[A guest post by my husband Eric, who seems an appropriate reviewer for a historical mystery novel about midwives ... since he's a mystery-loving historian who caught both our babies at midwife-attended births. I was offered a free review copy of this book but passed it off to Eric because I don't read in this genre. I prefer genres that involve fewer mysteriously-dead people.]
Sam Thomas’s new historical novel The Midwife’s Tale introduces the character Sarah Hodgson, a midwife and wealthy widow, who plies her trade in York, England. Set during the English Civil War’s Siege of York, the novel follows Hodgson for several days while she delivers several babies, solves a murder, investigates the death of a baby, and befriends a new servant. A compelling read with an interesting narrator and a well-structured mystery, I highly recommend this novel to those interested in the history of midwifery or a good mystery.
For those unfamiliar with English history, the English Civil War (mid-1600s) was an uprising that pitted Parliament against the King’s forces and ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1650. Eventually, his son reclaimed the throne (during the Restoration) and another son was expelled in a Glorious Revolution, but those are other stories. The reasons for the conflict are (as with all such events) complicated and much-debated. (Was this a class conflict? was it about religion? taxes? did Aramis, Porthos, and Athos interfere?) Thomas does not make an argument about the conflict here, but instead uses it as a backdrop to examine the lives of men and women who knew each other before the war and hoped to know each other after. During the novel, various characters feel pressured to choose sides as Parliamentary forces surround the city, Royalists defend it, and local politicians work to negotiate a settlement to save it. Because of her status as midwife and wealthy widow, Hodgson is able to negotiate several layers of York society. The siege and war also breakdown the normal workings of the city and create an opening for Hodgson to be able to–and feel compelled to–investigate a murder.
While I liked the mystery, the character of Sarah Hodgson is particularly interesting, and I hope that Thomas will revisit her in the future. Inspired by a historical midwife he discovered while researching the history of midwifery, Hodgson is the story’s narrator. Through her voice, Thomas exposes the problems and freedoms experienced by midwives in this period. For those who could afford it, births at this time were social events. Laboring women were surrounded by friends and neighbors. However, and Thomas points this out as well, for women who were not wealthy, or well-connected, or respectably pregnant, birth was lonely, dangerous, and scary. As is the case now, an experienced and caring attendant can make all the difference in the world.
As Hodgson shines, so do other characters in the novel’s world. The Midwife’s Tale presents us with several characters from the servant class, and their experiences of birth and pregnancy prevent the novel from edging towards nostalgia. I also like the ways Thomas has the servants seeing things very differently from wealthy characters.
I do wish this novel had been a bit more–that it had gone into more detail about its world, that it had lasted a bit longer, that it was a little deeper. As much as I liked the characters, I would have appreciated for them to be fleshed out more. They could support a more complicated narrative structure and mystery.
Finally, a note on who should read this novel (and I guess I should give something of a spoiler warning here). If you are at all triggered by references to dead babies and children, do not read this book. There are a lot of them. Also, one attempted rape + regular discussion of coerced or questionably consented sexual relations.