The Last Hours is Minette Walters’ first foray into historical fiction, a genre I do read a fair amount of, though not of this period. Set in the summer of 1348, the Black Death has just arrived in Dorset. The disease is unlike anything anyone has seen before and with the lack of medical knowledge, it swiftly devastates towns and villages.
On the estate of Develish, Lady Anne finds herself having to take control of the demesne after her husband dies of the plague while travelling. Her daughter, Eleanor, takes after her rather crueller and less intelligent father. Much is made of her looks and the way she bullies the servants. From the serf class, the bastard Thaddeus Thirlwell is promoted to Steward, instantly putting up the backs of the older men. It is Lady Anne’s education and knowledge of medicine that saves her people: she brings them across the moat from the village, thereby separating them from the cause of the illness. But by cutting them off from the world, she has also severed their food supply and it becomes apparent that they are the sole living people for miles around. The murder of a young serf boy serves as an urgent catalyst for Lady Anne to resolve this self-imposed quarantine.
I’m not an expert on this period by any means but nothing shocked me out of the story in terms of accuracy. I had little knowledge of how the feudal system worked but here Walters’ research was woven into the story lightly enough that I felt that I understood it without having had a history lesson. The importance of the church at that time felt true. Her characters, however, had a more modern feel in their attitudes. Lady Anne finds little obstruction in the manner in which she takes over management of the demesne. While she is the lady of the manor, her power is only explained in the kindness she has shown over her tenure to the serfs who her husband would otherwise have brutalised. I did also wonder at her ability to shut her husband out of her bedroom (an important plot point) when in every other part of her life he seemed to have complete control.
Overall, an interesting read though it got quite baggy in the middle. A large cast of resulted in some very flat characters with little nuance. It will be interesting to see how Walters follows this up.
Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.