The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney begins in London in 1665 where Great Plague already is taking hold. It is only five years since the restoration of the monarchy and the divisions that brought about the Civil War still exist beneath a thin veneer of conformity. Althea Hawthorne, a young gentlewoman, has been employed as a companion to the daughter of Lord and Lady Calverton. Sent out on a contrived errand, Althea returns to discover than her employers have fled London. Abandoned and alone, she decides her best hope is to return to Measham Hall, her family home in Derbyshire, a dangerous journey for a young woman.
Althea’s journey is a gripping depiction of what people will do to survive, as well as the unexpected kindnesses and unusual alliances made. On her journey, Althea falls into the company of charlatans of various kinds and religious dissenters. Their acceptance of her and what seems an easy camaraderie bring her to reassess the way she has previously seen the world, as well as to question long held beliefs.
Seventeenth-century England is vividly described – the sights, the smells, the extremes of poverty and wealth as well as the religious dissensions and preoccupations of a society in disarray. The description of a society under threat from an invisible enemy has a resonance that even as little as eighteen months ago would have been absent.
There were already several people waiting, each standing as far apart from the next as the space permitted. They observed one another uneasily, as though trying to detect any tell-tale signs of the plague. Looking out for flushed cheeks and glassy eyes, for boils or pustules hidden beneath lace collars or curling wigs. No one spoke, the atmosphere did not lend itself to conversation.
Replace the glassy eyes and the pustules with coughs and sniffles and it could be today.
The characters are well-rounded—even the minor characters are described with a succinct depth. Many have secrets, their deceptions necessary for their survival in this world turned upside down. Abney’s prose is elegant and puts a human face to the trials, terrors and unquenchable hopes of the plague years.