Two Excellent Historical Novels by V. M. Whitworth

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflæd as depict­ed in the car­tu­lary of Abing­don Abbey

V. M. Whitworth’s The Bone Thief (Ebury, 2012), and it’s sequel The Traitor’s Pit (Ebury, 2013) are exem­plary his­tor­i­cal nov­els. The author is known, by anoth­er name, as a medieval his­to­ri­an. I read the first book mere­ly out of curios­i­ty, because I knew her schol­ar­ly work. But, after a few pages, I was hooked. The set­ting is Eng­land Before Eng­land Was, the reigns of Æthelred, King of Mer­cia and Edward of Wes­sex, who was soon to uni­fy the two king­doms and make con­sid­er­able inroads on the Danelaw. The future Eng­land has long been split between Pagan and Chris­t­ian kings, but the Norse Gods are fad­ing as the Scan­di­na­vian con­querors are adopt­ing Chris­tian­i­ty (with vary­ing degrees of sin­cer­i­ty), and the two cul­tures are merg­ing. The action of the first book is inspired by an inci­dent record­ed in the Anglo-Sax­on Chron­i­cle as occur­ring in the year 909. The fic­tion­al hero is Wulf­gar, a young cler­ic in the ser­vice of his­tor­i­cal Æthelflæd, who is one of the more inter­est­ing women known from the peri­od. For years, Æthelred has been too ill to rule, and The Lady of the Mer­cians rules in his stead. In The Bone Thief, she sends Wulf­gar on a secret mis­sion into the Viking-con­trolled Five Bur­roughs, to obtain the bones of St. Oswald, which she hopes will ral­ly peo­ple to the Mer­cian cause. The bones have been lost, but are buried anony­mous­ly behind Bard­ney Abbey (which in 2014 is noth­ing more than a few stony lumps in a field north­west of the vil­lage of Bard­ney — see image below). Wulf­gar is a timid soul, and is soon over­whelmed by the con­spir­a­cies, treach­eries, and bru­tal­i­ty of roy­al pow­er pol­i­tics. He has been cho­sen for the task pri­mar­i­ly because he speaks some Dan­ish. No adven­ture-seek­er, he has a naïve belief in most of the things he was taught, which oth­ers around him regard as use­ful fic­tions or dis­pos­able for­mal­i­ties. In the sequel, he is assigned yet anoth­er mis­sion, while at the same time try­ing to prove the inno­cence of his elder broth­er, who has been charged with par­tic­i­pat­ing in an attempt on the life of Edward. This leads into even more con­vo­lut­ed pol­i­tics, vio­lence, and tragedy. In both books, Wulf­gar is con­stant­ly men­aced by his neme­sis, a bul­ly­ing and bru­tal half-broth­er, and con­stant­ly aid­ed by a fierce and rogu­ish Dano-Eng­lish female adventurer.

Now, those are the bare bones of the books, but it’s the exe­cu­tion that mat­ters. The his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is con­front­ed with a num­ber of very dif­fi­cult choic­es, even before start­ing a nov­el. The first is: how much his­to­ry and how much fic­tion? It is tempt­ing to sim­ply stuff the book with every his­tor­i­cal detail one can find, which makes for a fat book, demand­ing a patient read­er. You might call this the McCul­lough Effect. Or you can sim­ply take a quick glance at the ency­clo­pe­dia, then assem­ble a plot that could fit into any era, rely­ing on the clichés and the sword­play to keep the read­er from notic­ing that you actu­al­ly know noth­ing about the peri­od. Strik­ing a sat­is­fac­to­ry bal­ance between the two is hard­est of all. A lit­tle while ago, I read a lit­tle vol­ume of his­tor­i­cal short sto­ries by the now for­got­ten Cana­di­an writer Thomas H. Raddall.[1] Each sto­ry is a lit­tle gem, which brings 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry Nova Sco­tia to life with a few, care­ful­ly cho­sen his­tor­i­cal details, slipped in so deft­ly that you scarce­ly notice them as you are caught up in the char­ac­ters and their actions. The well-timed appear­ance of a phrase, an object, a cus­tom, or an atti­tude, inte­gral to dra­ma, reveals a sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­sis of the his­to­ry. Robert Graves also had this knack, and while his inter­pre­ta­tions of his­to­ry were some­times eccen­tric and out of the main­stream, nobody can fault him for mas­tery of his sources. I rec­om­mend his Count Belis­ar­ius, for any­one who wants to lose them­selves in a his­tor­i­cal nov­el that is true art. Whitworth’s books dis­play this same skill. Her ear­ly Tenth Cen­tu­ry is entire­ly believ­able, and vivid­ly drawn, but there are no lec­tures or stag­nant pas­sages inter­rupt­ing the rapid move­ment of the sto­ry and her remark­ably pre­cise, com­pact prose.

Anoth­er ques­tion fac­ing the his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is how to rep­re­sent past lan­guages. We are all famil­iar with the sil­ly 1950’s Roman Empire movies where the Roman Sen­a­tors speak in Pub­lic School British Eng­lish, the cen­tu­ri­ons speak Mid­west­ern Amer­i­can, and the slaves speak Cock­ney. In these two nov­els, there are a mul­ti­tude of lan­guages and dialects rep­re­sent­ed. Anglo-Sax­on is rep­re­sent­ed by mod­ern Eng­lish, with­out stilt­ed, pseu­do-medieval archaisms, but flavoured with a few well-cho­sen words drawn from mod­ern Eng­lish dialects to con­vey the impres­sion of dialects in Anglo-Sax­on, as, for exam­ple, the Anglo-Sax­on of Mer­cia, Wes­sex, the Five Bur­roughs and Northum­bria, and the pecu­liar Anglo-Sax­on which would have been spo­ken as a sec­ond lan­guage by the Norse set­tlers. Whit­worth employs very fine judge­ment in this process. The results nev­er jar the read­er, nev­er break the spell of look­ing through a mag­ic mir­ror into the past.

Final­ly, there is the ques­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral anachro­nism. I quick­ly grow impa­tient of his­tor­i­cal nov­els with an ide­o­log­i­cal agen­da, or those which wor­ship pow­er and mil­i­tary might. The cult of the king-fuhrer-super­man is strong among his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists. Bru­tal, mur­der­ous gang­sters like Julius Cae­sar and Alexan­der of Mace­don have been turned into beat­i­fied fan­ta­sy heroes by many a writer who would not be able to get away with it if it was Kim Il-Sung or Rein­hard Hey­drich they were writ­ing about. In some nov­els, the hero, in order to be accept­able to a mod­ern audi­ence, is rep­re­sent­ed as hav­ing val­ues that they sim­ply could not have had in the peri­od. Sen­a­tors in ancient Rome spout the Unit­ed Nations Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights. The mod­ern desire to have strong female char­ac­ters fills nov­els with an improb­a­ble num­ber of woman war­riors and pow­er­ful queens, and a pop­u­la­tion that seems to react to them as if they were the norm. It hap­pens that Æthelflæd was an able politi­cian and led armies into bat­tle, but Whitworth’s nov­els put this in a believ­able, his­tor­i­cal­ly plau­si­ble con­text. Nor does she soft-ped­dle or ignore the casu­al bru­tal­i­ty, vio­lence, and class-rank­ing of the day. She is very good at pic­tur­ing a soci­ety where loy­al­ties are large­ly per­son­al, but can mutate into col­lec­tive loy­al­ties. Her hero, Wulf­gar, is drawn sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, but dis­plays many atti­tudes that we would frown on today, such as an abject devo­tion to an unat­tain­able woman. His chron­ic pup­py love for every beau­ti­ful woman he meets, sim­mer­ing with­in the stew-pot of his reli­gious duties, is hard for a mod­ern read­er to empathize with, and it’s a spe­cial mer­it of the books that they con­vey it effec­tive­ly. Again, believ­abil­i­ty is the author’s strong suit. Her tech­nique is to embroil her char­ac­ter in so much dan­ger and con­fu­sion that we can­not help but root for him, even if he is a bit of a thicky, sometimes.

The site of Bardney Abbey today

The site of Bard­ney Abbey today

[1] At the Tide’s Turn and Oth­er Sto­ries, by Thomas H. Raddall.
24562. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Bone Thief
24575. (V. M. Whit­worth) The Traitor’s Pit
[Both were pub­lished by Ebury, an imprint of Penguin/Random House, and are eas­i­ly avail­able through Amazon.]

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