Book Review: The Winchester Goose by Judith Arnopp

This book took me completely by surprise. I’m still not sure what I expected when I first started reading, but it certainly wasn’t a tale that grippeThe Winchester Goosed me by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and clenched my heart with the other and refused to let go.

“Winchester Geese” was the collective name given to the prostitutes who worked in Southwark and Bankside in Medieval times, in an area or the liberty owned by the Bishop of Winchester. From these women and the places in which they lived, the bishop collected rents and hence a tidy earning. That a man of God made a living – or part of it – off women’s backs, turning a blind eye to their shocking conditions, illness, poverty, cruelty, and the enforced sexual slavery that some endured, and the brutality of their often brief lives and the lack of choice that led them to such a profession, while preaching against sin etc. was not lost on contemporaries or history. So, immediately, the title of this book intrigued me.

Set in Tudor times, during the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII, 1540, the book uses first person and, to commence, four different voices to tell a tale of love, lust, hope, marriage, desperation, loss and tragedy. The main protagonist is Winchester Goose, Joanie Toogood (great name) who, due to the death of her parents when young, gained responsibility for her two younger siblings turning to the oldest and only profession available to her as a single woman of a certain class. Big of heart, popular among locals and with oodles of common sense, Joanie is a delight. When she falls for the rather shady but young and dashing Francis Wareham, a gentleman who seems to stumble from bad choice to poorer ones, her life changes. But so does that of two other women from a completely different class who also encounter the dashing courtier: Evelyn Bourne and her sister Isabella.

Lovely young gentlewomen, they are brought to the Tudor court to join the maids serving Henry VIII’s new queen, Anna of Cleaves. Hoping their prospects for marriage will improve through exposure to the royal court and eligible bachelors and widowers, the young sisters could never have foreseen the way their lives were to be changed.

All four of the main characters, Joanie, Francis, Evelyn and Isabella are given voice in this novel and such different and compelling voices they have. The common denominator in their stories is Francis. As a reader, you think you see where these women’s relationships with handsome, swaggering Francis will lead, but nothing prepares us for the brutal and heart-wrenching reality.

Told in an uncompromising fashion, one that allows us to experience the lack of choice, the utter despair and injustice of women in certain positions during this time, the novel can make for bleak reading – only, despite the shocking events that unfold, it never falls into that dark trap, but allows hope and possibility to hover at the edges. Without sentimentality, it explores the heights and depths to which choices – good and bad – can lead, and how all it takes is one chance, one generous act of faith in fellow humans to bring about transformation.

Evocative and moving, the period is also brutally and wonderfully drawn. I really enjoyed the fact that the court and the large figures that people in it such as King Henry, Anna, Katherine and the courtiers, were mere backdrops to a passionate and searing tale of ordinary folk.

Readers of historical fiction, romance and just a damn fine book will love this. Looking forward to reading more of Judith Arnopp.

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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Twelfth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s.

After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it.The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes in social history, reconstructing the past in order to understand how it was lived and not simply by kings, queens, monks, lawyers and nobles, those who have left records of their deeds and desires for us to absorb and through which we judge them. Instead, Mortimer turns to all classes and all experiences and takes the reader on a magnificent and fascinating journey back to a character-filled society with its own delights and dangers. It was so good the first time, I did it again and liked it even better.

Explaining where to stay, how to tell the time, greet people (Eg. “fellow or friend, ye be welcome”), about the sumptuary laws, what certain coins look like and what you might be able to buy and where, what diseases we might succumb to if we’re not careful, what we might be served and how to eat it whether it be in an inn, a peasant’s house or a king’s castle (all of which are thoroughly described as if you’re on a guided tour), Mortimer runs the gamut of class and place in this vivid recreation that is at once hugely informative and always vastly entertaining.

Even how to avoid running foul of the law and what punishment might be meted out is made clear as well as the significance of religious observances. Medieval humour is also explored as well as, for those so inclined, where you might find the best er hum, sexual services (Southwark, the Stews, in London, in case you wanted to know). He also discusses how to entertain ourselves while we’re there (the Stews aside) and who, among the great figures known to us now, we might expect to encounter on our journey – Geoffrey Chaucer anyone? He has rooms above Aldgate.

Just when you think you’ve stepped back into the present, Mortimer will remind you to take a deep breath and stop. Listen, he advises. What do we hear? Very little. Maybe some bells, the sounds of birds and animals and, above all, the chatter and clutter of people should we be near a town or city. Or, if present at a joust, the thunder of hooves. The medieval world is a very quiet place, something I hadn’t considered, along with many of the other preconceptions and yes, prejudices I had about this period and which Mortimer’s grandest of tours manages to overturn.

If you’re looking for a book that will literally transport you to another time and place, than I cannot recommend this one highly enough. A fabulous read.

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