There's a kind of moral starchiness to the protagonist in this novel—admittedly a product of a Puritan society—that renders Bridget Hodgson particularly unappealing, her acceptance of class and the social duties afforded by social position. A twice-widowed gentlewoman, Hodges serves as a local midwife assisted by "gossips"—a term never explained but (I assume) the flock of women who gather around one about to give birth, comforting, cajoling and gleefully imbibing the family's spirits.
York, England, in 1644 is a tumultuous place and time. The city is besieged by Parliament's army, an attack either imminent or days, even weeks, away. York is in thrall to the impending military disaster and its financial implications, the country embroiled in an ongoing political-religious controversy. Both factions in the city await the result of the siege. Important men gather to make critical decisions, while outside influences seek to protect business interests in a time of political chaos.
When local man Stephen Cooper is found dead, it isn't long before his wife, Esther, is accused of poisoning him. Esther implores her friend Bridget to investigate Cooper's death, fearing that she shall be burned at the stake. At first appearance a devout Puritan, further investigation yields a number of facts that suggest her husband had a more worldly life than friends and neighbors are aware of. It Bridget's mission, then, to storm the bastions of the male military bureaucracy, poking into affairs not considered seemly for a female. Incurring the ire of the powerful with impunity, Bridget either cajoles or harries her subjects into agreeing to her requests.
The midwife is assisted in her sleuthing by recently hired maid Martha, a newcomer to York who enters Bridget's service under false pretenses. Though Martha's subterfuge causes further danger and complications to her mistress's life, the girl proves a valuable asset and well worth the trust invested in her. Two brave souls forging ahead to clear the innocent Esther, they seem to attract mayhem from every quarter. All of it moves the story line along but does nothing to alleviate the hauteur with which Bridget conducts her affairs.
Though only thirty and twice widowed, Bridget has the air of an older woman. As a midwife in Puritan England, it is her duty by law to force unmarried women to name the fathers of their unborn children, a task she performs enthusiastically and often with some violence, using threats and her social position in equal measure to ensure cooperation. Bordering on the absurd, however, is the manner in which she conducts the investigation into Cooper's murder, barging into offices where a woman would not be tolerated, harassing powerful men and garnering enemies along the way—all of whom she stares down with a gimlet eye.
Though the historical period is interesting, the characters prove less so—the unbending, tightly-corseted Bridget Hodgson, the least appealing of all. Save the history, there is little to recommend this novel beyond interest in that century's practices of midwifery. Of course, Bridget is ultimately successful in her attempts to exonerate Esther Cooper. Was there ever any doubt?