Moral maze for beginners
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.