The Handfasted Wife, by Carol McGrath, is one of the many books which have come out in recent years surrounding the Norman invasion of 1066. For me, this was a five star book that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Carol has chosen to tell her tale about a year or so either side of the fateful months, and to focus on the person of Elditha (Edith) Swanneck – married to Harold according to popular customs and accepted as valid by most Saxon Christians of the time, but not legitimate according to the stricter rules of the European church.
Carol has delved heavily into the various literary sources referring to these years, with an appropriately critical eye depending on their authorship as well as their distance in time from the events. Small extracts from approximately contemporary texts stand at the head of each chapter, a device I personally enjoy. Indeed, the quality and detail of research stands out from the book as a major feature. There was a real sense of immersion in the age.
To some degree, this was a slight distraction – much as I like research, there were times in the first half of the book where it threatened to overwhelm the story. In ruthlessly objective terms, not a great deal happens for a fairly large chunk of the book, but Carol uses a lot of space informing us of local customs and everyday objects. In complete contrast, the second half of the book, involving flight and pursuit into the west of England and beyond, accelerates at a rapid rate.
One of my great joys of reading this book was simply the pleasure of knowing the terrain Elditha and her various companions move across – at least, the modern version of it. The river trip along the Thames near Oxford, the approach to the Severn valley, the view of the estuary at Exeter – all were vivid episodes enhanced by my own experience of them. They are, I think, well enough described that someone who does not know the land would still appreciate them.
As well as the exterior landscape of England, Carol captures the interior world of Saxon women in a way I find very credible. The Norman rule was a cruel time for women, not only in the obvious forms of personal violence, but in the destruction of their role in society. As the dust of the conquest settled, women would find themselves in a completely subordinate position, with the rights and privileges accorded them in Saxon society swept away. These would not be recovered for many centuries.
Again on a personal note, this made an interesting connection with my own preferred period – the much earlier transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age in the middle east. Here also, a long-standing and stable social structure was being swept away and replaced by a system which put women at a considerable disadvantage and locked them into a few prescribed roles.
This was definitely a five star book for me – the minor reservations that I had with the level of research detail inserted into the text do not detract from the overall effect. I particularly enjoyed the blend of interior and exterior worlds, and the larger sense that a whole way of life was being swept away in ways that were rather unexpected to the parties involved. Definitely to be recommended if you like books set in this era which focus not so much on the fighting and battles as much as the personal experience of life.
This review is from: The Handfasted Wife (Paperback)
There are books that you want to finish at one go - the ones you want to race through the pages so that you will find out how the story ends. Then there are books that you want to savour - the ones you want to read slowly and enjoy every turn of the page, every single word, and every carefully placed punctuation mark, whilst trying to delay the inevitable end and feeling that you have lost a good friend. Carol McGrath's delightful The Handfasted Wife offers both of these reading experiences. Written in compelling prose, the book adroitly weaves the events of the precarious time to human life, the Norman conquest, into a rich tapestry and brings to life the story of Edith Swan-Neck, the handfasted wife of King Harold, from the few sources available. The Handfasted Wife is an incredibly well-researched book; it is steeped in the past, but it carries the weight of history lightly, just as a good historical novel should. The characters are drawn deftly and convincingly and you learn to love them. Without giving anything away, if I had to pick a favourite character, it would be, apart from the protagonist and the other remarkable women of the story, Padar, that wandering skald, who also turns out to be a warrior. To me, he is the nexus between the Vikings and the English, one of the intriguing characters that allows McGrath to give life to the multifaceted society of the eleventh century. Those who have knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon culture, enjoy spotting the many references to Old English poems and other cultural references. I personally relished the scene with Beowulf! I recommend The Handfasted Wife whole-heartedly to all fans of historical novels as well as to those interested in Anglo-Saxon period. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was sorry when the book came to an end, but I am comforted in the fact that the story continues in the next instalment with Gunnhild. I cannot wait!
I have a problem reading books where I know beforehand there is no happy ever after. In this particular case, I know Harold and his Elditha will never experience old age, seeing as he died at the battle of Hastings. It makes me sort of weepy, and I am ridiculously glad that, as per this book, they had some weeks together before the momentous events that would transform England forever.
Elditha Swanneck is an engaging character, mild but assertive, capable and wise. She handles her affairs in the way any wealthy noblewoman of the times would have done, she loves her children, her man. When Harold decides to marry - for real - she is understandably hurt, made fragile and invisible by his apparent disinterest. By choosing a new wife, Harold is sullying their union, relegating her to the role of mistress rather than mate, and I think Ms McGrath has done a great job in conveying all these feelings, further complicated by the fact that Elditha can't stop loving Harold, the man she has loved for more than half her life. She wants to be angry and send him away, but misses him too much to do so when he finally comes to see her. Even after he is dead, Elditha will always carry this larger than life man in her heart, attempting always to remain loyal to his memory.
Ms McGrath does an excellent job in portraying all her central characters. From Elditha to Padar, from Gytha to Harold himself, these long dead people spring to life within the pages of her book, some of them so easy to love, some, like Queen Edith, portrayed as coldly pragmatic. To these vibrant characters must be added beautiful descriptive writing, pitch-perfect dialogue and a vivid historical setting
Intended to be the first of a trilogy this is the story of Edith who was married to Harold Godwineson the last Saxon King of England who was killed at the Battle of Hastings. They were married according to a Danish, non Christian, rite and though the relationship was a happy one and they had several children after Harold became King in the early part of 1066 he married another lady in a Christian ceremony. This is a superb historical novel telling the story of Edith and her family in the months before the Battle of Hastings and the years afterwards. It really brings the period to life. Very highly recommended.
I found Carol Mcgrath's book about Edith Swanneck (Elditha), the handfasted wife of King Harold, absolutely fascinating. The author has obviously done a lot of research which gives the book an authentic feel of the period immediately before and after the Norman Conquest. Some of her characters ranging from noblewomen and men, merchants, commoners and the clergy are based on actual people while others are made up but they are all believable. Her descriptions of the countryside and customs draw the reader into that tumultuous time as we follow Elditha's escape across England to Ireland and back to Exeter where she, along with her mother-in-law Gytha, attempt to withstand the seige. The five pages of author's notes at the end of the book are helpful and indicate the scholarship involved in this immensely readable historical novel. I look forward to the sequel.
I knew very little about Edith Swanneck and had always believed that she was Harold's mistress. It was she who identified his body after the Battle of Hastings. It would appear that she and Harold were married but not with the blessing of the church. This enabled Harold to marry another when he became king. They had children together whose lives were endangered by the coming of the Normans. I found it an engaging book and I wanted to keep reading.
A wonderful mix of historical fact and imagination, 1 Jan 2014
This novel is a marvellous mixture of historical fact and imagination. It is well researched and has masses of fascinating details about medieval daily life; manners, diet and costume combined with the history of the period. I would rate it even higher than such masters of the genre as Philippa Gregory. There is a wonderful cast of characters, some real and some invented.
I would heartily recommend this delightful novel. I couldn't put it down. She has cleverly blended fact and fiction and created a wonderfully vivid picture of medieval life.
Charlotte Betts is the author of the award winning The Apothecary’s Daughter. She followed
this debut novel with The Painter’s
Apprentice and The Spice Merchant’s
Wife, which, whilst the first novels are excellent, surpasses them as regards
perfect pitch writing, superb plotting and importantly, very convincing
characterisation. All three novels are set between the mid and late seventeenth
century. I enjoyed each for differing reasons- The Apothecary’s Daughter is a riveting
novel set during The Plague, remarkable for its Cinderella story and attention
to historical detail; The Painter’s Apprentice is a court drama and a love story:
The Spice Merchant’s Wife is set during the years following The Great Fire of
1666 and this one also contains a romance but it is a sinister thriller too. It
has wonderful descriptions of London during the years following The Fire. It has
already won one prize and I predict others will follow. http://thereviewgroup.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/carol-mcgrath-reviews-spice-merchants.html
Elizabethan Age is a comparatively settled period in England’s history, one of
glory, expansionism, the opening years of Empire, exploration and discovery.
This all came with a price. Every historical moment of brightness also contains
its darkness. Jenny Barden’s new novel, The
Lost Duchess, published in hardback and as an e book this November,
contains such themes, glorious events of exploration and colonisation, and the
price paid by many individuals, men, women and children, struggling to colonise
the New World’s relatively unchartered shores.... http://thereviewgroup.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/carol-mcgrath-reviews-lost-duchess-by.html