Allen & Unwin | 2017 (2 November) | 547p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is August 1348 and the pestilence has arrived in Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish has ridden to the demesne of Bradmayne with a cart of treasure – the dowry for his daughter Lady Eleanor whom he wishes to see wed to young Peter of Bradmayne. But Peter is the first to be stricken with the Black Death and others soon follow. Sir Richard returns home to Develish but his wife, the Lady Anne, won’t let him or his men in. For this could be the saving of their lives. The manor is sealed within its moated banks, the surfs all brought inside, their fields abandoned. Lady Anne turns society on its head by bringing forward Thaddeus Thurkell, a slave, as her steward. Confined and with limited food, trouble is inevitable but its source is not what one would expect.
In these times of limited travel and communication, the quarantined inhabitants of Develish have no idea what disease this is that is sweeping the land. They don’t know how far it has travelled or when it will end – if it even will. Is it God’s punishment? But when they look to their priest, no comfort can be found there. Sooner or later they must look beyond the moat for nourishment, for salvation.
I have read and loved every one of Minette Walter’s novels and I was thrilled to learn that not only was a new book on the way, after a sizeable length of time, but that it would also be historical fiction. And what a period Minette Walters has picked – the Black Death of 1348. But she doesn’t look at it from the point of view of the important and all-seeing, instead we view these terrible weeks from the perspective of one small community that can have no idea what is going on a mere five miles from their manor. This is a fine story, a worthy subject for Minette Walters’ talents, and I was engrossed immediately.
These are remarkable people, all the more so because the majority of them are serfs or slaves, people usually ignored by history and fiction. Lady Anne is the foundation on which their lives are built but it’s the serfs who must face the biggest questions of the Middle Ages – why has God cursed us? how do we survive when we’ve sworn an oath to own nothing? what is our fate after the Black Death, should we survive it? will the pestilence give us our freedom? The person who contradicts all attempts of the peasants to examine their condition is Lady Eleanor and she is relentless in her medieval righteousness. Bridging the two worlds are Thaddeus and Lady Anne and the two of them have the power to change others. Watching them do so, whether it’s through the skill of literacy or the experience of travel, is fascinating and completely absorbing. Overshadowing them all though is the legacy of Sir Richard. This might be a tale of the medieval period but it is alive and vivid with real people.
Their situation is diabolical. The descriptions of the plague and the reactions of men and women to it are powerful and shocking. The land has gone silent but for the sound of weeping. While some try to work out what the cause might be, others are overwhelmed. We can’t forget that these are very different times to our own. The Black Death might make no distinction between the classes but feudalism certainly does. And the descriptions of villages, hovels, inns, abandoned sheep, stricken manors and empty, rutted roads are every bit as striking and memorable as the scenes of plague.
The Last Hours paints a wonderful portrait of one small section of medieval England and it is populated by so many interesting and distinct people facing the worst time of their lives, of their age. And yet the Black Death was the catalyst for such change as well as uncertainty, religious questioning and tragedy. All of this is captured so brilliantly by Minette Walters in a medieval apocalyptic tale that is beautifully-written, atmospheric and always gripping.