The Butcher’s Daughter follows a Tudor English girl, Agnes Peppin, from the cocoon of her youth in her small market town, to consignment to a nunnery after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, through to her wiser, bittersweet middle years—or, her thirties.
The story takes place during “the bitter spring of 1539.” The grand Shaftesbury Abbey’s walls are smashed, and Agnes and the other sisters, some of them senile and frail, must forge new lives.
Even as a novice, Agnes chafes against the strictures of her sex and class. In this unabashedly feminist novel, her internal dialogues, words, and actions describe unexpected reserves of strength, smarts, and acid wit that fortify her.
The Tudor period was a tumultuous and earthy time, and Glendinning packs her heroine’s salad days with vibrant, sensual descriptions of living conditions, festivals, and religious customs, as well as encounters with historical figures, like the odious royal rent collector Sir John Tregonwell and flawed and impulsive rebel leader Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger.
Agnes’s acerbic and surprisingly modern observations about society are a delightful and an unexpected counterpoint. She sees through the nuns of aristocratic backgrounds whose moral scruples and compassion are limited to public displays. She learns to hold her tongue when her admired abbess kowtows to Tregonwell’s demands and excuses his sexual harassment.
There are obvious, disheartening parallels from this ruthless and unsettled era to contemporary kleptocracy, misplaced blame for sexual and domestic violence against women, and breakdown in civil and societal norms. However, this elegant, intelligent, compulsively entertaining historical novel also demonstrates the power of individuals with inner strength and determination to work for change.
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