Maybe because I studied medieval history as an undergraduate, historical novels set in that era have a particular fascination for me. I love trying to imagine characters that I know from chronicles and legends take on personal details and emotional lives that their original biographers wouldn’t have been interested in – and even if they were, they might not have recorded for political reasons. This is particularly salient when it comes to medieval women. With some notable exceptions – mostly saints and queens – women operated below the level of interest for those recording histories during the medieval period. This is hardly surprising, since many of those writers were clergy, and had very little interaction with women at all. Which is a long explanation for why I was really looking forward to reading Nicole Galland’s Godiva -- and why I truly enjoyed it too, even though it takes more a feminist turn than I think would be historically accurate.
First, the fabulous. Galland does a really fantastic job of writing about an actual friendship between historical women. Godiva, Countess of Mercia, is a long-time friend of Edgiva, the Abbess of Leominster and also a member of the tenuous royal family. This book actually passes the famous Bechdel* test: the book has two female characters; they talk to each other; and they don’t always discuss a man. It’s surprising how many historical fiction novels centered on women don’t pass that test. In this case, Godiva and Edgiva are united in their opposition to an unfair tax, the heregold, which ultimately results in the great Lady’s infamous ride. This is actually a twist on the original story, in which Godiva defies her husband with her ride, but I liked the arc of the story better with Godiva opposing the king, rather than her husband.
Next, the quibbles. The novel takes place at the end of the Anglo-Saxon era in England, when England was culturally more a Scandinavian country than a Continental one, with powerful earls like Leofric of Mercia, Godiva’s husband, loosely held together by an essentially foreign king, Edward the Confessor. Galland uses this fact to justify Godiva’s seemingly modern attitudes and behavior. (Less than 20 years after the events detailed in this book, William the Conqueror and the Normans overran the island and brought closer ties to the Catholic Church.) But while I’ll certainly concede women had more property rights in the Anglo-Saxon era, nothing I’ve ever read, including Sigred Undset’s painstakingly researched Kristenlavransdatter trilogy, indicates that women had the kind of autonomy – economic and sexual – that Godiva wields at any time in Europe until at least the 1970s. For me, that gave the book an anachronistic feel – or maybe it would be better to call it a “New Age” feel, kind of like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or Tobin’s Ice Land, rather than a traditional historical novel.
For example, at one point, Godiva tries to convince one of her husband’s rivals of her availability:
“I am barren,” she whispered. “Not that I was desperate for motherhood anyhow, in this world where someone else nurses the babe and someone else yet raises it. Where is the motherhood in that? No wonder the likes of Queen Emma became such a heartless and conniving monster. My very womb rebelled against it early. So you see, there is not the slightest danger of embarrassment to Leofric, and he knows I would never make a fool of myself.” (p. 58)
The problem is, that was motherhood back then. The current conception of motherhood as nurturing and child-focused is just that – modern. What would have been Godiva’s basis for comparison? It seems too progressive a statement for a time when even wealthy women had trouble living through childbirth and children’s life expectancies were brutally short. Nursing and fostering were thought to benefit the children and the family. From what does the childless Godiva construct her alternative motherhood? As Ralph Linton said, “The last thing a fish would ever notice would be water.”
That said, I enjoyed the novel, and I think it was mostly successful. Galland certainly managed to pull the action away from romantic entanglements and on to issues of social importance. I was surprised by the ending, mostly because the focus shifted from Godiva to Edgiva, and considering the title and the legendary events portrayed, I hadn’t expected it. But I actually liked it. This novel is a great choice for historical fictionistas, but I’d also see it as a choice for those who enjoy New Age fantasy, and are looking to stretch a little beyond the genre.
I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other takes on Nicole Galland's Godiva, please follow the links here. Thanks, as always, to Trish for including me on the tour!
*Bechdel, A. (n.d.). The Rule. Retrieved July 11, 2013 from http://www.flickr.com/photos/zizyphus/34585797/. Go ahead, try to find a blockbuster movie that passes the test this summer. It ain’t easy!