The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!






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The Great Plague by Stephen Porter

The Great Plague that struck London and other English shires (including major towns and small villages) in the year 1665, causing unbelievable (to modern readers) death, despair, economic hardship and all kinds of social injustices (many of which were enshrined in policy) is explored in forensic and sometimes repetitive detail in Stephen Porter’s The Great Plague.

imgres-5Despite commencing with an anecdote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the friar, because of the laws regarding the quarantining of infected houses and their inhabitants during the plague (in England and abroad), is unable to deliver the message to Romeo that Juliet is not really dead (a failure of communication with tragic consequences), this is not really a poetic or, indeed, dramatic recounting of the plague, its origins and social and political impact. But it is a fascinating study into how various governments (from Turkey, France, The Netherlands and more), and especially the English one during the reign of Charles II, dealt with a growing catastrophe.

Whether it was through flight from an infected centre (an option really only available to the wealthy, and of which they availed themselves with relief and scant regard for those they left behind), incarceration in a “pest-house”, being locked up for forty days with other victims in a suspect house (whether you were infected or not), or taking advantage of human misery by exploiting and stealing, the book explores the various ways people endured (or didn’t). Among a range of topics, Porter discusses the Bills of Mortality, released weekly and which listed causes of death in each parish, examining the way in which the plague spread, ebbed and flowed, how various government and medical bodies dealt with the rising death count and how the thinning population and various laws around trade and public gatherings affected industry and mercantile matters as well.

Porter is at pains to show how the plague wasn’t just a social disaster, but an economic one as well that some centres recovered from quicker than others. He also reveals how the lack of preparation and medical knowledge likely aided the spread but also how, in the end, it affected its end.

The main focus is London, but Porter devotes an entire chapter to the English provinces and, in the latter part, ventures to the continent and beyond. Here the book does become repetitive and appears, especially towards the end, to lack heart. I know it’s strange and perhaps not even appropriate to discuss this in relation to a non-fiction book, but I have read others that at least show empathy towards the suffering and misery all this death caused. Porter avoids sentimentality or even sympathy, making this a cold read and placing the reader in a position, I guess, not unlike those in authority who had to suspend their emotions and make difficult calls (though were many who lamented the laws, protested on behalf of the poor and demanded human rights be addressed and suffering end). I am not persuaded this approach was entirely necessary. As an example, Porter argues that while the numbers of people lost were considerable (he coolly describes entire families being “wiped out” – using mainly eye-witness accounts – Samuel Pepys eg, or how one person from every household in a street is killed), the appellation “Great Plague” is likely a misnomer when one considers the actual body count, citing earlier and later plagues and per capita losses to support his claim. As an academic, I can appreciate this perspective, but am still to be persuaded it was entirely necessary. “Great” is also an adjective that does not have to be quantified through numbers. When you talk about death in such a way, reducing it to a statistic instead of inviting the reader to consider the humanity underpinning such extraordinary numbers, you basically miss the point. Porter also states, during the mid-1660s in London, not only was there plague and war with the Dutch to contend with, but also in 1666, the “Great Fire.” In context then, with so many catastrophic events the plague of 1665 (which in some centres started before this and continued well into 1666), and its impact on the human psyche was certainly “great”. Again, consideration of the economic hardship, let alone the losses and experiences at the individual and familial level – different across the class structures – is something that sits at the margins of the book when they could have also been at its heart.

Overall, this was an interesting and well-researched book that uses contemporary and modern sources to discuss the nature and impact of one of the most dreaded diseases of the past.

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