Today I’m delighted to be talking with Carol McGrath who has just published ‘The Handfasted Wife’, a novel about the Edith Swan-Neck, the wife of Harold Godwinson and the other English wives who survived the Norman invasion of 1066.
Thank you, Martin, for inviting me to discuss writing The Handfasted Wife with you today.
My pleasure, Carol. Before we look at your own writing, I wonder which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
Carol: I am a passionate reader and not only of Historical Fiction. I like a wide range of authors. On my first degree I studied Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and I am sure that wonderful novel influences me. I like William Boyd because he is succinct and his novels are full of characters that are well developed and very unique. He writes women well. Hilary Mantel is a superb novelist and there is much to learn from Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. She tells a great story, paints brilliant portraits with words and, importantly, her work has historical integrity. Another influence on The Handfasted Wife is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, great characters; nostalgic, quirky and romantic. Kristan Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undsett is a favourite novel, as is Katherine by Anya Seton.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
I always wrote but decided on writing as a career after spending two years studying for a writing diploma at Oxford Continuing Education. It was inspiring since there I wrote poetry and plays as well as prose fiction. I continued onto an MA at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast. On this course I met many writers such as Sarah Waters and poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney. Poetry is very influential on my work. After another two years teaching, I came out of teaching GCSE students to write.
What made you write historical fiction and what made you choose the period of the Norman invasion for the setting of your first novel?
I taught history and have always loved it, wondering who walked here before us, what were their lives like, how were our ancestors’ every day experiences different and, in particular, how great political change affected them. As a writer, I think the cusp of change fascinating. This was Scott’s interest too. Lives can be turned upside down by war and women, left out of the fighting, are frequently thrown on their own resources ‘defending the castle’ and surviving. I thought about the Norman Invasion after viewing The Bayeux Tapestry. There are only three women depicted on the Tapestry and I began to wonder about how the royal women of 1066 were affected by the political upheaval that followed the invasion. I wanted to write about it from their view point, but I also wanted to write an historical adventure.
You studied creative writing at university. Some people think this is useful for authors, others are more sceptical. Could you tell us about your experience?
My experience was positive. I don’t think university makes a writer but if you choose a course carefully it can be rewarding because you are in a safe environment to write and others are involved in a similar experience. These courses are about writing rather than about publication. Consequently, I found I was becoming a more careful editor as a result. I learned lots about structure which was a valuable lesson. I also wrote a number of short stories and how to make every word count.
What made you decide upon Edith Swan-Neck as your protagonist? In what ways has she most surprised you?
It was the Bayeux Tapestry that introduced me to Edith Swan-Neck. Some Tapestry historians believe that she is the woman fleeing from ‘The House that Burned’ Researching in the Bodleian Library I was introduced to chronicles where the royal women got the occasional footnote, particularly The Waltham Chronicle that suggests Edith Swan-Neck identified Harold’s broken body after the battle by marks only known to her. My imagination was captured and I knew I wanted to investigate why she could have been there, what her life was like, and since Harold and Edith Swan-Neck is a great love story, much admired by the Victorians, how did she survive once she was set aside by Harold for a politically expedient marriage that would unite north and south in the face of potential invasion. What I have written is a mix of historical research and speculation. Edith Swan-Neck is not well documented on any historical record but I found out what I could. The most surprising discovery was that after years as a child hostage Edith’s son Ulf was freed by Robert Curthose, William’s son, and knighted. He seems to have become Normanised by 1090.
I have written about the same period as you have chosen but with a very different focus. Have you any thoughts on the differences between male and female authors working in the historical fiction genre?
I have read most novels set during the period written by men. There are a few written by women though these are older works, such as The Golden Warrior, but there are a few notable exceptions. In particular, I like The Forest Dwellers by Judith Arnopp and Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower. Men are definitely more interested in the battles and the warriors. Women actually will write about these as well and they do write some excellent male protagonists. And men can write women very well too. However, I think there is more historical everyday detail in books by female authors. Women authors enter the bower, the still room and the herb garden. They play musical instruments and embroider and raise children. In short women writers will include women’s activities in their novels. There is quite a bit of embroidery in The Handfasted Wife. Embroidery was exceptional in England at this time. My feeling is therefore that men avoid the bower and do not really ‘know’ the territory where women converse amongst themselves, yet, women are privy to men’s conversations in the hall. This inclination, I suggest, applies to authors as well as their characters.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
My writing career is as yet brief. The Handfasted Wife is my debut novel. I think seeing it in print has been a fabulous moment, the book I spent years writing going out into the world! I do enjoy research. Finding out that information I had speculated on can actually be verified as historical information is uncanny and thrilling.
What’s been the worst moment?
I wrote The Handfasted Wife whilst on a Creative Writing MPhil at Royal Holloway. Writing an academic thesis on how romance tempers realism in historical fiction was really demanding, harder than writing this book. I thought my viva would be a nightmare. It wasn’t in the end, but I did have a tummy somersaulting moment before the viva. The viva, of course, involved the novel as well as the thesis and I thought the examiners might be critical of my book, thinking it too commercial. In fact, they thoroughly enjoyed the novel and the thesis was highly praised.
How do you research your novels?
I have built up a library of books about life for women in 11th C. I also learned Anglo-Saxon and studied the poetry. This was one way into the melancholic, thoughtful and deeply sensitive mind-set of this people. Art and literature express culture so both were important as a study prior to writing the novel. I absolutely love Anglo-Saxon riddles and the art work is fascinating. Moreover, the craftsmanship and the cultural richness that this society possessed were fabulous. The Anglo-Saxon calendars, the various chronicles and the later writing contained in the Bodliean all have provided me with hours of thorough and thrilling research. When I read words written then, struggling with Latin one side of the page and English translation opposite and crafted with such eloquence I can literally shiver with emotion. When I discover nuggets I keep detailed notes and file them.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I do have a study looking out over my Oxfordshire garden. At the moment I am living in Greece off and on and I have snatched a work station in a corner of a spacious room that gets quantities of sunlight. I write best early in the morning and often draft with pen and paper. I write slowly to get a good first draft down, usually around 1k words at a stint! Generally, I get the story down first and then work through it thinking about language and additions or cuts when I redraft. I plan the story first but am prepared to change tack. There have been a few surprises with The Handfasted Wife. I could not, for example, allow Elditha my own preferred story end. There was a surprise! I think a gut feeling about her and what may have really happened held that back. If I say more I think it could be a spoiler. In the afternoon I am busy on other things but sometimes I return to the book or to research in the evening. Occasionally full days are research days. I read fiction and poetry in the evenings. Finally, in Oxfordshire I have an allotment. There is no-where better to tell stories in my head! It is a peaceful place where I often think about the next chapter.
What is your next writing project?
I have two more books to finish in this trilogy, Daughters of Hastings. I may write a factual book with the historian’s hat on to accompany them. My favourite historical period is The English Civil War. I have an idea for a novel set during this period. On my MA I wrote a romantic story set in Ireland during the turbulent years 1910-1912 called The Damask Maker with a male protagonist. It is one close to my heart and one day it must get finished!
Thank you very much for talking with me today. I look forward to the next books in the series.
The next author to be featured in this series of talks will be James Aitcheson.