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.