Review: The Almanack, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2019. 328 pp. $29
In midsummer 1752, Londoner Tabitha Hart accepts a rendezvous at an inn with a well-to-do gentleman who promises to be an easy mark, only to waken and realize she’s the one fleeced. The loss of her money, jewels, and clothes proves more than a usual setback in the sex-and-petty-theft trade, for Tabitha was planning to bring her mother funds she desperately needs, for herself and the care of Tabitha’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Bess. Worse, when the destitute, half-dressed Tabitha reaches her mother’s cottage in the village of Netherslea, to her shock, her mother’s recent letters pleading for help prove all too prophetic. Mrs. Hart has drowned in the river, a death her daughter refuses to credit, especially given the constable’s explanation, that the old lady’s mind had grown infirm, and she didn’t know where she was going half the time.
Consequently, much as Tabitha longs to return to London, she must restore her mother’s reputation — there are whispers of suicide — and see justice done. Her only clue is her mother’s almanack, in which appear warnings about a certain D, said to be untrustworthy and dangerous. However, Tabitha has few illusions about remaining in her native village, where her reputation is mud, and the sanctimonious, vindictive Parson Dilks would like nothing better than to drive her away. He applies pressure to take the cottage away, because it was granted to her mother as the village “searcher,” the one who laid out dead bodies, inspected them for cause of death, and wrote the results in parish records. Through the intercession of more kindly souls, Tabitha is allowed to inherit her mother’s position, and therefore the cottage, but only temporarily, and Dilks finds other ways to persecute her.
Complicating the picture is Nat Starling, a swaggering lush who scratches out a living writing scurrilous stories about true crime and debauchery. Naturally, he falls for Tabitha’s beauty and intelligence right away, whereas he’s just the sort of man who has always been poison to her, which is why she feels drawn to him as well. But she won’t give him what he wants unless and until he helps her solve the mystery about her mother, which he seems to wish to do anyway, having been a friend of hers. But, as with everyone else in Netherslea, Tabitha can’t be sure of Nat, and his dissolute habits raise further doubts.
The Almanack offers a clever mystery, with twists and turns (and “no — and furthermore”) aplenty. Bailey’s a fine storyteller, but she’s done more than build a clockwork plot that keeps striking an odd hour, serving to heighten the tension. Rather, she’s re-created the lore of village life, with its superstitions, back-biting, and feast of gossip. She’s also paid due tribute to feminism, as Tabitha bitterly resents the double standard that calls her a whore but allows men license to do what they wish, further granting them credibility as witnesses that she can never hope to earn.
This intricate homespun tapestry begins with active description, as with Tabitha’s first glimpse of Netherslea on her return:
The riverside path was deserted that morning; from the golden motes in the air, she guessed most folk must be hay-making. Crossing a well-remembered meadow, she drank at an icy brook and breakfasted on bilberries fresh from the earth; the taste of them, tartly sweet, was fresher than any food she had eaten in years. Thereafter her way grew easy and she passed the succeeding miles serenely. She had forgotten the lushness of the Cheshire sward in midsummer; the murmur of insects on the wing, the wildflowers that bedizened her path. Idly she picked meadowsweet, wild rose and ragged robin, twining them into a chain and then winding it in a circlet through her hair.
Bailey takes her carefully delineated ambience one step further. Having researched the eighteenth-century passion for almanacks, which were recycled predictions published yearly and simply plugged into different dates, she makes excellent use of them here. Not only does the infamous D deliver on the ghoulish prognostications in the local almanack, Bailey introduces each of her short chapters with riddles in verse, which contemporary almanacks contained, and which were devoured avidly. The fifty riddles Bailey has chosen — most anonymous, but a few credited to Jonathan Swift, among other notables — predict some aspect of the episode to come. Since the mystery itself is a riddle, and solved through one, everything connects. And that’s part of the delight in The Almanack, which, despite an occasional cliché of character, makes a satisfying tale.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.