Sunday, 1 October 2000

Michael Jecks: Belladonna at Belstone (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 637

In this series, Michael Jecks has certainly been keen to show readers some of the negative aspects of medieval institutions; we've had a leper hospital, now it's a convent where lax morality is accompanied by poverty. Not all monastic establishments were hugely rich, though that is the obvious impression to be gained from what has survived - the huge scale of ruins like St Augustine's Priory, Canterbury, Thetford Priory, Fountains and Rievaulx Abbeys make it obvious what the financial reasons were which prompted the Dissolution. The establishments which have left no trace were generally far more modest, particularly convents of nuns. (Rich benefactors tended to endow establishments of men, for women would be unable to perform masses for their souls.) Belstone, a fictional abbey in a real Devonshire setting, is a place like this, a collection of dilapidated buildings upon bleak moorland.

Belstone in fact has more immediately serious problems than its poverty. The prioress, noblewoman Lady Elizabeth, and treasurer Margherita are at loggerheads and Margherita is embezzling from the priory. There are rumours of lax moral behaviour - nuns wantonly sleeping with the men who work the priory's lands and even the priest who conducts their services - which have some basis in fact. (This kind of gossip often surrounded communities of nuns, as is clear from the stories in Boccaccio's Decameron.) Then one of the novices is killed, and Margherita writes a letter to the Bishop of Exeter accusing Lady Elizabeth of murder. This prompts an investigation involving the detective partners who are the central characters of Jecks' series, Baldwin Furnshill and Simon Puttock.

The combination of the various abuses going on in Belstone priory is perhaps a little unlikely, and Jecks is a good enough writer to add some background to motivate it. In fact, Belladonna at Belstone is a very competently constructed novel. With as truly a medieval background as the rest of the series, it keeps up the high standard.

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