1665. It is five years since King Charles II returned from exile, the scars of the English Civil Wars are yet to heal and now the Great Plague engulfs the land.
Alethea Hawthorne is safe inside the walls of the Calverton household as a companion to their daughter. She waits in anticipation of her brother William’s pardon for killing a man in a duel before they can both return to their ancestral home in Measham Hall.
But when Alethea suddenly finds herself cast out on the streets of London, a long road to Derbyshire lies ahead of her. Militias have closed their boroughs off to outsiders for fear of contamination.
Fortune smiles on her when Jack appears, an unlikely travelling companion who helps this determined country girl to navigate a perilous new world of religious dissenters, charlatans and a pestilence that afflicts peasants and lords alike.
Providing a fictional imagining of the author’s own family history during the 1660s and set around a manor house (now sadly lost) in nearby Derbyshire (although, thanks to some tidying up of county boundaries in 1889, Measham would now be part of Leicestershire), The Master of Measham Hall was an intriguing prospect for a historical fiction fan – and did not disappoint in its evocation of the era.
Beginning in 1665 and with plague taking its toll on London, the novel follows Alethea Hawthorne, a young gentlewoman whose family seat is the titular Measham Hall but who, at the ‘suggestion’ of her stepmother, has been sent to act as companion to another young lady, Jane Calverton, in London. Alethea and her family are Catholics – a faith that sets them apart despite King Charles II’s claims of toleration – and her beloved brother William has been exiled overseas in mysterious circumstances.
Despite this, Alethea is happy in London – until she is suddenly cast out by the Calverton’s and forced to fend for herself on the streets of plague-ridden London. Determining to make it home to Measham Hall by any means possible, Alethea finds herself accompanied by the charming – and streetwise – Jack Fleet, before falling in with a group of non-conformists, headed up by their charismatic leader Samuel. By the time she eventually reaches her family home, Alethea will be a changed woman – and will have learnt to navigate a world filled with peril, pestilence, and deceit.
I always try to avoid spoilers in my reviews but its impossible to fully review The Master of Measham Hall without giving a couple of plot beats away, the most significant of which is that, through a series of misunderstandings, Alethea ends up arriving at Measham Hall as the titular ‘master’ of it, assuming the disguise of her brother William for much of the book’s final third.
I mention this ‘spoiler’ because the journey that Alethea goes on in the novel is more than just a physical one from London to Derbyshire. It is also a sort of seventeenth-century ‘coming of age’ tale in which Alethea learns to think and act independently, makes good and bad choices, dissemble, reason, argue, and love – and during which she begins to make her own way in the world around her. This personal journey was one of the central draws of the novel for me, although I’ll admit to being occasionally frustrated by some of Alethea’s choices!
Alethea’s assumption of the role of ‘William’ also allows the novel to explore the different societal expectations of men and women in the period, and I found it interesting how Alethea came to embrace the freedoms she had as a man whilst also missing some of the pastimes she could enjoy as a woman.
Whether a young woman such as Alethea would have been able to pass for her brother during this period has been debated by some readers on Goodreads but, as a student of the period, I’ve read of several instances of women disguising themselves as men in order for various pragmatic reasons – the most famous being Spanish nun Catalina de Erauso, who fled her convent disguised as a man in order to fight in the Spanish army and later travelled around Spanish America under a number of predominantly male identities. It is also thought that some women may have fought in the English Civil War disguised as men (Charles I certainly thought they did – he issued an order banning women dressing as men in order to fight), and there’s evidence of a number of women from the period managing estates in their husband’s absence. Whilst keeping up the pretence after periods of conflict was unusual, I can forgive Anna Abney some poetic license to allow her to explore the fascinating difference between the lived experiences of men and women during this period!
Indeed, the evocation of seventeenth-century England is one of the delights of The Master of Measham Hall. From the tense atmosphere of plague-ridden London to the incendiary religious debates going on at the time, Anna Abney’s writing brilliantly evokes the Restoration era. I did occasionally feel that some characters were serving to provide historical exposition for modern readers – the odd conversation felt a bit stilted and provided information that Alethea, being a woman of that period, would likely know already – but, for the most part, the writing is fluid and evocative.
From its pacy opening on the streets of London, the novel did also lull a bit for me in the middle section – which sees Alethea and Jack living amongst a group of non-conformists in Epping Forest – and I found the plot moving along more predictable lines for a while. Once the action moved on to Measham Hall, however, I was soon re-engaged in Alethea’s struggles – although I found myself becoming more and more conflicted about her as a character as her dual identities – and dual responsibilities – lead to her taking ever more ruthless decisions. I was also a little disappointed that the likeable and charming Jack Fleet didn’t feature a little more prominently in the novel – although fingers crossed that he may appear in Book Two of the series, due out in 2022.
For fans of historical fiction, The Master of Measham Hall has much to enjoy – a convincing and evocative depiction of the Restoration era that delves into the social and religious divides of the period, with a side of intrigue, a hint of a love story, and an interesting coming-of-age tale all thrown into the mix! If you read and enjoyed Frances Quinn’s The Smallest Man or Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes, and are looking for another historical read to dive into, The Master of Measham Hall should be heading for your TBR!
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 28 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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