Thursday, October 15, 2020

Book 255: The Butcher's Daughter

"We go down on our knees with a pail of water and handfuls of rags and wipe the floor clean of dirt and spillages. The stones are irregular and filth is embedded in the cracks. I do my best, telling myself that such labour teaches me the true meaning of holy charity – which is principally, if you are female, concerned with the bodily needs of others."

Dates read: August 16-19, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Catholicism runs deep on both sides of my family, but particularly my mother's. My great-uncle Tom was even a priest! I've sometimes wondered what makes people chose to take holy orders. Faith, obviously, but there are lots of religious believers in the world and only a very small percent of them embark on a ministerial career. And it seems like it's declining generationally. I can't think of a single person I know, or even someone I've heard of through friends, deciding to enter the priesthood or become a nun. In a modern world, renouncing the ability to amass private wealth or have romantic relationships seems like a very difficult choice to make indeed.

It's not an excess of religious zeal that drives Agnes Peppin to enter an abbey in Victoria Glendinning's historical fiction novel The Butcher's Daughter. Though she's not an unbeliever, she doesn't have particularly deep convictions. Rather, teenage Agnes arrives at Shaftesbury Abbey because she fell pregnant with the child of a neighbor, Peter, in her small village. Peter's sister had recently lost a child of her own, so when Agnes's baby is born, he's given to Peter's family and Agnes is sent to the Abbey to join the sisters there. She comes to find some measure of contentment and a role for herself in the community, but it's not a great time to have joined a Catholic order. You see, Agnes lives in the time of Henry VIII, and his religious reforms threaten the Abbey's continued existence.

In her childhood, Agnes had learned to read and write and these skills land her a position as the Abbess's personal assistant. So she's right there as the Abbess tries desperately to save their way of life, but ultimately fails. It's about halfway through the book that the women are finally turned out of their homes and sent into the world, and Agnes has to figure out what's next. Going off with a fellow sister? A return to home? To the big city of London to find her fortune? She ends up exploring all of these paths and more while contemplating what it really is she wants out of the rest of her life.

Victoria Glendinning has written several biographies, and while skill sets don't always transfer over neatly (and I've never read any of her bios, so I can't speak to their level of execution), I think it really helped her make Agnes a well-realized, compelling character. Agnes is not your typical historical fiction heroine...I feel like many authors in the genre default to making their protagonists read like modern spunky young women to appeal to their intended audience of, well, modern women. Agnes, however, is clearly an introvert and spends a lot of time thinking things that she doesn't say. She breaks with the gender conventions of her time gently, without raging about the restrictions upon her as a woman in a man's world. Since the book is deeply centered on her experience of the world, a character that feels real is crucial, and Glendinning pulls it off very well.

It was also refreshing to get a historical fiction perspective that wasn't from the top of the social hierarchy. We've all read (and I've personally enjoyed) books about the court of Henry VIII, but this book shines a light on people further down, for whom Henry's marriages and divorces are background noise to the actual living of their lives. It wasn't just the people actually living in the dissolved monasteries who were impacted, it was the people who depended on services that religious houses provided, and this book shone a light on that. That being said, there were a few things that kept this from being even better for me. The biggest issue I had with the book was that it felt like Agnes' path was a little too easy. She drifts into one thing, and then into the next, in a way that seems improbably fortunate. The resolution of the plotline of a side character, Elinor, also felt a little off and I wished that it had been cut. Those quibbles aside, though, this is an interesting, unusual take on the genre and time period and I'd recommend it for people who'd like to broaden their reading in the historical fiction realm.

One year ago, I was reading: Plagues and Peoples

Two years ago, I was reading: We Are Not Ourselves

Three years ago, I was reading: Lincoln in the Bardo

Four years ago, I was reading: The Executioner's Song

Five years ago, I was reading: Reservation Road

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