Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The de Lacy Inheritance

THE first two pages of Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The de Lacy Inheritance provide one of the most chilling openings I have read.

The Mass of Separation which excluded lepers from family, home, society and church has a curious incantatory quality, and reads like an ancient curse.

It is hard to imagine any listener remaining unmoved by those words, which ban any form of normal human contact – even touching the rim or rope of a well was forbidden unless the sufferer was wearing gloves.

But from this heartrending beginning the author weaves a warm tale of love and redemption that is sure to be enjoyed by afficionados of historical fiction.

Richard FitzEustace has contracted leprosy on crusade in the Holy Land, and believes the illness is a punishment for his sins.

Seeking forgiveness, he pledges himself to God. But instead of gaining admittance to the nearest leper house he heads north to Cliderhou Castle (Clitheroe) on an errand for his grandmother, who wants to ensure that lands belonging to her cousin, Sir Robert de Lacy, are not lost to the family.

Taking up residence in a cave below the castle, Richard is miraculously ‘cleansed’ by water from a holy well, and becomes a friend and advisor to Sir Robert.

But he discovers his family’s legacy is under threat from a charismatic clergyman, and his cure remains secret to all but a few.

Meanwhile, back at his home his youngest sister Johanna is being kept under lock and key after running away rather than marry a man she does not love.

She is given sanctuary at Cliderhou – and falls in love with the son of the family’s enemy. Then Richard’s brutal brother returns from the wars…

Elizabeth Ashworth based the novel on real events and real people, discovered while she was researching her non-fiction book Tales of Old Lancashire (published by Countryside Books).

Her imagination was captured by the hidden history of Richard FitzEustace, who lived as a hermit beneath Clitheroe Castle and was unable to claim his inheritance because he had leprosy.

As you might expect from this, the book is driven by its characters, who spring to life with all their faults and foibles.

There is, of course, satisfyingly happy ending, but what stayed in my mind was what a lonely, desolate life many lepers must have led, shunned and feared by everyone in an age when leprosy was the most feared disease and, presumably, harsh measures were taken to prevent contagion.

In the book Richard finds unexpected friendship and support, even before his healing, but I suspect that in reality man suffered intolerable loneliness and hardship, as well as the ravages of the disease.

You can read more about the de Lacy family, and see pictures of places connected with them at the author’s website and blog at http://www.elizabethashworth.com/  and http://www.elizabethashworth.wordpress.com/

Verdict: This was a really enjoyable read. I cared about the characters, wanted to know what happened to them, would like to see the places mentioned in the book. It will go on the shelves alongside books I read again and again.

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