Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter explores a theme I hadn’t considered before—or even really addressed—in historical discussions of Henry VIII’s dissolution of abbeys and monasteries after he threw off the Catholic Church and established the church of England. I realize this sounds dry, but exploring what happened to women and men who suddenly had no place to stay or way to make a living after the dissolution turned out to be rich territory for historical fiction.
At least, it might have been if Glendinning hadn’t used her narrator purely as a pair of eyes with almost no opinions of her own. My reaction to Never Anyone but You was not a fluke, apparently; this type of narrator just doesn’t work for me.
Agnes Peppin, the titular daughter of a butcher, is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset after she gives birth to an illegitimate son. Marrying the father is not an option, so it’s a nunnery for Agnes. There aren’t a lot of options for women even if they don’t run afoul of the social mores of the time. If you’re not a wife, you have to become a nun. (Spinsterhood doesn’t seem to be an available option either.) Agnes doesn’t have a religious calling, but she does seem to appreciate being useful without being a drudge. Early in the novel, Agnes references the Biblical story of Martha and Mary. When Christ visits, Mary listens to him speak while Martha does the cooking and serving. Martha’s complains are met with scolding that listening to men talk about religion is more important than getting things done. Agnes is on Martha’s side. Life at Shaftesbury agrees with her for the most part, though she wishes that she might be free to explore the wider world.
Agnes is offered a position as the Abbess’ secretary shortly after she arrives at Shaftesbury, thanks to her ability to read and write. As a secretary, she is privy to all sorts of discussions that a mere novice would never get to hear. She shows us the Abbess’ struggle to preserve as much of the Abbey’s riches and land as possible so that the women of the abbey can have somewhere to stay. Many of them are old. Most have no where to go or family to take them in. A few are so devoted to their faith that they wouldn’t be able to function in the outside world even if they did have a place to go to. After Shaftesbury is dissolved, Agnes heads out into the world and makes a meager living with one of the odder inhabitants (one who ends up threatening her life more than once).
I worried for Agnes and her fellow former nuns and novices. It’s a hard world now for a single woman. Life was exponentially harder for one in the sixteenth century. And yet, even though this is rich emotional ground for a writer, Agnes only gives us glimpses of the struggles of the other women. Her own struggles are glossed over with little reflection. I was intrigued, but disappointed by how this book fails to fully explore the issue. It’s entirely possible that I just don’t like this kind of narrator and it’s coloring my review. Other readers may enjoy this book for its unique setting and themes. I’m going to wait for something with a little more soul.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be release 19 June 2018.