wanting to try since I saw Audra’s review of one of his other books, Jack Absolute.

Plague, I quickly discovered, is not simply a novel about the plague (although it’s always there in the background affecting the lives of all our characters in one way or another) but it’s also an action-packed historical mystery set in Restoration London.

In 1665, England is still recovering from the aftermath of the recent Civil War which had resulted in the execution of King Charles I. Although his son, Charles II, has now been restored to the throne, lots of former royalists are still struggling after losing everything in the war. One of these is Captain William Coke, who has had to resort to highway robbery to survive.

One night, Coke is surprised to find that his shouts of “stand and deliver” have no effect on the approaching carriage. The reason: the driver and the passengers have all already been brutally murdered. Coke takes an expensive necklace from the neck of one of the bodies before running away, but leaves one of his pistols behind in his hurry to escape. This is found by the thief-taker, Pitman, who becomes determined to capture Coke and receive the reward for bringing him to justice. We, the readers, know that Coke is innocent – but who is the real killer?

Two women also become embroiled in the mystery. One of them, Lucy Absolute, is the sister of a wartime comrade of Captain Coke’s. She is now an actress at a London theatre – and the mistress of the notorious Earl of Rochester. The other woman is Lucy’s friend, Sarah Chalker, another actress. When Sarah’s husband goes missing, the unlikely pairing of Coke and Pitman must work together to investigate his disappearance…and meanwhile, plague is continuing to spread through London. As the novel’s subtitle tells us, ‘murder has a new friend’.

Although the story deals with serious subjects such as murder, illness, robbery and treachery, and can be quite graphic at times, Plague is an entertaining novel that I found fun to read. Humphreys’ writing style is clear and engaging and I knew from the first page that this was a book I was going to enjoy. It’s always a relief when that happens! It’s a very atmospheric novel too, taking us from the dark, dirty cells of Newgate Prison and the squalid, claustrophobic homes of the plague victims to the splendour of the royal court and the drama of the theatrical world. Each location is brought to life vividly and realistically and the author doesn’t shy away from describing some of the less pleasant sights, sounds and smells of the period!

We meet lots of interesting characters in Plague, including some real historical figures such as Charles II and the fascinating Earl of Rochester. But my favourite was Captain Coke. He’s a complex, flawed character and I liked him from the beginning, even though we first see him as a highwayman and a thief. I enjoyed watching his relationship with Pitman develop from hunter and prey to unlikely partners. One aspect of the book I was less happy with, though, was the inclusion of a conspiracy plot involving a religious sect called the Fifth Monarchists. I think this sort of thing is overused in historical crime and I’m starting to get a bit bored with it. Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. The ending sets things up nicely for a sequel; I don’t know if there will be one, but I would like to have the chance to meet some of these characters again.