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1348 revisited

May 16, 2022

Some actual writing got done today after the other members of the Bad Girls Book Club greeted with stony silence the most recent request from the arts council for a review for this week’s newsletter. Which left muggins to come up with something.

As I cast my mind about for some book to big up I realised the choice was obvious. I’d recently loaned a book (and now its sequel) to my friend Donna and she absolutely loved it. So a good choice with the added benefit that it provided me with an opportunity for a little dig. 

Here’s what I had to say.

I stumbled across The Last Hours by chance in late 2020 when I discovered a favourite mystery writer, Minette Walters, had a novel out that I hadn’t read. So confident was I that I would enjoy it, I ordered a copy without reading any description. So I was surprised that this was not one of her contemporary mysteries, but a novel set in 1348, the summer the Black Plague swept across Europe.

As per this Guardian review: “In the summer of 1348, Lady Anne of Develish is shaping her humble demesne into one of the most productive and harmonious in the county, thanks to her unusually progressive ideas about healthcare and literacy among her serfs, and despite resistance from her boorish Norman husband Sir Richard… While visiting a neighbouring manor Sir Richard succumbs to an unknown illness: his shrewd captain notices mass graves and deserted villages along the way. When a messenger arrives in Develish forewarning that ‘a Black Death has fallen upon our land’, Lady Anne… orders her people inside the boundary walls of her moated manor house. The gates are barred to all comers including her ailing husband and his retinue, who are left to die unshriven in the village.”

As the story begins, convent-reared and (more importantly) educated Lady Anne of Develish is shaping her humble estate into one of the most productive and harmonious in Dorset, thanks to her unusually progressive ideas about healthcare and literacy among her serfs, and despite resistance from her boorish Norman husband Sir Richard and her teenage daughter Eleanor. While visiting a neighbouring manor to secure Eleanor’s marriage, Sir Richard succumbs to an unknown illness. His shrewd captain has noticed mass graves and deserted villages along the way and sends a warning. When a messenger arrives in Develish with a description of the Black Death that has fallen upon the land, Lady Anne – who knows the importance of segregating the sick – orders her people inside the boundary walls of her moated manor house. The gates are barred to all comers including her ailing husband and his retinue, who are left to die in the abandoned village.

The Church claims the plague is God’s punishment, a view some serfs are inclined to accept, but Lady Anne is having none of it.

Within the confines of the gated manor, confusion breeds rivalries – especially after Lady Anne replaces her husband’s steward with the bastard son of one of her serfs.

The novel is meticulously researched and the period detail is fascinating. There is a strong cast of characters to love or to love to hate. I absolutely devoured this 500+ page book, although by page 475 I could not figure out how Walters was going to wrap it all up. Surprise! She didn’t. Turns out The Last Hours was the first of two novels. 

I quickly ordered the second, The Turn of Midnight, which I’m pleased to say was an equally satisfying read.

Both novels were written before Covid swept the planet and I doubt Walters had a premonition, but they are salutary reminders of the behaviour most likely to keep us and our loved ones safe.

Ha, ha. A small dig indeed when what I really wanted to say is: “Hey! Are you people fucking crazy? What the fuck are you doing going into shops or to concerts without wearing a mask? Why aren’t you screaming bloody murder about the lifting of the vaccine passport mandate? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Anyway, a jolly good read if you haven’t already spent time in Develish.

From → Reading

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