The Midwife’s Tale by Samuel Thomas
The midwife in this tale is Lady Bridget Hodgson, and her newly acquired servant and apprentice Martha. Lady Bridget is a 30 year old twice widowed woman, whose real sorrow is the loss of her 2 children. She lives in York, and best of all is based on a real character. These were streets I know well, and the pull back in time was intense: the setting perfectly depicted the harrowing days of a siege (by the Scots, described here as barbarians). This story has an intriguing list of characters, all well developed, with distinct differences and functions. Many classes of people are represented from city officials, soldiers, jailers, working women, wives, tailors, to street urchins, in churches, government, bars, apothecaries etc.
Martha is also a fascinating character, useful to the household, but with unusual set of skills, not so much house cleaning as house breaking. She has a few secrets of her own.
This is primarily a book about women, but there is an interesting assortment of men:
nephew (Mathew) with a club foot, tormented individual but helpful
brother-in-law (Edward), dominating, political, ultimately trustworthy
Italian (Baca) mysterious bordering on violence and deadly
husbands, sinful men of god, ‘the godly’
dwarf jailer – humour in odd places, goodness
Lord mayor – powerful, secretive, ruthless chess player
rebels and kingsmen in bombardments (to be avoided!)
siege which is destroying innocent townspeople
This is not a fast paced thriller. It is filled with death and the grim reality of the struggle for life, such that you wonder how we as humanity made it out of the 17th century. There is scathing social and religious commentary, interesting portrayal of the conniving and desperate lives of most women, the corrupt power of local politics all the while presenting everyday life. If you think you’d like time travel, read this for the gritty, grimy gruesome detail that will make you revel in central heating and plumbing. My nose wrinkles just thinking of her descriptive reeking passages. The contrast with her life (with linens, extra clothing, food) to the poor and unfortunate is uncomfortable at best. The writing is evocative – reel from the scents (stinking smells really), the sounds (cannons, horse screams, rain) but also the torment and sorrow of loss of children, babies, diseases, and the precariousness of life. There are full descriptions of several types of births but also the customs and camaraderie of the gossips (those women who helped with birthing)
But the characters were intriguing and interesting and every page turned effortlessly. I so enjoyed this book that I seriously hope that it is the beginning of a series. That Lady Bridget will continue to deliver babies and solve mysteries satisfactory, especially with Martha now taken on as deputy (midwife in training).
“I was struck once again by the artist’s inability to portray him as any less pathetic than he had been in life. In truth it was a peculiar kind of masterpiece.”
“Phineas (her second husband) had taught me the hard lesson that contentment in marriage could not be taken for granted. I preferred the certainty of my work to the unknown of married life.”
‘I never forget a mother, the fathers were a different matter.”
“It is said that in his youth Edward ordered his sleeves cut an inch longer than was fashionable in order to hide the pommel of his dagger. This seemed right to me.”
“Edward was a voracious reader, and the walls of the room were covered with bookshelves containing works on every subject imaginable. There were books in English and Latin, of course, but also French and what looked like Greek. Massive folios of Shakespeare’s plays sat comfortably next to cheap pamphlets detailing a monstrous birth in Sussex….his desk was a riot of correspondence and commonplace books in which he scrawled notes…despite all this the room exuded not chaos but a sort of controlled energy.”
read as an ARC
If you like Ariana Franklin, CJ Ransom and Vanora Bennett this is a book for you.