Book Review – A Woman’s Lot by Carolyn Hughes

A Womans Lot is the second book in Carolyn Hughes’s The Meonbridge Chronicles which are set in the fictional village of Meonbridge in the Meon Valley, Hampshire. It begins in the Spring of 1352, two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, a wonderful novel which put a human face to the struggles of ordinary people in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.

As in any period of upheaval, people did what they must—women were forced, not necessarily unwillingly, to take on roles and activities that had previously been the province of men. A Woman’s Lot concentrates on four women who, of necessity, stepped beyond the lives they expected before the plague and share friendship despite their various positions within the village hierarchy. Eleanor Titheridge is an unmarried freewoman attempting to improve the flock of sheep inherited after her father’s death; her success attracts the active resentment of some of the village men. Emma Ward works as a labourer for Eleanor and sees opportunities this new world can offer but her opinions only make her husband angry. Agnes Sawyer, a carpenter’s wife, relished the chance to assist him in his business, but with life now becoming more predictable, and aware of the opinions of other men, her husband wants her to confine herself to women’s duties within the home. Susanna Miller is the wife of Meonbridge’s miller, a man who has gradually become irritable and morose and now has very firm views on what a woman’s place in life is.

As the village adjusts to the altered world, there is a growing discontent among the men that the women are expecting to have a say and a role beyond their God ordained sphere of home and family. The local priest, Hugo Garret, does not like what he sees and believes husbands should chastise wives who speak up too willingly or step beyond their roles. When a respectable village woman is accused of assaulting her husband, Garret urges that she be tried by ordeal although the practice was made illegal a hundred years earlier. Then Susanna’s husband is found dead, presumed to have been murdered. Susanna is accused by Garret who uses both women as examples of scolding, nagging wives and ‘how wicked, how unnatural, is such a woman in God’s eyes!’ Garret is bad enough but the coroner who arrives from Winchester has ‘an especial hatred of women’ and believes that ‘women are getting above themselves, … and we need to put a stop to it!’ He sends Susanna for trial for petty treason (the murder of a husband or a master or mistress), the penalty for which is burning in the case of women.1

The novel traces the attempts by Susanna’s friends to prove her innocence while dealing with the day-to-day problems of village life made more difficult for the women by the mutterings and resentment of the men stirred up by Garret. Each character is well-drawn and easily recognizable within a few pages of their introduction. Even the most unlikeable of the villagers are described with compassion and an understanding of why they are the way they are. The complexities of the women’s lives are shown and the strands of each individual story is expertly threaded into a literary tapestry that gives the reader an overall view of life within a rural village as well as the struggle to save Susanna. The physical environment of Meonbridge is beautifully and vividly described.

As with Fortune’s Wheel, Carolyn Hughes is in meticulous in her recreation of 14th century life. The attitudes and behaviour of the characters are in keeping with their times with not an anachronism in sight. The legal system and its processes are portrayed realistically and although it was brutal and could be manipulated by the likes of Garret and the coroner, it is shown as operating to a contemporary logic which could, at times, be tempered with mercy. Some of the most gripping sections of the novel are those where the villagers come face to face with the 14th century legal system.

A Womans Lot is a wonderful continuation of the story of Meonbridge and its inhabitants begun in Fortune’s Wheel (which I consider to be the best novel I have read dealing with the aftermath of the plague and how people came to terms with such a catastrophe). While A Womans Lot is the second in the Meonbridge series, it can be read alone but I would recommend reading the full series in order to gain a full sense of the village and the lives of its inhabitants and the way their lives change and alter with time and circumstance. Absolutely recommended.

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1 – This punishment was not abolished until 1790.

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