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Elizabeth Ashworth is taking her knowledge of medieval history and her meticulous research into the arena of fiction to give readers another taste of an unfamiliar century and setting. An Honourable Estate starts with a woman doing harsh public penance in front of a sympathetic crowd. This is a rather arresting beginning – why, if she has been so wicked, is there no hatred and derision? An Honourable Estate takes a slice of history as a backdrop to a local legend to provide an answer.
The legend is that of Mab’s Cross, which according to the author’s fascinating source notes at the end still stands in Wigan. The inspiration is the medieval tomb in Wigan Parish Church of Lady Mabel de Haigh and her husband Sir William Bradshaw. The setting is the North West, and the period the early 14th century and the reign of Edward II. If you enjoy historical novels, and are looking for a change from the standard fare of Tudors and Georgians, this is certainly different.
Sir William and Lady Mabel are the benevolent Lords of the Manor of Haigh, which is Lady Mabel’s inheritance. They live in turbulent times, and Sir William is drawn into the rebellion against their feudal lord, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, known to history as the Banastre rebellion. This is not straightforward treason, as Lancaster and the King are at serious odds, Lancaster having been instrumental in the death of Piers Gaveston, the king’s favourite. The rebel army is routed at Preston, and Sir William may or may not be dead – at any rate, he disappears from the lives of his wife and children. Dead or alive, he is pronounced an outlaw, and his lands are forfeit for a year and a day.
This is the background for a narrative of two strands, covering a period of about seven years. Sir William survives, and becomes an outlaw – a sort of Lancashire Robin Hood. How does he regain his reputation and freedom? His wife, Lady Mabel, has somehow to survive and make a life for her family and household. How does she find the protection she must have, however much she wants to be independent? Both are intriguing premises, and Elizabeth Ashworth weaves them together to provide a satisfying answer to that initial question. At the heart of both is the highly ambivalent figure of Edmund Neville, the Sheriff of Lancaster. Goodie or baddie? Hero or Villain? Let the reader decide: no further risk of spoilers from me.
These are grim times, of rebellion, war with the Scots and a precarious existence for all – the feudal lords at the vagaries of shifting power, and ordinary people (however they are defined) at the mercy of raids, oppressive masters, bad weather and poor harvests. This makes for a rather unrelentingly grim atmosphere over the novel as a whole. There are few occasions for rejoicing and happiness is at a premium. There is however adventure and suspense in the life of the outlaws, and poignancy (and more suspense) in the plight of Lady Mabel and her daughters.
The author treats us as grown-ups by not shying away from the brutality of the warfare of the time, the summary justice and the battlefield violence. I always now have in mind our self-confessed Wussy Fox Jackie when I read, and I don’t think this is one for her – about 4*/5 on the wimpy warning scale. The dialogue steers clear of archaism and gadzookery, which is always wise, and manages at the same time to avoid anachronisms – that must be such a difficult balance to strike, and I take my hat off to any author who attempts it. I did not detect much difference between the ‘voices’ of the different characters, and also I felt that the language of the dialogue did not always match the emotional temperature of the situation – everyone does tend to speak in measured, well-constructed whole sentences, whatever is happening to and around them.
Declaration of interest time: Elizabeth Ashworth is an online friend whose progress as a writer from non-fiction into fiction I have been following with interest. I first read this novel when I was on a short holiday in the North West, and I found it rather apt. I enjoyed the piquancy of contrast and similarity between the Lancashire of the novel and the Lancashire of today, and was surprised to find how much of it survives – though Wigan would hardly be recognisable to Lady Mabel these days. Elizabeth Ashworth is extremely well versed in the heroes, the history and the legends of this corner of England and its significance in the wider historical context. Bringing that knowledge into her novels provides an intelligent and distinctive experience for the reader.
Elizabeth Ashworth: An Honourable Estate. Paperback edition: Createspace, 2012. 342pp.
ISBN 13: 9781477546055
I read the Kindle edition.