Publisher: Riverdown Books
Page Length: 340 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
“What’s this I just heard,’ roared Will, ‘’bout you stealing Missus Titherige’s sheep?’ ”
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and it wasn’t as if Eleanor Titherige was going to notice that three ewes were missing from her flock.
Unfortunately for Luke and his young and somewhat simple cousin, Arthur, Eleanor and her shepherd, Walter, did indeed notice that they were missing. Eleanor is determined to find her missing sheep, not only because they belong to her, but because she fears for their welfare as all three are heavily pregnant.
When the missing sheep are finally found, it is too late to save them, for the boys had failed in the most basic of animal husbandries.
In these troubled times, one could expect no leniency for theft. If one could not pay the compensation to the aggrieved party, they would pay by losing a limb, or in a worst-case scenario, it would result in the thief dancing from the end of a rope. Luke is determined to avoid arrest, and so he flees with his young cousin into the woods. But it will only be a matter of time before the authorities find them…
From a devious and ill-conceived plan to steal some sheep to a shocking truth told in front of a jury, A Woman’s Lot (The Meonbridge Chronicles, Book 2) by Carolyn Hughes is, in all ways, a Historical Fiction triumph.
Having read Fortune’s Wheel (The Meonbridge Chronicles, Book 1), it was with an eager anticipation that I began to read Book 2. I expected big things from this novel because Hughes is an accomplished writer who has a gift for bringing the past vividly back to life. Hughes’ compelling narrative and her striking portrayal of a hard-up and, for the most part, hard-working community, made this book not only utterly compelling from beginning to end but also one that is shamelessly enthralling. I am not ashamed to admit that this book exceeded all my expectations. I did not read this story. I lived it!
The story is set in the village of Meonbridge, whose occupants had been ravaged by the Black Death and are now trying most desperately to put back the pieces of their shattered hearts. For some, life will never be the same again, whereas for others, despite the heartache of loss, this was an opportunity to become more, to earn more, and to, despite the aristocracy’s thoughts on the matter, finally have more of a say on how they lived and how much they were paid.
Unlike most novels set during this era, we do not read the story from the aristocracy’s perspective, although Sir Richard and Lady Margaret du Bohun do make several cameo appearances. Instead, this novel tells the story from the perspective of the common folk—the cottars, the millers, the carpenters and the shepherds. More surprising still, this story does, for the most part, follow the lives of three very different women.
Many women were left widowed, and their children snatched away from them because of the Death, but those who survived had to find a way to make the best of it and carry on. This unwavering determination to push forward make all three women whose story we follow in this novel intensely gripping. Eleanor Titherigh lost everyone to the Death, bar her step-brother, and now she is determined to raise a fine flock of sheep. Agnus Sawyer wants to learn her husband’s trade; she is convinced that she could learn to be a carpenter and make the most splendid things out of wood as her husband does. Susanna Miller, however, would have loved to help her husband run the mill, even if it were just keeping the books, but her husband will have none of it, and even Agnus’ husband was having second thoughts about letting his wife work alongside him. Could it be because of the sermons of Master Hugo Garret? Garret does nothing to hide his contempt and hatred of the fairer sex, and as he is a man of God, then what he preaches must be true. Hughes has brought this vast array of very different characters to life with a bold and successful sweep of her quill, and the story she has told is quite simply unputdownable.
This novel’s historical setting has clearly been painstakingly researched, but Hughes also has an empathetic understanding of human nature. The indoctrination of men such as Henry Miller and Jack Sawyer by the misogynist priest was really unsettling, as was their treatment of their wives as they began to listen to the evils of a man who claimed to be speaking God’s word. Likewise, with Jack, he also listens to master craftsman, who claim that a woman could not possibly become skilled in a craft such as theirs. For woman such as Angus, this is terribly upsetting, for she feels as if she has failed as a mother and a wife, but also she feels as if she has failed herself. She is forced to give up the craft she enjoyed but she is still being judged unfairly because she has difficulty keeping control of her boisterous young children. As is often the case in societies that belittle and demean women, there really is no chance of escape.
To make matters worse, there are those who thrive on gossip. There are women who smile to your face and whisper falsehoods behind your back because they have nothing better to do with their sad, pathetic lives. I have always found it very difficult to understand what makes such people tick. Some delight in destroying another’s character without regret or thought, but on the flip side, there are women in this novel like Eleanor who wants Luke and Arthur to be called to account for their crimes, but she does not want them to hang for it either. She is conflicted, as many women in this novel are.
Hughes also depicts the injustice of the justice system during this era. Court cases could be hurried along and the right whisper in the right ear did, in some cases, ensure a biased verdict. I was also surprised that those accused of a crime could be held in a cell for years before their case was brought towards the King’s Justice. It was a very sobering thought.
The Meonbridge Chronicles is as mesmerising as Winston Graham’s Poldark series. There is injustice, poverty, but also hope and romance. I could have very easily read another thousand pages, and my attention would not have wavered. This is a series that deserves to be read and enjoyed. It is certainly deserving of a place upon your bookshelf.
I Highly Recommend.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.