It’s a little over a year since lovely Carolyn Hughes was last on Linda’s Book Bag. At the time Carolyn had just released the first book in her Meonbridge Chronicles series, Fortune’s Wheel and Carolyn provided a super guest post on the fascination of writing about the past that you can read here.
As someone who loves historical fiction, I’m delighted Carolyn has agreed to stay in with me to tell me about another of her books today. I also have my review of this latest book, but I’ll let Carolyn introduce it first.
Staying in with Carolyn Hughes
Welcome back to Linda’s Book Bag, Carolyn. Thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Linda. I’m delighted to be here.
Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?
I have brought the second book in my series of historical novels set in fourteenth century mediaeval England. The series is called the Meonbridge Chronicles, and the book is A Woman’s Lot. I wanted to bring this book because it has only recently been published – in June!
(A belated Happy Publication day Carolyn. I know you’ve been getting some lovely reviews for this one.)
Like the first Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, the storylines – for there are several threads – are about the tensions between the different strata in society, and the ups and downs of rural life in mediaeval Hampshire. But it is also about marital discord, women’s ambitions, and the quest for love.
(That sums it up brilliantly. Tell Linda’s Book Bag readers more!)
Well, a bit of background, perhaps?
Central to the story of A Woman’s Lot is the somewhat “misogynistic” attitude often held by mediaeval men – or by some of them at least.
In mediaeval times, men as a rule wielded considerable control over their wives, daughters and female servants, sometimes just through the “natural” assertion of male authority, but in some cases more overtly.
This is by no means to suggest that all mediaeval men were horrible women-haters, so I mustn’t overstate the case! But mediaeval women were generally considered “second class”. They were, nearly always, refused any sort of public office and, mostly, any access to education. It was the natural order of things…
(I’m not sure I’d have fared well in this environment Carolyn!)
The restriction of women’s rights was, apparently, justified on the basis of their limited intelligence, wiliness and avarice. Women as a class were – at times, or by some – reckoned to suffer from a range of weaknesses, including vanity, intellectual frailty, lustfulness and unreliability. The theory of the “four humours” was first discussed by the ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Hippocrates, and later by the Roman physician Galen, was taught to doctors in the Middle Ages, and was still holding sway in Shakespeare’s day. According to this theory, women’s “cold, wet” humour made them inferior – physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally – to “hot, dry” men. “Scientific” theory thus reinforced the Church’s view of the rightness of women’s subordinate role, arrived at, presumably, after what happened in the Garden of Eden….
I can see, Linda, that your eyebrows are rising a little! It IS shocking, isn’t it? And I’m not certain that this view of women has entirely disappeared…
(You might well be right there…)
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some men despised, or feared, women, as the dangerous “daughters of Eve”. Others perhaps simply accepted the “learned” theories that women were neither strong nor bright nor trustworthy, and were best kept in their lowly place.
A Woman’s Lot is another everyday story of ordinary folk, but very much of its time. Of course, the misogynistic attitudes I portray are not without parallels in our own time, but I’m not attempting to draw comparisons. My tale is one of the fourteenth century, one that doesn’t try to make Meonbridge’s women “feminists”. Their stories aren’t about women’s rights and liberation, but about making the best of their opportunities within the context of the society they live in…
(I have to say I found A Woman’s Lot utterly absorbing.)
What can we expect from an evening in with A Woman’s Lot?
Well, I hardly like to blow my own trumpet, but I don’t suppose you’ll mind if I do it anyway! Because I’ve already had some great reviews and I’d love to quote a few snippets from those, which I think will give you a pretty good idea of what some readers have already found from their time spent with A Woman’s Lot…
For an historical novelist, telling her that her work feels “authentic” is almost one of the best things a reviewer can do! So when the lovely Anne Williams of Being Anne said: “It’s a great tribute to Carolyn’s wonderful writing and her ability to recreate the era and its people that I slipped back in time quite effortlessly, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience” I was really thrilled. Especially so, because Anne once admitted on her blog that historical fiction wasn’t particularly her favourite type of read. And yet she really did enjoy A Woman’s Lot!
(I read Anne’s review and she really enjoyed A Woman’s Lot. Anne has kindly allowed me to share the link here to the full review. As a result of reading Anne’s review I bumped up A Woman’s Lot and I have my review to share later too.)
Anne also said it was: “a treat for all the senses…totally …true to its time and setting”. In the same vein, Debbie (@BrookCottageBks) said: “the language is rich and fluid, reflective of the time and descriptions of village life transported me back to Meonbridge once more”, and Michelle (@thebookmagnet) thought it was “another fantastic piece of completely immersive historical fiction from Carolyn”. These are the sort of comments that really make you feel you’ve somehow “got it right”.
A number of readers have said how much they love the Meonbridge characters. “It’s about families and love and a desire to have your voice heard in a time when it took the bravery of women to push the boundaries for the right to stand alongside men and be recognised in equal measure… Readers will find themselves lost in the characters and invested in the outcomes for them.” And I loved this comment: “The charm of this book lies in the characters. They are so ordinary, and I mean that in the best possible way. They are your neighbours, your friends, facing very different circumstances, of course…”. That is very much how I want readers to feel about my characters: very different from themselves, and yet very much alike… I want readers to sense the difference between then and now, and yet also understand and empathise with those characters.
(You must be over the moon with these wonderful responses Carolyn.)
And what more can a writer ask than when readers declare that they can’t wait to read her next book! “I absolutely adored this book…I need book 3 now!” “I’ll definitely be at the front of the queue for her next book.” Eek – it’s just as well that book 3 is well under way!
(It is indeed!)
Anyway, I think that is probably more than enough trumpet blowing for one evening…
(Nothing wrong with a bit of personal trumpet blowing – especially when the responses are as wonderful as these.)
What else have you brought along and why?
A handful of silver coins!
I have a small collection of mediaeval coins – fourteenth century coins, to be precise, the century in which my Meonbridge Chronicles are set. All the coins were “hammered”, that is, beaten out by hand between two dies. Although I hope to increase my collection in time, right now I have just nine coins:
A penny and a farthing (a quarter of a penny) from the reign of Edward I (1239-1307, just about 14th century!)
A penny and a halfpenny from Edward II (1307-1327)
A penny, a halfpenny, a half groat (= two pennies) and a groat (= four pennies) from Edward III (1327-1377)
A halfpenny from Richard II (1377-1400)
The Meonbridge Chronicles are actually set entirely in Edward III’s time, as they currently cover the years 1349 to 1358.
So why have I got the coins?
Well, (I think, anyway!) they are very attractive just to look at, and I keep them in a display case to protect them. But what I really enjoy doing is to take them out of the case (though not actually out of their protective wallets), and hold them in my hand. Some of them, like the ones in the picture, are in excellent condition, and so maybe weren’t all that much used. But others are quite worn and I like to imagine one of my halfpennies being passed across a market stall in return for a dozen eggs, or a penny handed to the alewife as the price of a gallon of ale, or a groat placed in the sweaty palm of a carpenter in payment for a day’s labour. Imagining them in the hands of real people living 650 years ago, the sort of people who appear in my novels – that is where the pleasure lies in owning these little discs of beaten silver.
(I have to agree with you. I have a collection of Roman coins my husband has bought me at various times. I love that physical connection with the past.)
It’s been utterly fascinating staying in with you this evening Carolyn, and finding out all about your Meonbridge Chronicles and A Woman’s Lot in particular. Let’s not leave it so long for you to come back again. I’ll just tell readers a bit more about A Woman’s Lot and whilst I do that, you can read my review Carolyn.
A Woman’s Lot
How can mere women resist the misogyny of men?
A resentful peasant rages against a woman’s efforts to build up her flock of sheep… A husband, grown melancholy and ill-tempered, succumbs to idle talk that his wife’s a scold… A priest, fearful of women’s “unnatural” power, determines to keep them in their place.
The devastation wrought two years ago by the Black Death changed the balance of society: more women saw their chance to build a business, to learn a trade, to play a greater part. But many men still hold fast to the teachings of the Church and fear the havoc the “daughters of Eve” might wreak if they’re allowed to usurpmen’s roles and gain control over their own lives.
Not all men resist women’s desire for change – indeed, they want it for themselves. Yet it takes only one or two to unleash the hounds of hostility and hatred…
My Review of A Woman’s Lot
Life in fourteenth century mediaeval England isn’t easy – especially if you’re a woman.
Now I haven’t read the first book in Carolyn Hughes’ Meonbridge series, and when I saw the list of characters at the beginning of the book my heart sank. I thought I’d never know who was who. Not a bit of it. Carolyn Hughes is such a skilled writer that she weaves in enough detail to ensure the reader is appraised perfectly without interrupting the flow of this second book. A Woman’s Lot works brilliantly as a stand alone story.
There is a very wide range of characters and usually I find this confusing but because there is a clue in the title and this is very much A Woman’s Lot, I found Emma Eleanor, Susanna et al realistic and distinct. Whilst they have similar attitudes and concerns as is to be expected for the time in which they are living, they have their own personalities too. I really felt I had got to know them and I don’t want to spoil the story but I really want to know what happens next to Emma in particular. I think it is the perfectly pitched style and the realistic dialogue that contribute so much to the corporeality of the people in the story.
The plot itself is so good. There are many layers and threads that provide interest and entertainment for any reader. I cannot imagine the hours of research that must have gone in to this novel as the social, political and familial threads that weave in and out are incredibly absorbing and so convincing. I didn’t so much feel as if I were reading about mediaeval England as actually experiencing it first hand. Carolyn Hughes caters for every one of the senses so that A Woman’s Lot is cinematic and vivid in its presentation. She also shows how the concerns and interests of society and women in particular have resonated down the centuries so that I could imagine any of the characters transported into a modern setting.
If I’m honest, I didn’t especially expect to like A Woman’s Lot quite as much as I did. Not only did I enjoy a hugely interesting and entertaining story about people whom I came to care about, but I learnt a considerable amount about the real lives of people living at the time and, even more, I developed enormous respect for Carolyn Hughes as a writer because her ability to create a realistic and still totally accessible world is outstanding. A Woman’s Lot surprised me. I thought it was a crackingly good read.
About Carolyn Hughes
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.
A Woman’s Lot is the second of the Meonbridge Chronicles, her series of historical novels set in fourteenth century England. The first, Fortune’s Wheel, was published in 2016. The third in the series is well under way.
To find out more you can find Carolyn on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @writingcalliope and visit her website. Carolyn is also on Goodreads. If you’d like to be part of Carolyn’s ‘Team Meonbridge’ click here.