Ms. McGrath has kindly agreed to a signed paperback giveaway
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The Swan Daughter begins in 1075 and starts with the death of Queen Edith, wife of the old Confessor who himself has demised for almost a decade. Her 18-year-old niece Gunnhild, daughter of her brother and his wife Edith Swanneck, has been educated in Wilton Abbey with her aunt since she was a small girl. She has been longing for the day she can leave, but the abbess has other ideas for her and she is to take holy vows. Then her knight in shining armour arrives in the shape of Alan of Richmond, a Breton in the service of the Norman king, William. Alan convinces her that she must elope with him and Gunnhild sees this as a chance to leave the convent life behind.
I enjoyed this book; it is as a lovely romance as any. Ms. McGrath tells a wonderful story of a love triangle that is based on historical fact. McGrath uses her role as a historical novelist to weave a plausible explanation of why Gunnhild marries Alan 'the Black' of Richmond and then later lives with his half brother, Alan 'the Red'. These are the facts that are known to us; however, the circumstances of why are not within our grasp. Nonetheless it is easy to surmise and Ms. McGrath's ability to create an interesting story and her astute research into the period, in particular an investigation into the land holdings of Alan of Richmond and Edith Swannneck, provide us with all the evidence for a believable story.
Though the framework of the tale is based in fact, most of the story comes from the imagination of the author. Gunnhild's travel to Brittany, her life there as the wife of a Breton count, her jealousy of Alan's mistress and other children, and how she meets and falls in love with the other Alan are the conjuring of an inquiring mind, and an inquiring mind is a requisite in this era for the sources are scarcer that a teapot in a wine bar.
Gunnhild’s spirit comes to the fore in the beginning of the book; as time moves on, she becomes less a force of nature as she is molded into a more submissive version of herself. The stealing of her aunt’s dress, her refusal to take holy vows, her desire to shape her own destiny and not be forced into a sterile community where her spirit will fade, is what marks her out as different. Instead, she chooses another form of oppression, marriage to Count Alan the Red, who promises to make her a lady fit for the station of her birth.
She lives with the shame of her father’s so-called oath breaking and his ignoble death on the field of war. Her family’s diaspora and the loss of her mother and siblings' love fill her with profound sadness, but her character is such that she will not wallow in misery. She wants to be free, to live the life she was meant to have lived--as an English princess should. One day, she promises herself, she will leave this place (the nunnery) and when Alan reaches out to her, offers her a better, happier future, she clasps it with all her heart.
These were turbulent times--like many periods in the history of England. There had been many uprisings against the new regime: Harold's sons in 1068, Earl Waltheof, Edgar Atheling and the brothers Morcar and Edwin, Malcom Canmore, Eadric the Wild, Hereward (the Wake) 1069/70 and lastly in 1075 the rebellion of the Breton Earls, which saw Waltheof lose his life after unwittingly becoming implicated. It was around this time that William began to consolidate his hold on the kingdom.
For the women and children of this time the trauma of losing their menfolk, their property swept away from them because of the differences in culture and customs, this was a terrible time of displacement. Those women who owned their lands outright rushed into nunneries to avoid being forced to marry Norman knights who were desperately wanting lands. Being shut away from the world was bad enough, but being treated as economic objects of desire must have been frightening. Gunnhild was a woman who had grown up in a world where women's rights were protected. Even a slave woman had laws to punish her defiler. Women were often afforded equal status and some had been referred to as thegns. Obviously as a woman, it was unlikely that they should be expected to take up military services for the king, but by providing a man that could, she was fulfilling her military obligation as a landholding person. Edith Swanneck had many men commended to her; she was a very wealthy woman.
McGrath's characterisation of Gunnhild is well thought out, taking into account her status as a king's daughter, her years living in a convent and the traumatic loss of her family's ability to exist as a cohesive unit. Gunnhild longs to recreate the life she should have had, had that day in October at Hastings not gone the other way. Unfortunately, things do not follow as she would have expected them to after leaving her home in Wilton with the first Alan and travelling to a new life in Brittany; there are challenges that Gunnhild must face and humiliations to endure.
In the beginning, Alan of Richmond proves himself to be a man of principle. His word is his honour. He expects total loyalty and submission from Gunnhild. Gunnhild soon learns the hard way that her feelings, opinions and expectations do not count when Alan wishes to have his way. Gunnhild strives to please him but one day she crosses that proverbial line and there is no going back.
In Normandy and France, women were viewed very much as chattels on the whole but of course there were exceptions to the rule. The theme of this story is that of Tristan and Isolde. A tale of forbidden love that has inspired many tales such as Lancelot and Guinevere and others like the Romeo and Juliet-type love stories that have been told throughout the ages. This was also an era when the wonderful culture of the troubadours was emerging; courtly and unrequited love was the central theme of this ideology. Knights of the troubadour epics were seen in a very different light and unrealistically created images of a man whose core beliefs were those of protecting women, children and the weak and performing honourable deeds. They would go to the ends of the earth for a lady whose love they were unable to harness, just to get the knock back at the end. Ms. McGrath carefully embeds this Tristan and Isolde ideology into the story and when we reach the climax we are somehow enlightened and imbued with its spirit.
This is very much a story told from a woman's point of view; there are no exciting bloody battle scenes, nor is there much political intrigue, no swordfights or beheadings. What we do have though, is a light, heartwarming love story and a tale that evokes that old adage, that love can conquer all. When all that is left is love, what else can human beings need?
About The Author
From a young age Carol's passion was reading historical novels and biography. Now she is writing them. Her debut novel The Handfasted Wife was published by Accent Press in May 2013. The Handfasted Wife is the first novel in a trilogy about the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the royal women. Its subject is Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold’s common-law/handfasted wife. The Swan-Daughter, the second novel in the trilogy will be published in 2014.
Carol studied for an MA at Queens University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre for Creative Writing. Later she worked on the MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Life is not all about academic pursuits and writing books. She travesl extensively, enjoys photography and loves spending time with her two children, husband and their home and garden. Moreover, visits to a location here and in Europe that features in her books is the greatest excuse of all to lose oneself in the past.
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This review was written by Paula Lofting for The Review. Paula is the author of Sons of the Wolf.
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