The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters: Viewing History from the Margins
“There are many worse criminals in history than there are in crime fiction,” Minette Walters says, discussing her move from best-selling crime fiction — a change she appears to relish. Her two historical novels, The Last Hours (HarperCollins, 2018) and its sequel, The Turn of Midnight (MIRA Books, August 2019), are set in 14th century England. In 1348, the country was in the grip of the Black Death, a plague Walters calls “the worst killer man has ever known.” Historians vary in their opinion of the numbers killed by the plague across Europe, but in England alone it may have ended the lives of anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the population. And although we know now that the bubonic plague can travel through the air and/or a bite from an infected flea or rat, to the medieval population, the Black Death was entirely terrifying. People who had no symptoms could be dead less than twenty-four hours later. The sickness began with swelling boils in the groin or armpits, swiftly followed by chills, vomiting, terrible pain and then death.
Many people, without science to tell them otherwise, interpreted the plague as a divine punishment but, Walters explains, “anyone who was willing to question the teachings of the Church could use practical measures to protect themselves. Rational responses to the epidemic certainly existed in 1348, most notably in the distance people tried to put between themselves and sufferers. However, the best use of reason was shown by the ports of Venice and Dubrovnik, both of which refused to allow foreign ships to unload their crews and cargoes for forty days. It would be another twenty years before the word ‘quarantine’ entered common parlance, but, by then, periods of ‘exclusion’ to discover if people carried disease had become the accepted way of preventing the spread of plague.”
In The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, the central character, Lady Anne of Develish, takes this kind of rational approach to protecting her people from the plague and rejecting the Church’s stance. As a woman, taking a leadership role after the death of her husband, Anne is by no means a traditional medieval wife, although she does have her roots in real historical characters. “For Lady Anne,” Walters explains, “I drew inspiration from Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful 12th century queen, and also from John Wycliffe, a 14th century English theological scholar and dissident. Eleanor of Aquitaine governed by winning the support of men, while John Wycliffe argued that people could only understand God’s Word if they were able to read the Bible for themselves, and not have it interpreted for them by bishops and priests. Being educated, Lady Anne is able to do this, and her understanding of the world is coloured more by the teachings of Jesus than of the Church.”
Another key character drawn from the margins of 14th century society is Thaddeus Thurkill, an educated serf, of mixed race and uncertain parentage, who has the trust of Lady Anne and the people of Develish. In The Turn of Midnight, he leads a band of young serfs out from the quarantine in Develish, as they risk their lives to find resources and establish a free future from themselves when the plague begins to recede. As Walters explains, Lady Anne and Thaddeus have a vision of freedom that is threatened by more than the plague: “Medieval society was hierarchical, with every rank ultimately subordinate to the king. In The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, the threat of approaching pestilence causes this social order to be overturned when Lady Anne grants the same rights and protection to her serfs as she does to her daughter, Eleanor, and her husband’s steward, Hugh de Courtesmain. Being higher-born, they resent the serfs being treated as their equals — particularly Thaddeus, whose illegitimacy means he holds the status of slave — and they turn their animosity on Lady Anne, seeking to undermine her authority. Many of the tensions in the stories come from Eleanor and Hugh’s fears of losing their places in a world where the underclass shows more ability to survive and succeed than they do.”
Working with characters on the margins of society and using their difference to gain deeper insight into historical events is a decision Walters took as a result of her research: “a tragic, but influential fact in terms of how I conceived The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, was that Jews were blamed in many parts of Europe for causing the Black Death. They were seen to suffer less than their Christian neighbours and this brought inevitable and vicious persecution. Reasons for their better survival rates are thought to have been their strong regimes of cleanliness and enforced ghetto isolation, and I drew on those ideas for the novels.”
As Walters switches periods away from the 14th century – she’s currently at work on a novel set in the English Civil War – it will be fascinating to see what perspective and characters she chooses to bring to life another pivotal point in British history.
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).