Pages

Sunday, 9 June 2013

PAULA'S PEOPLE: GUEST SPOT - CAROL MCGRATH, AUTHOR OF THE HANDFASTED WIFE

Hi Carol, welcome to my blog! 

Thank you very much for having me as a guest on your blog today, Paula. I hope to be interesting about my debut novel The Handfasted Wife and answer your interview questions with consideration for your readers. 

You're welcome Carol. am very excited to have you here. Here goes then! I believe this is your first novel, what inspired you to write a book about Edith Swan-Neck?

After university I was a history teacher in London so I assumed that I knew a great deal about The Battle of Hastings and The Norman Conquest. Tasks my students enjoyed were drawing their own vignettes inspired by The Bayeux Tapestry and reading ‘snippits’ from primary sources. I have always loved writing and was thrilled when I was accepted for the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing, a two-year evening course.  I had a radio play to write as part of the course and a visit to Normandy with our village Twinning Association provided the material for the play. The short film supporting the Tapestry at Bayeux suggested that Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold’s common-law wife, identified his body parts after the Battle of Hastings. When I began to research I found out three other interesting facts.  Gytha, Harold’s mother, offered gold in return for his body(The Song of Hastings circa 1067/8). The Bayeux Tapestry showed a vignette of a woman fleeing a burning house with a child just before the battle scenes. Some historians think this could be Edith and her son Ulf who was taken as a child hostage into Normandy.Shockingly, I discovered that Edith Swan-Neck, recorded in legends as the great love of Harold’s life, was set aside in 1066 for a new political marriage. She was only a hand-fasted wife. My play was to be about Edith Swan-Neck’s experience of loss and disaster. This story haunted me so much that when I was accepted for a PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, some years later, I did not write the Dickensian novel I had planned, but instead returned to the royal women of 1066. I wanted to tell a woman’s story, to make her live and feel, and to provide readers with a sense of how battle, loss and change could have affected her life. 



Thanks Carol, that is a very moving thought. It must have been so traumatic to have to search for your man among the human carnage of battle. Although this is a work of fiction, it is based on historical fact. How did you go about your research?

Women were marginalised on the Historical Record. Royal women only get a few lines. These royal women had an interesting story. Since I was a research student I had access to The Bodleian Library in Oxford. There I was able to sit in my dusty corner day after day, exploring old chronicles, research papers, journals and a heap of secondary material on the subject of The Norman Conquest. My starting point was, in fact, The Waltham Chronicle, where I saw for myself the story that Edith identified Harold’s body parts by marks only known to her. I read everything I could in primary and secondary sources about Edith Swan-Neck, Queen Edith, Harold’s sister, and Countess Gytha. Academic conferences, in particular one on The Bayeux Tapestry at The British Museum, provided me with a wealth of information, analysis and understanding concerning this marvelous embroidery. I used to embroider myself. Equally, I read everything I could about life during this great period of change and,importantly, I kept organised notes.  As one experience and one book would lead to another I felt as if time paused as I was teleported into a past world. The more I learned the more I needed to explore further and so on. However, research for a novel is the part of the iceberg that lies below the surface of the water. It is the story that must take you, the readers, into the recreated medieval world, so you have the illusion that you are experiencing life as it might have been then. That is the magic of historical fiction.

Beautifully put Carol. Apart from Edith Swan-Neck are there any other important female characters in your book that you really like?

I love them all but especially Gytha, Harold’s mother because she stood up to William at Exeter and refused to hand over her dower city. What a presence and what strength! She is dynamic and shows it. I imagine her shaking a stick with an eagle’s head at her foes and ringing a little bell to summon her ladies.

Haha! Yes. I can imagine her being like that. What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing The Handfasted Wife?

I rise early to write and begin my day with an imagined world that I am creating. I find I am movingcharacters around in my head, eves-dropping on their conversations, feeling their sorrow and occasionally their joys too. The Handfasted Wife is an historical adventure brim-full of escape and pursuit and it was a lot of fun to write. Of course, I frequently burned the breakfast toast because I became so immersed in their world that I forgot our modern world.

Will we be hearing anymore about Edith in future books?

In a word, ‘Yes’.

How exciting!What are you working on now?

The Handfasted Wife is the first novel in my trilogy Daughters of Hastings. I am half way through a first draft of the second book, Countess of the North. This is the story of Gunnhild (Edith’s younger daughter) and her elopement from Wilton Abbey in 1075. It is rooted in the historical record and is a beautiful story to write. She is a very determined and feisty heroine. Watch out for her! She will be coming your way soon.

Thanks Carol, I really cant wait to read The Handfasted Wife




You can follow Carol  @carolmcgrath on Twitter