From acclaimed novelist Elizabeth Chadwick comes a story of huge emotional power set against the road to Magna Carta and the fight to bring a tyrant king to heel.
The privileged daughter of one of the most powerful men in England, Mahelt Marshal's life changes dramatically when her father is suspected of treachery by King John. Her brothers become hostages and Mahelt is married to Hugh Bigod, heir to the earldom of Norfolk. Adapting to her new life is hard, but Mahelt comes to love Hugh deeply; however, defying her father-in-law brings disgrace and heartbreak.
When King John sets out to subdue the Bigods, Mahelt faces a heartbreaking battle, fearing neither she, nor her marriage, is likely to survive the outcome ...Magnificent in scope and detail, with characters that leap off the page, this is historical fiction at its finest.
Elizabeth Chadwick's last new book was released around about 20 months ago and consequently it felt I had been waiting for this book for an eternity. The problem with such highly anticipated books is that when you finally get to read it, the book often doesn't live up to the anticipated enjoyment of it. I am pleased to say that this is one occasion when that didn't happen! It was fortunate for me that my son wasn't well and so I had time to sit down and read, and I finished reading this book in just over a day.
In some ways this book is a rounding out of the various novels that this author has been writing over the last few years. The Greatest Knight was the first EC novel that I read, and it featured William Marshal, as did the follow up book The Scarlet Lion. Then I read A Place Beyond Courage which is about William Marshal's father John. The heroine of this novel is John's granddaughter, William's daughter, Mahelt. Similarly, Hugh is the son of Roger and Ida who were the main characters in The Time of Singing.
Mahelt is the cherished eldest daughter William Marshal, one of the most influential men in England. Being respected and influential isn't however enough to keep you safe from the machinations of one of the most changeable kings in English history - King John. With two of the Marshal's sons already being held hostage by the mercurial king, the Marshals are planning to stay out of John's way as much as possible by withdrawing to their lands in Ireland, but before they do that they want to marry their eldest daughter Mahelt to the best possible husband, in this case Hugh Bigod, son of another very influential and powerful man, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk.
Mahelt is sent to Framlingham to live with her new family, although at this early stage she is married but not really a wife, and so it is a little difficult for her to find her place in the household. It is also difficult for her as she is a spirited and head strong young woman who is used to thinking for herself, and so she clashes with the very rigid and set in his ways Earl who struggles with her independence and her tendency to say what she thinks in quite a direct manner.
As the young couple truly begins their married lives together, they have to face challenges caused by these clashes with Hugh's father, as well as with the growing instability caused by John's constant demands, and then with the fact that Mahelt and her new family find themselves on the opposite side of the political arena to her own family. And when the Bigod's find themselves in danger, even if they survive the trials they are undergoing, there is no guarantee that Hugh and Mahelt's marriage can survive the aftermath.
Whilst there are many people who willingly go off into danger to protect the freedoms that we so often take for granted, I really am glad that we do not have to deal with the inevitability of our loved ones going off to fight to some degree every single summer. There is not only the danger of them being injured or killed, but also that they may be captured and held hostage. I thought this scene between Ida (Hugh's mother) and Mahelt was very touching.
Ida bent over her sewing once more, but had to stop again as tears splashed on to the fabric. "My sons," she said in a grief-stricken voice. "I bore them from the travail of my body. I bathed and tended and watched over them and soothed their hurts with love and ointments. Now again and again they ride to war. Their father spent so many months away serving the King that our good years were wasted and in our twilight, there is only long familiarity like two stones rubbing together with the harder one wearing away at the softer until the softer is dust. I watch my boys leaving their wives and children - leaving me - and the pattern repeats itself all over again." She fixed a drenched gaze on Mahelt. "The first thing a man asks of his newborn son is 'Will he be a good soldier? Will he have a strong fist?' Never do they ask: 'Will he be a good husband and father?' And as mothers we never ask that question. That is what makes me weep.One of the interesting relationships in the book was between Hugh and his half-brother William Longespee, who in turn is half brother to King John. There had long been a difficult relationship between the two men which started in childhood, and relates to the fact that whilst William has royal connections, he was removed from his mother at a very young age. William is also the kind of man who has to be the best and have the best, almost as though trying to make up for his illegitimacy. He was fiercely loyal to his royal brother, King John, until finally events forced him to reconsider that position. The relationship between Hugh and William is multi-layered, often difficult, some times untrusting, and yet, they are brothers.
"Unless our sons become monks, they are bound to be soldiers," Mahelt replied pragmatically. "It is their station in life. The first thing I would ask is: 'Will he be honourable? Will he be strong - not of fist, but of principle?' We should change what we can and make the best of what we cannot."
Ida wiped her eyes again and forced a smile. "That sounds like your great father talking."
Mahelt flushed. "It was what we were taught from the cradle." She gave a self-deprecating laugh. "I am too impatient. I want to change everything."
Once again Elizabeth Chadwick provides the reader with a tantalising glimpse into the medieval past, into the political machinations of the time, the business of running an important household, but never without losing sight of the hearts of the people involved.
Ne vuz sanz mei, ne mei sanz vus.
(No you without me, nor I without you)
Another excellent read from one of my favourite historical fiction authors. I gave this one a rating of 5/5
Other opinions you might like to read:
Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff
At Home with a Good Book and the Cat
This book also counts for the 2010 Pub Challenge and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.