The First Meonbridge Chronicle
By Carolyn Hughes
How do you recover when half your neighbours are dead from history’s cruellest plague?
June 1349. In Meonbridge, a Hampshire manor, the Black Death has wiped out half its population, among them Alice atte Wode’s husband and Eleanor Titherige’s entire family. Even the manor’s lord and his wife, Margaret de Bohun, have not escaped the horror.
Now the plague is over, it's a struggle to return to normal life, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Tensions mount between the de Bohuns and their tenants, as the workers realise their scarceness means they can demand higher wages, dictate their own lives.
When the tensions deepen into violence and disorder, and the men – lord and villagers alike – seem unable to find any resolution, the women – Alice, Eleanor and Margaret – must step forward to end the conflict that is tearing Meonbridge apart.
“The world is divided into three estates: the rulers, the prayers and the labourers. In this world each man knows his place and obeys God’s Commandments.”
But that was before God sent down a pestilence upon his people. A pestilence that did not differentiate between the righteous and the sinners. It was before the absolute desecration of the populous.
The Angel of Death had done his worst, and he had moved on. For Alice atte Wode, she would have to learn to live without her beloved husband and son, but there were worse off than her, although at times it did not feel like that. Take Eleanor Titherige, who had lost her entire family bar a step-brother, or the Miller’s who had lost five of their six children.
However, now that the crises were over. The residents of Meonbridge had to find some semblance of normality. After all, there were debts that still needed to be paid, obligations acknowledged, and the crops would be in need of harvesting soon.
Yet, things had changed in Meonbridge. If Sir Richard de Bohun expected his tenants to work three times as hard for the same wage, then he had another think coming.
From the tragedy at the estate’s mill to a spark of rebellion by the tenants, and a gruesome murder just off the road from Winchester, Fortune’s Wheel: The First Meonbridge Chronicle by Carolyn Hughes is a Historical Fiction masterpiece.
Oh, this book had all the feels. I was thoroughly enchanted from start to finish and the time flew by as I lost myself in this incredible work of fiction.
There is a vast cast of colourful characters in this book — from a Baron to the lowliest villein and everything else in between. Initially, I was concerned that I would not be able to keep up with who everyone was and what their place would be in this story. Although Hughes provided a comprehensive character list at the beginning of the book, I am the type of reader who is loathed to use it. I want the characters to be enough to carry the narrative. I don’t want to be confused or bewildered by too many names, and too many storylines. Thankfully, my concerns fell by the wayside very early on in this book, for Hughes has crafted some genuinely endearing and unforgettable characters, whose stories were endlessly fascinating and beautifully told. I did not once look at the character list in the front of the book. Kudos, Ms Hughes. Kudos, indeed.
Hughes has depicted rural life in the 14th Century with a lyrical narrative that is not only bold but wonderfully successful. The Black Death’s legacy was that there was suddenly not enough labourers to farm the land. Through the depiction of Sir Richard de Bohun, Hughes has demonstrated the sheer sense of entitlement that the Barons and Knights felt, and their complete lack of empathy for the villeins in their charge. They expected to pay the same wages to a man who had to work three times as hard as he had before the Black Death, which was not only arrogant but also absurd. Suddenly the villeins found themselves in a position they had never been in before. They could negotiate, regardless of the laws laid down by the King, for a better wage and a better life. This, Hughes demonstrated with all the care and verse of a historian who has done her research and a writer who knows how to paint a dazzling portrait of a hard-up hardworking community. However, Hughes has given her readers a scrumptiously balanced view, showing both sides of the argument, which I thought was incredibly insightful.
The sheer poverty of the villeins was portrayed with a keen sense of time and place. Despite having nothing, the women in this novel still want their homes to be clean and tidy, but on top of this, Hughes described how hard these women worked. They laboured in the fields alongside their husbands and their children. Often, with historical fiction, we witness the lives of the nobility in all its pomp and ceremony, so it was a very welcomed change to read about the less fortunate folk instead. If nothing else, it gave Fortune’s Wheel: The First Meonbridge Chronicle, integrity.
There is not a protagonist, as such, in this book, for there are too many characters and too many interlocking stories for that. However, Alice atte Wode, Eleanor Titherige and Lady Margaret de Bohun certainly drove this story forward. For this is a story of an estate and the people who lived there and worked the land. As I have already stated, this approach worked really well, but there were two very notable characters that I would like to talk about.
Firstly, I must mention Alice atte Wode. Alice is a very frank character, but also a very loving one, who sees what is going on around her with a crystalline understanding. I thought Alice was absolutely fabulous and she was without a doubt, my favourite character in this book.
Lady Margaret de Bohun also piqued my interest. She is like a bird who has had its wings clipped. Margaret is intelligent and canny, she is sympathetic to the plight of the villeins, and yet, she dare not speak out in their defence, for both her husband and her son believe she has no understanding of the situation because she is a woman. They conveniently forget that she ran the estate while they were at war, with great skill and diligence. Margaret may have title and wealth, but she does not have the freedom of expression when talking with her menfolk as Alice does, and she certainly cannot do her own thing the way Eleanor (a freewoman) can. I thought the contrast between Margaret, Alice, and Eleanor was very thought-provoking.
Hughes covers a vast array of topics in this book — from the plague to the power and influence of the Church. Alongside this, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a small estate in Hampshire, a compelling murder mystery, and a search for a missing person, which made this book next to impossible to put down. Hughes, it seems, has a visceral understanding of what makes history worth reading while having a novelist eye on what makes a book entertaining.
I cannot say enough good things about Fortune’s Wheel: The First Meonbridge Chronicle by Carolyn Hughes, it had everything I want from a book, and then some. If ever a book deserved to be made into a television series, then it is this one. Lovers of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford will find something endlessly fascinating with this story and the characters that grace the pages.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life.
She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University, and a PhD from the University of Southampton.