I approached Sara Read’s novel with anticipations of enjoyment. A historical novel, set in one of my favourite periods of history, from the perspective of a woman, could hardly fail to appeal. I believe shining light onto the everyday lives of women throughout history is incredibly important; that this novel tackles this topic is an immediate recommendation.
The novel opens as Lucie Smith, the protagonist, attends the "laying of" Lady Eleanor. Immediately, her skill and expertise becomes evident, although the modern reader may raise an eyebrow at some of the people's fundamental beliefs; in particular, their medical ideas and theories. Nevertheless, Lucie’s voice prevails, as she lets you into her busy, God-fearing, contented life as a midwife. She details several different cases, the characters and events moving together, against the backdrop of summer 1665 and the plague.
As the story progresses, Lucie’s trials grow greater. Martha, her maid and close friend, finds herself with child, and Lucie, along with her deputy attend a difficult birth where both mother and child die. The tone begins to change; what was once contented and assured is now uneasy and uncertain. As the novel reaches its crescendo, a case is raised against Lucie, questioning her skill as a midwife, and her husband, Jasper, travels to London. He begins to feel unwell as she struggles at home. When he is found dead, a bruise under his armpit indicates plague, although it’s never officially confirmed. This small detail reflects the reality of life during pestilence and the inaccuracies of public records.
The novel closes quietly, hushed with grief as Lucie contemplates life on her own, but with the promise of hope as the trial against her is overturned. 1665 has been a harsh and unusual year, but the story holds the reader’s attention throughout.
One of Read’s greatest strengths is the way she embraces the spirit of the time. Her precision of writing brings what is ostensibly a simple story into full and vibrant colour. Politics, religion and superstition reflect the turmoil of the country at large and are interwoven expertly into each character. I would wholeheartedly recommend this novel to either those well-versed in historical knowledge, or those looking for an immersive and engaging read.
About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham graduated from Leicester University in 2018 with an MA in Creative Writing, and has since split her time between teaching ESL, writing, and walking her dog. She occasionally dabbles in poetry and short stories, but her heart is in full-length novels, and she is currently editing a YA fantasy novel. Her favourite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, but she never says no to a good serial killer documentary.
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