The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Today we have a guest on my blog, my colleague Carol McGrath. Carol is part of my review team for Historical Novels Review and she has recently published her debut novel, ‘The Handfasted Wife.’
Edward: First of all Carol, could you tell me something about yourself? I believe you have studied Creative Writing at two universities.
Carol: Thank you, Edward, for inviting me to speak with you about my University experience, the writing of The Handfasted Wife, my thoughts on the women of 1066, and on feminism.
My first degree was in English and Russian Studies (History subsid.) but I always wrote. However, once I had a family there really was no time. I was forging a career in teaching and was in turn Head of a History Department in a comprehensive and, latterly, joint Head of English in a private school – very busy. In between, I was accepted for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast where I studied at The Seamus Heaney Centre.
It was a rich and rewarding experience. My portfolio grew and consisted of short stories both contemporary and historical. Andrew Motion, the outside moderator invited me onto the PhD Creative Writing programme at Royal Holloway. This is how I came to write my debut novel The Handfasted Wife, a novel set in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of Conquest, a novel about three royal women, the year of 1066 and the aftermath of Conquest as it affects them and The Siege of Exeter, 1068, when Harold’s mother, Gytha, resisted the Conqueror. I could have written a whole novel on that event as Gytha had gathered noble women there and escaped with a great Anglo-Saxon treasure. However, the book’s heroine is Edith Swan-Neck. Gytha must wait her turn. My story is part recorded history and part the product of imagination and informed speculation.
Edward: Many people are still sceptical about Creative Writing courses, feeling that writer’s are born, not trained. What do you think you gained from your studies?
Carol: A writer is born, I believe, just as an artist or musician has latent talent. University courses, if carefully chosen, can help a writer find his/her voice, and genre, foster discipline, facilitate interaction with other writers in a ‘safe’ environment, educate the student about the world of publishing, encourage concentration and polishing a sustained piece of work whether poetry, play-writing or prose. I learned to plan, depart from the plan, critique, use words carefully, write the synopsis and prepare submissions for editors and publishers. What happens after the MA is up to the student.
An MA is really about writing. One cannot go onto a degree expecting publication as a given outcome. You are more likely to be taken seriously by agents and publishers and avoid slush piles if you prepare your work well for submission. However, it is just one route and talent will out whatever. The important thing is to have a story to tell and to tell it the best you can.
A PhD or MPhil is a different beast. It is a rigorous research degree, where as well as writing a novel or collection, the student will write an academic thesis supporting his/her novel. This involves a deeper appreciation of literary theory and literary criticism attributed to other literary works than any dissertation that is produced on an MA programme. My thesis work concerned how romance tempers realism in historical fiction. I explored Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley as well as researching a selection of women authors who write commercial historical fiction. I found the thesis work challenging but I am glad I did it. I think The Handfasted Wife, which is a commercial historical novel, written to a high standard, benefited. I feel that I can write a factual, thoroughly researched book on The Women of Hastings following the trilogy.
Edward: What drew you to historical fiction?
Carol: I loved History as a child and read historical novels widely- from Henty to Seton. I was absolutely passionate about history, loving to escape into the past, curious about past lives. My father gave me C V Wedgewood’s The Trial of Charles 1 when I was fourteen and I was hooked. I also read novels by Anya Seton and Margaret Irwin. I am pleased to note that these writers are still read today.
Edward: How did you come to focus on the last days of Anglo-Saxon England?
Carol: I studied medieval Irish History on my first degree and became interested in the links between perceived truth and legend. I found the same applied to the story of Edith Swan-Neck. The Bayeux Tapestry was my original inspiration for this novel. I began wondering about how the Conquest affected the noble Saxon women especially after I discovered that Edith Swan-Neck allegedly identified King Harold’s body parts on the battlefield at Hastings (Senlac). I researched women’s lives during this period and consulted academics such as Henrietta Leyser who wrote Medieval Women. The more I researched the more fascinated I became. I read everything I could find on this period of change, even how the Victorians viewed the period romantically as they looked for a pre-Conquest English identity. Then I wrote The Handfasted Wife.
Edward: Tell me about the Handfasted Wife? First of all what is a Handfasted Wife?
Carol: Very early medieval weddings were not sanctified by the Church. Handfasting was a traditional marriage form by which the families concerned agreed property transfer on marriage. The bride and groom were handfasted in the Hall, usually by the whetstone at the entrance to the hall. They made promises to each other and their hands were joined usually by ribbons or tied for the moment together during the marriage ceremony. Generally, these marriages, more-danico, held.
As the eleventh century brought Gregorian Church reform to England from Rome, marriage ceremonies involved a priest and became church weddings. As a consequence, marriage by hand-fasting was not recognised by the church. This allowed a get out, particularly for kings who might seek new political alliances. Harold and Edith Swan-Neck were married for nearly twenty years before he married the sister of England’s Northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar. Harold set Edith aside probably for political reasons. The historian Frank Barlow says in The Godwins that she may not have been ‘top drawer’ now he was king.
However, as this was a political move to appease the north and protect England from outside invaders, I wondered to what extent Edith might have accepted it. Their children are all recorded on the historical record and they have their own interesting historical stories. I took the facts I could find in Chronicles and various analysis of The Bayeux Tapestry and then constructed a possible scenario. I fictionalise Edith’s life on an estate in Sussex, the growing threat to her family before October 1066, and her imagined escape from an arranged marriage after Harold’s slaughter. In the novel I link her fate to that of Dowager Queen Edith, Harold’s sister and his mother, Countess Gytha. Where there is recorded history I follow it but I also invent possible scenarios. The novel tells of a woman’s experience, and presents a fresh perspective on the consequences of the Norman Conquest.
Edward: You tell a familiar story from an unfamiliar viewpoint, a woman’s view of the Norman Conquest. Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?
Carol: I see myself, as first of all, a writer. I am not great with ‘isms’ but I do feel that medieval women are generally marginalised by history. They are the footnotes of history. I am interested in hidden stories, both men and women’s hidden stories, and I try to tease them out. Women should understand how they evolved as a political and social force through history, how they found a voice, and appreciate what life was like for them in a past era. I think that in looking back we may understand women’s position in a contemporary western world better. Since my mother was a feminist, feminism is ingrained, although for me, writing is most of all about discovering and revealing past existences through fiction. I put out an idea or two, but I see these ideas as ‘collaborative’ between author and reader, not a given. I want the reader to think about historical possibilities.
Edward: This is the first novel in a trilogy, but 1066 was the fatal year, where can you go from here?
Carol: I am now writing about Edith and Harold’s younger daughter Gunnhild. She eloped from Wilton Abbey. The third novel concerns about their elder daughter who married into medieval Russia. I want to write a biography about Women of 1066 too, a factual book. After that, a new era and project and I have an idea for it already.
Edward: Thank you Carol. We look forward to reading more about Edith Swan-Neck and her daughters.
The Handfasted Wife is published by Accent Press, May 2013, 346pp, ISBN 9781909520479, available from Amazon at £9.99 paperback, £1.99 Kindle.