Book Review: The Midwife’s Tale
by Sam Thomas
Minotaur Books, 2013
The opening scene of Sam Thomas’ arresting, accomplished debut novel is a daring invitation for the reader to take an instant dislike for the main character, Bridget Hodgson. She’s a wealthy and respected widow in 1644 York, a sought-after midwife who’s been called to the bedside of a poor young woman whose labor has begun. The young woman is in pain and terrified, and Bridget knows exactly what to do – but she refuses to help unless the girl name’s the baby’s father. York may be under siege by Parliament armies in rebellion against King Charles, but the law is the law: and the law says women who refuse to name the fathers of their bastard children are outside the law and may not benefit from the attendance of a trained midwife.
It’s exactly the moment when the main character of a mystery novel – especially a female main character – could be expected to throw out the rulebook, ignore the city ordinances, and help the wretched, panting sufferer right in front of her.
Instead, Bridget wishes her the best of luck and walks out of the room.
As far as brutally quick orientations go, it’s almost as jarring (and telling) as the one Ariana Franklin gives us to her main character Dr. Adelia in Mistress of the Art of Death (a novel to which The Midwife’s Tale owes clear debts, or at least one aimed at the exact same core readership): we meet a strong-willed, intelligent, capable woman in a distant era, and we are compelled to like her even when she’s more than a little odd. Bridget Hodgson has buried her two husbands and her two children (the little boy died before he’d hardly lived, but the little girl, Birdy, was old enough to carve a place in Bridget’s heart before she left it; every morning before she gets out of bed, Bridget makes room for Birdy … and then remembers she doesn’t need to); she has property and money; she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and she respects the settled order of God’s creation even though the rebel forces besieging York are daily flouting that order. She’s what an earlier generation would have called brisk; we must take her as we find her. She’s an altogether marvellous creation.
In this, her first adventure (after that opening gambit forces the young woman to divulge a name, that is), she must come to the aid of her fine, upstanding friend Esther Cooper, who’s been accused of killing her husband Stephen with rat poison and has been sentenced to burn at the stake for it (the town elders wishing to make an example of her in a time of general lawlessness). Bridget vows to save her friend, and she’s aided in this and in all things by her new housemaid, Martha Hawkins, a flinty realist with a tender heart and an unnervingly skilled hand with a knife (the scene where she initially proves this just begs for a cinema adaptation). Thomas has a good deal of understated fun showing us these two formidable women getting to know each other:
“And the picture in the hall – is that your daughter?” [Martha asks at one point]
I knew the question was coming, but a second wave of sadness rose up in my breast, and I fought to hold back my tears. “That is Bridget. We called her Birdy. She died too.”
I started to say more but worried that my voice would break. A gentlewoman could hardly be seen sobbing in the middle of a city street.
Martha stopped and turned toward me, taking my hands. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. It is a terrible burden.”
“The Lord has His plans,” I said. “It is not our place to question His will.”
To my surprise, a bark of laughter escaped Martha’s lips. “Begging your pardon, but that is so much shit,” she said. “The Lord has His plans? My God, what nonsense!”
Martha may not believe in Divine mercy, but she eventually comes to believe very strongly in the mercy of our good lady Bridget – even when she’s confounded by the cost of that mercy, day in and day out (and the calm certainty with which she’s answered is exactly what readers themselves have by this point come to expect of Bridget):
“How do you do this year after year? How do you bury the same babies you deliver?”
“I remind myself that I am a good midwife … as surely as God created the world, I have saved babies that would have died under another midwife’s care. There are mothers too. Sometimes they die in travail, but if I am at a woman’s bedside, she is more likely to live.”
“Trying to keep a secret from a midwife is like trying to keep Ouse from rising in the spring,” a character says at one point, and this ultimate insider network is something Bridget and Martha expertly manipulate as they follow one clue after another in their race to save Esther Cooper. Thomas does an understated but fantastic job of steering his characters clear of the feel-good anachronisms that are popular in so much current historical fiction; Bridget, Martha, and the rest are all very much inhabitants of their time period and its beliefs. The verisimilitude is well-researched and well-camouflaged, and guiding all of it is Bridget herself, utterly resplendent in her certainties:
I ensured that men who fathered bastards had to pay for their children and that the women who bore them were whipped. If a maiden was raped, who but a midwife would stand with her against her assailant? Who better than a midwife to recognize the signs of bewitchment and find the witch’s mark? Without midwives, lust would reign, and order would turn to chaos.
The Midwife’s Tale is very highly recommended. Help keep chaos at bay: buy your copy today.