When reading historical fiction, I invariably end up concluding I won’t survive a fortnight outside my time period. Caernarvon, 1293, the where and when of The Wicked and the Just, by J. Anderson Coats, is no exception. Aside from sticking out like a sore thumb (being neither English nor Welsh), I’m more likely to have been a servant (if I’m lucky) or a peasant (if I’m not) than one of the gentry.
Nevertheless, Cecily d’Edgeley’s father thinks 1293 is a very good time to be an Englishman in Caernarvon. Now that the Welsh principality has been subdued by strict English rule for the past decade, he is drawn there by the promise of land, prestige, and the exorbitant privileges that come with a burgage. Not at all thrilled about the move, Cecily, who is prone to chronic bouts of selfishness and melodrama, is convinced her father has ruined her life as she will surely meet a fate like that of “the saints who were sent into the desert to be killed by infidels.”
She arrives to find nary a Welshman in sight; they live beyond the city walls and must pay a tax to even market their wares outside the walls. One word against them from an Englishman results in amercements, arrests, and disproportionate punishments. Although Cecily rejoices in the leverage she has over the Welsh, her new concerns include Very Pressing Matters like vying for the position of lady of the house, antagonizing the defiant housemaid, and coaxing her father to part with enough coin for a decent gown, lest the snotty honesti look down on them.
It’s no wonder the maid, Gwenhyfar, can’t stand Cecily. Personalities aside, there’s bad blood between the two simply because Cecily is English and she orders Gwinny around in the very house Gwinny’s family used to own, before Gwinny’s father went out to fight and never came back. Overworked and underfed, everything about Gwinny is sparse, even the font used to print her pov chapters, as if she’s literally too worn from trying to survive to form full-bodied sentences, apart from those she repeats like a mantra: The lot of them should burn.
There are lighter moments, too, when Gwinny and Cecily team up to dispense justice, first to a bullying levelooker and then to an indiscriminate cad who’s been calling on Cecily. It’s then when I think, and this is the part where they put aside their differences and become true and fast friends. And perhaps they could have been. But Coates refuses to write for us a “tidy” ending and I applaud her for it.
Impeccably researched and vividly brought to life, Cecily and Gwinny and the Welsh without and the English within feel absolutely real because their loyalties are shaped by too much history, especially the escalating conflict which looms over everyone’s personal trajectories. What is justice? And who are the wicked? The labels seems clear cut at first. But after spending a year with Cecily and Gwinny, when the day of reckoning comes to Caernarvon, it doesn’t matter who’s less wicked or more innocent; everyone is responsible. It’s too late for reconciliation, but grief and loss bring Cecily and Gwinny to a common understanding. And that may be enough to move beyond the past, not repeat it.