Moral maze for beginners

I've always thoroughly enjoyed Cynthia Harnett's historical novels. They may be written for children, but their historical accuracy and detail can be held up as good examples to follow for many a lesser writer of historical fiction aimed at the adult market. The writing on the hearth is, as ever, a great piece of historical fiction, but there's also a depth to it that makes it rather different from many of her other novels. The best of her novels sets children against an exciting historical context, and usually presents the child hero/heroine (although it is virtually always the boy who takes the lead) with a set of moral dilemnas. This is equally true of The writing on the hearth, although here the moral dilemna will take the hero, young Stephen Rudd, into rather more adult territory.

When Stephen goes to visit Old Meg, the "witch" of the woods, he meets Master Bolingbroke, a Master of an Oxford college, who fascinates Stephen with his tales of academe and of the newly established library at the university. However Stephen becomes convinced that Bolingbroke is involved with sorcery and, even more seriously, treason. But when Meg nurses and protects Stephen's sister, Stephen becomes increasingly confused by the apparent moral boundaries - can someone who appears to be good do evil? As his heart and head start to diverge, Stephen will find himself wrestling with moral questions that will affect his relationships both with his King and his patron.

Set against the early years of the Wars of the Roses, Writing on the hearth is a fascinating glimpse into what now seems like a very remote time. The historical detail is as ever well drawn, and provides great context for what was clearly already a divided and troubled realm, but more than this I found Stephen's moral dilemna both gripping and entertaining. His own thoughts on good v evil percolate throughout the book to a wider cast of characters. This novel doesn't perhaps flow quite as well as some of Harnett's earlier works - it lacks the grace of The woolpack or the out-and-out excitement of Ring out Bow Bells (still my very favourite Harnett), and its level of seriousness rather raises it to a slightly older readership. But it's still a great book providing glimpses of an England that was about to embrace the printing press, and welcome education. An England that was to a certain extent forward looking, but was also still firmly chained to the beliefs and superstitions of the past.


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