The Last Days is the first novel from Minete Walters in many years and is her first Historical Fincion novel – her others were psychological thrillers.
The story is set in 1348 and Sir Richard of Develish is fairly typical of the time. He runs his demesne with an iron fist. His serfs are his to command and will work for him till they die. His chattel wife is a very different sort of person. Lady Anne was raised by nuns where she was given an education in reading, medicine, common sense and compassion. Richard thinks he runs the demesne, but Anne looks after the welfare (and education) of the serfs behind his back. Their demesne is the healthiest, happiest and most productive in Dorsetshire.
When Richard travels to a neighbouring demesne to secure the marriage of his horrible spoilt 14 year old daughter, the plague starts to take hold while he is away. Lady Anne takes the unconventional step of moving all the serfs to the manor area within the moat and imposing a strict cleanliness regime on the occupants. No outsiders are allowed to enter, including Sir Richard when he returns to Develish.
The people of Develish survive, but 200 people in a small area for several months creates some interesting dynamics. Most of the problems are caused by Richard and Anne’s spoilt daughter Eleanor who believes herself well above the serfs that she is now forced to share space with. She also shows her hatred of her mother’s tolerance for lower classes.
Eventually, with food staring to run low and problems at the manor, a group is forced to leave to find news and food. They find a deserted world and know that their lives will be changed forever.
The characters made this an excellent story. I’ve read a few plague novels and the ones that have worked well are the personal stories of survival. This novel is up there with the best. I always find descriptions of the lives of serfs very disturbing. But this is a story about triumph.
There is a sequel planned which will have Lady Anne and some of the serfs making a new life for themselves after the plague and of course we will find out what happens to Eleanor. I can hardly wait!