Historical fiction is a tricky business. It can illuminate history better than a conventional ‘history’ book, but what in the text is fact, and what is fiction?
Helen Hollick has conscientiously stuck to what are perceived to be the facts. She has used every scrap of information from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’ and other authors to create a large novel, on the life of Emma, wife and queen to both King Ethelraed and King Knut. This covers the period 1002 to 1042, a time of extraordinary drama in English history, when the Danes conquered and ruled the country.
I was drawn through the book rapidly, probably due to my interest in and knowledge of this period of history. Hollick makes sense of history, filling in the gaps, as a novelist is entitled to do. She takes the story line that Emma hated and despised her first husband, Ethelraed (famously known as the ‘Unready’), and loved Knut deeply. That imposes a black and white simplicity on what was probably a more complex and miserable reality. But it makes sense of many of her actions later, in ignoring and abandoning her progeny by Ethelraed, and her stout support of her son by Knut, Harthacnut.
Her attention to detail and willingness to interpret the facts for a good story penetrates the whole book, down to small details. For instance, she spots the oddity of the fact that the body of Saint Aelfheah was transported across the Thames on a boat, rather than across London Bridge. She neatly explains this as popular opposition to the loss of their Saint (who was being translated to Canterbury), leading to an angry mob blocking the road over the bridge.
But in a novel, do you need to squeeze in very drop of detail available from historical documents? There are too many characters to keep track of, and get to know. Hence the book sprawls over 856 pages. Too long for most people, I would imagine. I think the author and her editors could have profitably cut down the character and page count to a more punchy, succinct text. Something like 600 pages would still have given a sense of saga-like length and depth.
There is a paucity of information in history about Knut’s reign, after he established his regime on a firm footing. (The main reason why the English accepted Danish rule was for the prospect of peace, which was delivered.) Here Hollick has the opposite problem of filling in a gap. She interpolates a detailed imaginary account of Emma climbing the cliffs of Robin Hood Bay, with her baby son, when cut off by the rising tide. This is based on such a real life event by her own Grandmother. I have no objection to this interpolation, and think it a charming thing that an author can insert something from their own family history into a novel. But it is quite out of keeping with the rest of the book – a sort of refreshing interlude.
Actually I don’t buy the historical truth that Emma ‘loved’ Knut. But who can tell? A book like this reminded me that much of conventional histories of the period are vitually novelistic interpretations of tantalisingly few scraps of information. Even the records themselves are deeply suspect as to their veracity and balance. They are evidently peppered with fiction themselves. Alfred burning the cakes is a wonderful story. So is the story of Knut ordering the tide to turn back. An example of how a historian of Anglo-Saxon England has to inject huge amounts of supposition into their work is ‘Emma’, by Isabella Strachan, which I reviewed a couple of years ago.
I felt satisfied to read ingenious and coherent novelistic interpretations of history in Hollick’s book, and felt it was time well spent. Also I confess to feeling disappointment. This is for a personal reason. I have felt for some time that this period offered many dramatic events worthy of a novel. This idea formed as far back as 1992, but my study and writing has been limited and fitful. Publishing in 2004, Hollick has knocked me out of the ring. Congratulations to her for a good job overall.