An Honourable Estate by Elizabeth Ashworth

Review by Alexandra O’Toole

 Elizabeth Ashworth’s, An Honourable Estate, is her second full length novel and is based on the legend of Mab’s Cross in Wigan. The story follows the fortunes of Lady Mabel de Haigh and her husband Sir William Bradshaw though a period of rebellions in the Lancashire region during the early fourteenth century. Forced to go into hiding as an outlaw for his part in the Banastre rebellion, William leaves Mabel and their children, unprotected and alone at the family home in Haigh Hall, unable to tell them that he is still alive.

Despite the constant threat of violence at the hands of the Earl of Lancaster, Mabel vehemently believes her husband still lives. Weeks, then months pass, and their lands and people succumb to the ravages of rebellion and bad weather.  In her husband’s absence, the King seizes her estate and awards it to the antagonistic Sir Peter Lymsey for a year and a day.  

Facing destitution and starvation Mabel struggles on, touchingly loyal to her husband. But her hope is shattered when William’s horse returns unmanned, bringing with it the proof that Mabel has dreaded and a choice that will change her life forever.

 I read An Honourable Estate on my Kindle and on the whole found it an enjoyable read. Ashworth tells a good story, painting the bleak, famine ridden landscape of fourteenth century Lancashire with a painterly eye and keeping up the suspense right until the very end.

For the most part the story is told through a dual narrative voice, alternating between Lady Mabel and Sir William. However, it occasionally, and unaccountably, slips into an unnamed third person who it seems is perhaps Ashworth herself, as the tone is very much one of a historical fact teller. However, despite this inconsistency, the voices of Mabel and William are strong and though their splintered relationship forms the backbone of this novel, Ashworth refrains from making their tale one of heart sore longing. Bloody battles and politics abound and the reality of war torn Lancashire very much takes centre stage.

The first ten chapters of this relatively short novel (only thirteen chapters in all) were very well paced and full of the moment by moment details that bring a story like this to life. However, somewhere during chapter eleven the narrative seems to falter –  perhaps reflecting a gap in Ashworth’s source material? –  and jumps forward to the marriage of Mabel and Sir Edmund with very little said about their courtship or Mabel’s feelings during this time.

It seemed to me that Ashworth had missed a chance to redress the story’s balance: not just in expanding this section, but also in juxtaposing William’s gritty experiences on the battlefield against some of the ambiguous human emotions that Mabel must surely have felt in the lead up to her marriage to Sir Edmund Neville.  As a result the story comes to its conclusion rather more quickly than the earlier pace of the novel had suggested and I was left feeling a little short changed.

Ashworth is clearly skilled at historical research and creating fiction from the facts she finds, but might she have written a more rounded story if she’d had the courage to leave her raw material behind when it ceased to provide a template for plot and to mine her own imagination to fill in the gaps? Despite this, Ashworth handles Mabel’s final scenes with skill and empathy to deliver a neat and satisfactory ending.  

An Honourable Estate is, for the most part, a story well told and for fans of local history it is certainly an interesting read.

 An Honourable Estate by Elizabeth Ashworth is available for Kindle download and as a paperback at http://www.amazon.co.uk/An-Honourable-Estate-ebook/dp/B008DV4F86/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344451976&sr=1-3

Alexandra O’Toole specialises in brand storytelling. When she’s not helping businesses connect with their audiences through stories, she’s trying to write her own. She is currently editing her debut novel, The Empty Mirror, and has just completed the distance learning MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She blogs at http://alexandraotoole.wordpress.com

5 Responses to “An Honourable Estate by Elizabeth Ashworth”

  1. John D Rutter says:

    I read Alex’s review carefully and I am happy to post a review that makes positive comments about the book and also makes comments on literary aspects. On the specific question of point of view there is an interesting question here; must the narrator be silent and objective or can he / she have opinions? Does anyone else have experince of or opinions on that issues?

  2. [...] I recently reviewed Elizabeth Ashworth’s second novel, An Honourable Estate, for the Lancashire Writing Hub. You can read it here. [...]

  3. Alex O'Toole says:

    Thanks, John, for opening up this discussion. Do you mean authorial voice rather than narrative voice?

    To clarify, it was on Ashworth’s use of her own authorial voice (if that is what it was) in a narrative structure that had been previously based on an alternating third person POV, I was commenting.

    The voices of Mabel and William are strong, but I found the sudden and spasmodic introduction of Ashworth’s own authorial voice confusing.

    To answer John’s question of whether the authorial voice should remain silent and objective in a narrative, I would say that the authorial voice does not necessarily have to remain silent in a narrative. An authorial voice (which is usually different from the narrative voice in a work of fiction) is external from the action taking place on the page and may freely interrupt to make comments. For me, this works best if the authorial voice is present in the narrative from the outset, as it facilitates the reader’s understanding of who is communicating with them.

    In the case of An Honourable Estate, had Ashworth introduced ,what I read, as her authorial voice earlier on, and she had made more consistent use of it throughout, my confusion might have been avoided. In my opinion, the narrative voices of Mabel and William were strong enough to carry the story of An Honourable Estate through to conclusion on their own.

  4. Saralee Etter says:

    Could you offer an example of that authorial voice? Sometimes, as a writer, it’s hard to find the line between the character explaining something for the benefit of a reader, and an authorial intrusion.

  5. John D Rutter says:

    Firstly, yes the correct word is authorial. I can’t immediately think of great examples so if anyone else has one to hand please post them. I was told that Jane Austen’s narrators tend to add an opinion rather than simply narrate; in Pride & Prejudice there are examples of social values being implied or even stated by the author as opposed to the characters.

    More recently I read Michel Faber’s short story collection, The Fahrenheit Twins. He has a tendency to just add a little humour or emphasis. In Mouse, for example, a young man finds himself sitting on his neighbours sofa when she has asked him to deal with a mouse in her appartment…

    He was about to make a wisecrack about a mouse when lo and f…g behold, the mouse himself walked out and just sat there, in plain view, in the middle of the room.

    Here the narrator is not just telling us what is going on, he is adding something for emphasis and humour.

    I am not an English Lit expert so I can’t define all the rules but it is importnat to differentiate between this kind of intrusion (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and opinions from first person narrators who are also characters and are therefore able to express any opinion they like.

    Does anyone else have good examples of this?

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