Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters

Ms Walters is more noted for her popular crime novels than historical stories, but with ‘The Last Hours’ she proves that she is comfortable in either genre, bringing to awful life Fourteenth-Century England and the horrors of the Black Death as it swept like God’s punishment through the country, killing entire villages within days.

Her story begins with the departure of Sir Richard of Develish, a dissolute Norman knight, from his Demesne to arrange a marriage between his 14 year-old daughter Eleanor to the son of a neighbouring Lord: both families depend on the match to increase their faltering fortunes; the marriage will be an alliance to strengthen their hold over the hundreds of serfs who work the land for them under the feudal system, increasing the taxes and tithes they must pay.

Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering convent-educated wife remains behind with her daughter Eleanor. She is the real strength of the Demesne, making all the decisions pertaining to the efficient running of the estate, for Sir Richard cannot read, nor does he care to: he has stewards and his mousy wife to do that for him. He would rather drink and hunt and rape his female serfs and servants – the younger the better, even children; after all, they all belong to him. They are his property, bound to him: slaves.

Eleanor feels the same way; she is her father’s daughter regardless of Lady Anne’s counselling and she is looking forward to her marriage so that she will be elevated in station; then she can treat serfs any way she wants, without the curbing influence of her impossibly pious mother, who is beloved by all who are bonded to her. And she will show that Thaddeus Therkell, bastard son of one of the servants that she knows how to use a whip to wipe that smirk off his face; he is far too attached to her mother. She will show him who has the real authority.

But her plans come to nothing, for Sir Richard returns from his journey with a terrible plague, caught from his hosts at the castle – there will be no marriage for her prospective groom has died, as did everyone else who came in contact with those who were struck down; now her own father is suffering – and her mother will not let him cross the moat into his own manor for fear that everyone will be infected. How dare she refuse him entry?

But the Lady Anne can and does, and is secretly delighted that the husband she loathed has died the death he deserved, as she sets about trying to ensure that her people remain healthy – and have sufficient food to weather an unknown future.

Ms Walters does a fine job of recreating the life and spirit of the times, even if the characters are very black-and-white – Lady Anne is a saint, Sir Richard and his odious daughter are definitely sinners, and Thaddeus is heroic, the saviour of the noble serfs - but nitpicking aside, this is still an absorbing, credible story of one of the most frightening times in history – and it ends on a cliffhanger, for there is a second volume to come. I’m looking forward to it.


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