June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.
In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.
Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?
And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo…?
I loved this book. The Last Hours has great storytelling, an easy, flowing style and some strong characters which meant I soon got so engrossed that nothing much was done around the house until I got to the end.
It’s a change of direction for Minette Walters – from crime fiction to a historical novel set in the time of the Black Death – but the writing is very good and it is a very good read. I got quite caught up in the lives of her characters. There is plenty of detail which makes it easy to imagine the place and the people. Some are good, some bad, some corrupt and some completely evil.
The story is set in Dorset 1348 and opens just as Sir Richard of Develish is leaving with his men to travel to another estate to arrange a marriage for his 14 year old daughter, leaving behind his wife Lady Anne, his daughter Eleanor and the new steward, the sly Hugh de Courtesmain together with 200 or so bonded serfs.
While Sir Richard is away, a messenger arrives from the Bishop with news of a terrible sickness; that the rapidly spreading plague is a punishment from God and all should pray and atone for their sins as there is no cure and few will be spared. Lady Anne questions the church’s message that it’s a punishment from God. She’s s strong lady who can read and write having been educated by nuns and knows something of how disease spreads. She takes charge and orders that no one is to leave the estate and no one is to enter it. She brought every serf to live inside the moat and organised living and sleeping arrangements and the storage of food and medicines and then ordered the bridge over the moat destroyed to cut them off from the outside world in an attempt to keep them all safe from the plague.
Hugh de Courtesmain is shocked that Lady Anne knows the serfs by name and talks to them and that there are serfs on the estate who can read and write. Even more shocking is that Lady Anne appointed one of the serfs, Thaddeus Thurkell, to be her steward. There is a bit of mystery to Thaddeus. He looks and acts different to the other serfs and Lady Anne has encouraged his learning and his hopes of a future away from the Develish estate. He becomes one of the main characters in the story and there are some interesting interactions between other characters and Thaddeus. The daughter, Lady Eleanor, would appear to go out of her way to cause trouble for him.
The problem is that when a group of people cut themselves off from the outside world, how will they know what is happening on the outside. Their supplies will eventually start to run out but will it be safe to leave?
Following an incident where a young man is left dead, a group of young males steal away during the night to avoid trouble and also see what is happening on the outside and to replenish supplies.
I found it a really engrossing tale of life and relationships both inside and outwith the estate.
There is also a thread running through the book giving excerpts from Lady Anne’s journal and revealing some shocking truths.
I felt the ending was a bit ‘open’. I was left wanting to know more ……. and then I realised there is a sequel due to be published in 2018. I can’t wait!
[My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for providing an advance copy]
The Last Hours was published in the UK on 2 November 2017.