1753, book review, calendars, Cheshire, eighteenth century, England, everyday life, feminism, folklore, historical fiction, Martine Bailey, modernity, mystery, no and furthermore, predictable plot, sexual double standard, show vs tell, social snobbery, time keeping
Review: The Prophet, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2021. 241 pp. $30
It’s May 1753, and Tabitha De Vallory (née Hart) has every reason to rejoice. A former prostitute turned lady of the manor, Tabitha has found married happiness with Nat, onetime rake and scribbler of scurrilous, lurid tales, now declared heir to a Cheshire estate and the baronetcy that goes with it. Come summer, Tabitha will give birth to their first child.
But when the body of a pregnant seventeen-year-old girl, likely a prostitute, is found beneath the Mandrem Oak, an ancient tree on Nat’s land said to have magical powers, Tabitha sets out to find the killer. Her pregnancy hampers her, not least because Dr. Caldwell insists she remain in bed and refrain from any thought or activity upsetting to her weak feminine constitution. Tabitha wishes she could tell him to stuff it, but despite her natural boldness, she must placate Nat, who fears for her; the servants dedicated to treating her like a human wheelbarrow; and—a nice touch—her own fears and folk beliefs.
Further complicating matters, a charismatic preacher, Baptist Gunn, has gathered a band of believers near the Mondrem Oak. He prophesies a savior to be born that summer and a kingdom free of such annoyances as private property, privileges of birth, or the confines of marriage, all to be found in His Majesty’s colony of Pennsylvania. His followers put their faith in Gunn and the New World he describes, largely turning a blind eye to his habit of lifting every skirt he can get his hands on.
The Prophet is the sequel to The Almanack, and readers of that mystery will find welcome parallels here. As characters with disreputable pasts, Tabitha and Nat must tend their reputations, and the course of their true love travels a bumpy road. I like the hurdles Bailey places in their way, particularly important because Nat, as acting lord of the manor and responsible for catching the murderer, has the physical and moral freedom Tabitha lacks, whereas what secrets he chooses to share (or not) affect domestic bliss.
Readers of the previous tale will also recognize the feminist slant. Nobody understands the sexual double standard better than Tabitha, but, in a further twist, she has to train herself to reach Nat emotionally rather than rely on physical attraction alone. Meanwhile, she suffers the neighbors’ snobbery, endures passes from any man who thinks he can get away with it, and hates being on public display as a child-bearing member of the gentry, rather like a monument about which everyone offers an opinion. The sawbones, whom she heartily dislikes yet also fears, just in case his medical opinions are correct, represents only part of her trials:
Doctor Caldwell was a shambling man of five and thirty; unkempt in his person, with a greasy old cauliflower wig, and the protruding eyes of an overbred pug dog. According to Nat he was an excellent physician, but his manner left Tabitha feeling like a brood mare being assessed for market. First, he inspected her urine in a glass, holding it to the light, then sniffing it, and—rather disgustingly—tasting a few drops on the ends of his fingers. . . . Close up, she was forced to turn her nose from great wafts of his onion breath.
Finally, The Prophet enacts the fascination with folklore that drove The Almanack, and I find that the most appealing part of the current tale. Through Baptist Gunn and his cult followers, and the mysteries and folklore of childbearing and fortune telling, Bailey offers a fine glimpse of everyday Cheshire life. I like how she captures the outlook of people who pretend to be modern but aren’t, nor do they know what modern means, except that it scares them. Nowhere is that more evident than in time keeping, in which a society largely without clocks or authoritative calendars can’t be sure what day it is—especially because the country has just changed systems. That uncertainty affects the story.
However, I find the storytelling and writing less compelling than those of the previous installment. Here, the villains are 100 percent villainous, Gunn’s 100 percent corrupt, and the mystery, 95 percent predictable, the remaining 5 percent accounting for minor detail. As for narrative style, I prefer stories in which authors show rather than tell, particularly when it comes to their characters’ emotions. The Prophet, for all its welcome marital complications between Nat and Tabitha, often resolves them through explanation, or so it seems. I notice many physical descriptions that feel static rather than active, a surefire measure of tell versus show.
I wish I could recommend The Prophet more highly. I hope that future installments reclaim the pleasures of its predecessor.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.