The Lady Brewer of London
I started The Lady Brewer of London on an afternoon where I had just a few minutes of free time between errands – a grievous mistake. This is an epic, set in fifteenth-century England, and not easy to put down. Between the romance, intrigue, and historical detail, there’s a lot to enjoy in this story.
Anneke Sheldrake is content in her life as a merchant’s daughter in the town of Elmham Lenn, and keeps busy running her household and looking after her younger siblings while their father is away. That whole life is put at risk, however, when her father’s ship goes down at sea and Anneke is informed that all his possessions – house, warehouse, everything – were rented to him by Lord Hardred Rainford only for the duration of his life. With her father dead, Anneke has changed from a desirable young woman of status to a pauper whose only option is to be taken in by her mean-spirited cousin as a ‘companion’ (i.e. indentured servant).
Or at least, servitude to her cousin is Anneke’s only obvious choice. Never one to back down from a fight, Anneke goes over the household books, considers her talents, and then makes Lord Rainford an offer: rent the house and servants to Anneke so that she can become a brewer. She learned the art of making ale from her mother, and is confident she has the skills to turn a good profit. She also knows that her middle brother Tobias, who is currently apprenticed to Lord Rainford’s youngest son Leander, is in fact a Rainford – so between blackmail and good business sense, Anneke is able to secure a lease and an opportunity to make a new life for herself and her siblings.
Although normal for married women and widows, brewing is seen by most of Elmham Lenn as unacceptable for an unmarried woman like Anneke. More importantly, the idea of a new commercial brewer is viewed as a threat by the nearby St. Jude Monastery, where the monks have a large operation with a monopoly on the ale market in the surrounding towns. Between social norms and vicious competition, Anneke has a steep uphill battle into her chosen profession. She faces challenges in finding suppliers, finding employees, and even getting her ale certified. While it is obviously superior, the ale-conners (men who taste and determine what ale is fit to be sold) are very much in the pockets of the monastery, and hesitate to approve Anneke’s product.
A big point in Anneke’s favor when the ale-conners visit is the support of Leander Rainford. The youngest son of Lord Rainford, his opinion holds weight in the community and convinces the ale-conners to act justly. Leander begins to visit the Sheldrake household with Tobias (who is unaware of his relationship to the Rainfords), and a strong affection builds between him and Anneke. As the monks plot against Anneke’s brewery, ultimately forcing her out of Elmham Lenn to Southwark and then London, Leander remains stalwart in his support for Anneke and the pair’s romance builds in a sweet way.
Far too much happens in this book to easily capture in a review, so I shall simply say that Anneke must go through many trials before reaching a satisfying ending. Her strength and endurance through situations where all seems lost are impressive traits which only grow over the course of the book. Anneke is unflinching in her assessment of her own faults, acknowledging the times when she acts without heed for the consequences, or when she doubts herself unnecessarily. Her inner strength and good humor make her easy to like and certainly easy to root for.
The one issue I had, however, was the frequent appearance of ‘white knights’ in the story. Both Leander and a family friend, Captain Stoyan, rescue Anneke from more than a few scrapes where she seems unable to rescue herself. As a woman of the twenty-first century, this felt frustrating, because I’m used to seeing women solve their own problems. However, Anneke does prove herself remarkably capable and skilled throughout the book; the situations where she needs a white knight are typically when dealing with corrupt men in various positions of power (such as the ale-conners) who are inclined to impede her simply because she is a woman. While they may detract slightly from the overall image of independence Anneke is trying to achieve, it didn’t feel wrong to emphasize the difficulty of running a business as a woman in the fifteenth century.
One important note for potential readers is that there is some violence in this story, which takes place both on and off the page. The level of detail felt appropriate to the story, and while difficult to read, these scenes didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the book. However, I don’t think this review would be complete without mentioning their appearance.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed The Lady Brewer of London. Ms. Brooks delivers a wonderful tale of despair, triumph, and personal growth here. I learned many things I never knew about ale and beer production, and will definitely be seeking out this author’s backlist.