Lady Bridget Hodgson, one of York’s official midwives, must continue with her duties while finding a murderer. One of her close friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of poisoning her husband and will be burned at the stake unless Bridget pulls out all the stops to clear her.
The atmosphere feels tense in this swiftly-paced mystery, since it might not even matter if she succeeds. Although other suspects abound – Stephen Cooper had many enemies – he held Puritan sympathies, and the Lord Mayor knows it wouldn’t look good to let a Parliamentary supporter’s wife go free.
This makes for a great setting for a mystery. Bridget knows that in these troubled times, there’s no guarantee justice will be served. She has help, though, from a servant who turns up on her doorstep. Martha Hawkins comes with a lot of baggage, but her street-smarts and ingenuity come in handy, and the women form a solid partnership.
Although she’s only 30, Bridget is a formidable presence. A twice-widowed gentlewoman, she has the authority that comes with her position and a self-confidence derived from her rank. She reveals a vulnerable side, too, since she suffers the pain of having lost two children herself.
Bridget’s methods can be shockingly aggressive, but it’s all part of her job. A midwife’s tasks don’t begin or end in the birthing chamber, and this eye-opening look at their role is one of the book’s most intriguing aspects. Bridget must force unmarried pregnant women to name their children’s fathers since the city doesn’t want to pay for their bastards. She advocates for women, too, participating in both christenings and funerals at the sad (and sadly frequent) times when the babies fail to thrive. It’s also captivating to observe the network formed within the city – each woman has “gossips” who share her secrets and support her at times of need – and the havoc created when one of the links is broken.
As Bridget and Martha sort through a growing number of suspects and motives for the killing, both political and personal, the layout of bustling York comes into sharp focus, from the shadows of the Minster to its creepy alleyways to the wards where its rich leaders reside. The River Ouse flows steadily along throughout, full of the stink of the city’s waste.
There are some inconsistencies with forms of address (she is alternately called Lady Bridget and Lady Hodgson), but regardless, she’s a heroine well worth following here and on future adventures. The Midwife’s Tale is an accomplished and entertaining debut from a talented writer. Enhancing the fictional story is the fact that Bridget is based on a real person. For readers interested in learning more, the author’s website takes a detailed and spoiler-free look at the historical woman’s life and background.
The Midwife's Tale was published by Minotaur in January (hb, $24.99/C$28.99, 310pp). This is the final day for the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.