18 August 2013

Guest Blog: Carol McGrath

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Carol McGrath, whose latest novel THE HANDFASTED WIFE is set during the Norman Conquest period. The author will offer a free copy of The Handfasted Wife to a lucky blog visitor in ebook format (epub) OR a paperback; please be sure to include your email address in the comments. Winner(s) are contacted privately. Here's the blurb:

King Harold loves Elditha, his beautiful handfasted wife for many years, and she loves him back. It is Christmas 1065. When aging King Edward dies Elditha’s husband is elected king. To her horror she is set aside for a marriage which will unite north and south against a Norman threat. But the Conqueror swoops over the channel, burns English lands and destroys King Harold. Can Elditha protect her family from the Conqueror’s wrath?

**Q&A with Carol McGrath**

First of all, Carol, can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing?

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 and I was forging a career in teaching. I was in turn Head of a High School History Department and, latterly, joint Head of English in a private school so 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. This was a rich and rewarding experience. My portfolio grew and consisted of short stories both contemporary and historical. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate and one of this MA’s outside moderators invited me onto the MPhil 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 the Norman Conquest. It is a novel about three royal women during the year of 1066 and in the aftermath of Conquest as it affects them culminating after 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, according to Chronicles, escaped with a great Anglo-Saxon treasure. However, the book’s heroine is Edith Swan-Neck and so Gytha must wait her turn. Edith Swan-Neck’s story is part recorded history and part the product of imagination and informed speculation. As for my MPhil, I graduated in March. I wrote my thesis on How Romance tempers Realism in Historical Fiction. One of my examiners, Fay Weldon, loved the novel so much that she has endorsed it.

Tell us about The Handfasted Wife. First of all, what is a handfasted wife?

Very early medieval weddings were not sanctified by the Church. Handfasting was the traditional marriage form by which the families concerned agreed property transfer on marriage. The bride and groom were usually handfasted in a ceremony by the whetstone at the entrance to the bride’s father’s great hall. They made promises to each other and their hands were bound together during the marriage ceremony. Generally, these marriages were lasting and legal. However, during the eleventh century, marriage ceremonies involved a priest and became church weddings and marriage by handfasting 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 had been married for nearly twenty years before he married the sister of England’s Northern Earls and, though History suggests that he loved her, Harold set Edith aside for political reasons. The historian, Frank Barlow says in The Godwins, she may not have been ‘top drawer’ now he was king. As this also was a political move to appease the north and protect England from outside invaders, I wondered to what extent Edith might have accepted it. I took any facts I could find in Chronicles and various analysis of The Bayeux Tapestry and 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 this of Dowager Queen Edith, Harold’s sister and that of his mother, Countess Gytha. The novel tells of a woman’s experience, and I believe that as well as being a story of love and loss it presents a reader with a fresh perspective on the consequences of the Norman Conquest.

How did you come to focus on the last days of Anglo-Saxon England?

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). My great interest was tapestry especially The Bayeux Tapestry. I had a hunch that the vignette depicting a woman and a child fleeing from a burning house was Edith Swan-Neck (Elditha as there are several Ediths in the story) and her son Ulf who was taken as a child hostage to Normandy and not released for decades. This theory is supported by tapestry historians such as Andrew Bridgeford. I researched women’s lives during this period and consulted academics such as Henrietta Leyser who wrote Medieval Women. I read ‘what happened’ in original chronicles in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and explored life in the medieval period, looking at costume, jewellery, food, furniture, art, architecture, trade and so on. 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.

Since you tell a familiar story from an unfamiliar view point do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

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 believe that in looking back we understand women’s position in a contemporary western world better. My mother was a feminist and so feminism is ingrained in me. However, I see myself, as first of all, a writer. Medieval women are the footnotes of history. I am interested in their hidden stories and I try to tease them out. Writing, for me, is most of all about discovering and revealing past existences through fiction and so I put out an idea or two but I see these ideas as ‘collaborative’ between author and reader and never a given. I would like my readers to think about historical possibilities. Also, I hope my stories appeal to both men and women readers.
This is the first novel in a trilogy, The Daughters of Hastings. Can you say a little about what you are currently writing?

My new novel is the second book in this trilogy. It is very romantic as it is about a real historical love triangle. After much agonising about a title, it is to be called The Swan-Daughter’s Tale and is a story about Edith Swan-Neck’s daughter Gunnhild’s elopement from Wilton Abbey in the last quarter of the 11thC. I won’t give any spoilers here but shall say that some great characters from the first novel do reappear in the sequel.

Thank you, Carol, and best of luck with The Handfasted Wife.

Thank you, Lisa, for having me on Unusual Historicals. I am offering a free copy of The Handfasted Wife, either an Apple download of the novel for IPhone or IPad or a paperback copy. Leave an email address in the comments section if you wish to enter this draw, which is available internationally. Say which version you are interested in too!

The Handfasted Wife is published by Accent Press and is available an e book for all e readers and as a paperback from Amazon, USA and UK. It can be bought from Accent Press’s online bookstore.