The Butcher's Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

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The Butcher's Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Wilson
Reviewed by Ruth Wilson
Summary: This unusual book is set during the reign of Henry VIII but rather than focusing on the power and glory of the royal court this looks at a young, poor woman living as a nun in Shaftesbury Abbey whose whole life is turned upside down by the decisions of the rich and powerful. This is a gentle book that covers huge themes of love, happiness, contentedness and choice. Our heroine is not a heroine at all, but rather a normal woman living in a normal world, trying to live her best life. The unusual view point make it moving and poignant and so very real; this is a fabulous book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2018
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
ISBN: 978-0715652916

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The Tudor era is often chosen for historical fiction because it has such a wealth of intrigue, plots and machinations. The regular cast of courtly characters are usually rich and powerful, with so many to choose from that the well never seems to run dry and the characters are often those high up in the circles of power, or those prepared to do anything to get there. This book, however, is totally different. Set in the mid–to–late 1500s we see the world through the eyes of Agnes Peppin, a young, poor woman. As a woman she can either marry, or join a convent. Since Agnes has disgraced herself then she has no choice at all, and she is sent to join the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey.

Agnes is a fictional character but is a really interesting one. One problem with female characters from this time period is the difficulty, with modern attitudes and culture, to imagine a time where women were totally subservient and without choice, it is tempting for authors to use poetic license to make the women strong and give them some spirit. We suppose they must have had some strength and determination and a weak fawning character doesn't make such a good read, yet Agnes is so totally blasé about the world around her and accepts that such is life. Remember Agnes, the really important things will always go on just as before. Beans will sprout. Children will be born. There will be butterflies. This becomes a motto for her life, there will be butterflies, and it is almost as though she recognises her lack of importance in the bigger picture of the world.

We first meet Agnes at the moment of her disgrace, she is young and unmarried and fairly unexceptional, she has an affair and becomes pregnant. She has a son who is removed from her without any thought that it could be otherwise and she is sent to a convent but her apathy is also her blessing for she is always able to accept her life for what it is, just one thing after another. She enjoys her life in Shaftesbury Abbey, the routine, the sense of purpose and the stability, but this comes to an end when the abbeys and monasteries are dissolved. This is a fabulous point of view of the dissolution, from those most affected, who have given their lives to a purpose only to see them cast out. We also see the real question that these women faced, they have to choose for themselves what they would do with their lives. They were forced to become independent women.

Agnes has no great passion, she enjoyed the routine of monastic life but does not despair at its loss. One of her friends finally finds happiness, which causes Agnes to think about what happiness is, and how one finds it. This question stays with her for the rest of her life. We see Agnes move from one place to another, from one person to another, without having any real intention of doing anything specific. She has never been encouraged to have aspirations or ambitions and has never had any say in the direction her life should take so she rather floats along and blows where the wind takes her.

She has moments of happiness, and has moments of bleak despair. She doesn't know what she wants, but rather knows what she doesn't want if opportunity offers it. It feels very real and human in her responses; her life is not a fairy tale with a happily-ever-after, but rather one thing after another. She finds life hard, and sad, and joyful and always remembers there will be butterflies. It seems a fair representation of a woman who has never been encouraged to think that her life would offer her any choice at all, and then offered the biggest choice of all, what do you want? It is a great illustration of human nature and feels so very accurate, and this is because our heroine is not a heroine at all, but rather she is desperately normal.

I loved this book, I think it offers something new to the genre and I really enjoyed the very real and normal character of Agnes. It was interesting seeing the great matters of the royal court as inconsequential and having little bearing on the day-to-day lives of the country, fiction rarely shows us normalcy and it is a breath of fresh air.

For something similar, you could try The Last Hours by Minette Walters.

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Buy The Butcher's Daughter by Victoria Glendinning at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Butcher's Daughter by Victoria Glendinning at


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