Having previously welcomed Carolyn Hughes as my guest here on Being Anne, and helped with the cover reveal of this lovely book, I’m delighted today to join the blog tour and share my review of A Woman’s Lot. The second book in the Meonbridge Chronicles, A Woman’s Lot was published by SilverWood Books on 4th June, and is available from Amazon in the UK and US.
How can mere women resist the misogyny of men?
When a resentful peasant rages against a woman’s efforts to build up her flock of sheep.
…or a husband, grown melancholy and ill-tempered, succumbs to idle talk that his wife’s a scold.
…or a priest, fearful of women’s “unnatural” power, determines to keep them in their place.
The devastation wrought two years ago by the Black Death changed the balance of society, and gave women a chance to break free from the yoke of chatteldom, to learn a trade, build a business, be more than just men’s wives.
But many men still hold fast to the teachings of the Church, and fear the havoc the daughters of Eve might wreak if they’re allowed to usurp men’s roles, and gain control over their own lives.
Not all men resist women’s quest for change – indeed, they want change for themselves. Yet it takes only one or two misogynists to unleash the hounds of hostility and hatred…
I will admit I was slightly nervous about this book – I don’t read many historical novels, and I really wasn’t sure whether rural life in the fourteenth century would be quite my kind of read. But how wrong can you be? It’s a great tribute to Carolyn’s wonderful writing and her ability to recreate the era and its people that I slipped back in time quite effortlessly, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The issues in this book were largely recognisable and familiar, with a focus on the place and role of women at home, in the workplace and in their family relationships – the detail about their daily lives was simply fascinating, and evidently the product of meticulous research and real care and thought around the way in which it’s used.
The book is a treat for all the senses – the dusty mill, the difficult living conditions, the cold and damp, the muddy paths and shepherds’ crofts, not shying away from the brutal realities of life at the time (the summary justice, the shortages of food, the limitations of healthcare) but concentrating on the ordinary lives of an authentically drawn cast of characters. The story – or perhaps I should say “stories” as there are several threads, all focused on the wonderfully strong women characters – is excellent, a real page-turner with a strong narrative drive, and plenty of twists and turns, shocks and surprises along the way.
I was particularly fascinated by the notion that the Death, as well as wiping out swathes of the population, also created opportunities, with the now untenanted farms and the need to fill key jobs: there were real parallels to be drawn with the changes to women’s lives during and following the First and Second World War, but with an even more extreme set of prejudices about the rightful place of women. The relationship issues too made this book feel modern in its themes – from the search for a suitable partner to issues around domestic violence – while feeling totally authentic and true to its time and setting.
I must mention too that – although the second in a series – I had no problem at all reading this book as a stand-alone. There’s a really useful character list at the start, although I found the individuals so well-drawn and distinctive that I really didn’t need it: there’s also an excellent glossary of terms at its end (which I didn’t realise was there until I’d finished, but it did explain some of the terms I’d let slip by as I read).
Perhaps you doubt whether this book is one for you – but I’d really urge you to set aside any preconceptions and give Carolyn Hughes’ writing a try. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who might have an appetite to try something rather different – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
At that moment, the constable knocked on Emma’s door. ‘Is Mistress Titherige with you, Mistress Ward?’
Emma invited him inside and he bowed to Eleanor. ‘Your sheep are found, mistress.’
She blanched at the gloomy expression on the constable’s face. ‘Are they dead?’ she asked, in a whisper.
He shuffled his feet and, when he spoke, his voice was quiet too. ‘Two dead, mistress. The third, nearly so––’
Eleanor cried out. ‘Dead! My lovely ewes. And their unborn lambs.’
Emma put her arm around Eleanor’s shoulders. ‘It’s wicked, that’s what it is. Those poor innocent creatures…’
Eleanor got to her feet. ‘Take me to them, master constable.’
But Geoffrey demurred. ‘No, no, Mistress Titherige, there’s no need—’
She tossed her head. ‘Yes, there is. I want to see them. Please lead me, master constable.’ And she swept from Emma’s house and strode down the lane behind Geoffrey, who was still trying, but failing, to dissuade her from her mission.
But if Eleanor had been determined to see what had happened to her sheep, when she did so, she wished she had not come after all.
The derelict barn was cold and damp, its roof partly fallen in, and the ancient hay piled up in the stall where her sheep were penned was giving off a foul and musty stink. As Geoffrey had already said, two of the sheep were dead, lying close together in the rotten hay, their tongues lolling from their mouths, their lovely fleeces all filthy and reeking. One had dried blood around her tail and, when she saw it, Eleanor’s hand flew to her mouth.
‘Had she already birthed?’ she said, a choke rising in her throat. She cast about her, looking for a lamb. Then Geoffrey hurried forward and scrabbled in the hay, one of his men holding a lantern high.
Shortly, Geoffrey stood up. ‘It’s here, mistress. Don’t look––’
But, refusing his advice, Eleanor went forward too. He pointed, and she pressed both hands to her face, as she stared down on the pitiful little body, dark and bloodied, nestled in the foul hay a short distance from its dam.
‘Where’s the third?’ she said, her voice a whisper.
‘Over ’ere, missus,’ said the constable’s man.
The third sheep lay apart from the others, on its side, panting, its eyes sunken.
‘She’s been deprived of water,’ said Eleanor, kneeling by the animal’s side. ‘How cruel…’
‘Or mebbe just ignorant?’ said the constable. He bent down and picked up some hay. ‘The hay’s all rotten, mistress. It’s been here years. Won’t ’ave done them no good.’
She looked up at him. ‘Bad hay and no water?’ She stroked the sheep’s muzzle, and tears filled her eyes. ‘The poor, poor creatures.’
Eleanor wiped away the tears on the sleeve of her kirtle. ‘Anyway, she’s past saving. So please, master constable, arrange for her to be freed from her suffering.’
Geoffrey bowed his head. ‘Will Cole’ll do it.’
With thanks to Carolyn and tour organiser Brook Cottage Books, I’m delighted to offer the opportunity to win an e-book copy of Book 1 of the Meonbridge Chronicles, Fortune’s Wheel.
Please note that the giveaway is managed by the tour organiser, and I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize. Here’s the rafflecopter for entry:
About the author
Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation.
She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
A Woman’s Lot is the second of the Meonbridge Chronicles, her series of historical novels set in fourteenth century England. The first, Fortune’s Wheel, was published in 2016. The third in the series is well underway.
Carolyn also posts a blog on the 20th of every month at http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com.