...'she knows that tangle of truth and lies, real life and make-believe, stained with sweat and blood, unpicked, restitched and probably covered with cat hair, is unique, a miracle of human endeavour in all its savagery and devotion.' ('The Needle in the Blood', Sarah Bower)
First, before I write anything else, I want to tell you just how good this book is. I don't want to be coy about it; I don't want to prevaricate. I just want to say, honestly: measured on a scale of books that are good and books that are ok and books that suck, this book is mind-bogglingly good. I mean, I liked it. I mean, I loved it. I mean, I was so filled up with the pure joy of reading it, that I forgot that I'm ever a stickler or a critic or a cynic. I forgot that medieval historical 'romance' makes me twitchy and that the merest whiff of 'womens' fiction' gives me hives. And if that sounds unguarded, well, that's what lit-blogs are occasionally meant for - spontaneous and unabashed enthusiasm.
I've mentioned before that when The Needle in the Blood arrived from the lovely people at SnowBooks, I felt a good deal of uncertainty. The blurb with all its talk of sex and lies and enemies and lovers, all bound up with 1067 and the Bayeux Tapestry, did almost nothing for me. I had that vague sense of foreboding that all historians feel when a novelist takes a pen to their period. (How will they skew the past to fit the contemporary readers' desire? What ludicrous things will they have historical figures say or do? What myths will they doggedly perpetuate?) But Sarah Bower came with impressive credentials - Literature Development Officer for Creative Arts East; a tutor on East Anglia's very prestigious Creative Writing course; two years as UK editor for Historical Novels Review - and I was willing to give it a try. I'm so glad that I did.
In 1049, when Odo fitz Herluin de Conteville was in his mid-teens he became bishop of Bayeux under the aegis of his half brother, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. Sixteen years later in 1066 he played a decisive, if not entirely definable role, in the Conquest of England whereby his brother became King and he became the Earl of Kent, the second most powerful man in England (and Normandy). Boasting land in 23 counties and a phenomenal groundswell of wealth, he appears to have had his fingers firmly in many temporal pies: politicking, fighting and indulging his body's desires. Like many clergymen of his day he saw no contradiction between being a man of God and being a man of the world. We know that he had at least one son, John (who survived him and became a regular at the court of Odo's nephew, Henry I), a testament to his libido; we know that he had an eye for beauty and for luxury and we know that he was pathologically ambitious. We think, although we can not be sure, that he commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, the most beguiling and tricky artefact to survive from the eleventh century. (You Tube has a snazzy animation of part of the Tapestry here.)
This is the factual background to The Needle in the Blood, which opens at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and closes with the completion and display of the Tapestry in 1077. The story it tells in between is a speculation on what historians do not, and cannot, know - how the tapestry was conceived; how it was designed and executed; how it came to be so idiosyncratic; and what it was meant to convey. Being fiction it can do what historians can't (or, at least, shouldn't). That is, it can find recourse in the vagaries of individual action and emotion, imputing motive and meaning where the historical record is woefully silent. It can turn the making of the Tapestry into a properly human drama. (Think Novalis: 'Novels arise out of the short-comings of history.')
In 1066 Aelfgyva is an embroiderer and hand-maiden to Edith Swan Neck, King Harold's concubine, and a first-hand witness to the terrible devastation of the Norman invasion. She sees the Saxon nobility thoroughly routed, her mistress hauled away in a cart to God knows where and the King's city of Winchester over-run by Odo, newly made the Earl of Kent. Left destitute, unmarried and without protection, she does what lots of women in her situation have done throughout time: she becomes a prostitute. Months pass, she looses hope of finding Edith and increasingly retreats into bitter fantasies of revenging herself on Odo, the despicable face of Norman cruelty. Then she receives an unexpected visitor: a Norman nun, Agatha, commissioned by Odo to recruit embroiderers for a great project, a tapestry to chronicle and justify the Conquest. Apparently, despite everything, Aelfgyva's neat hands and skill with a needle have not been forgotten. She seizes upon her chance to get close enough to the great man to take some kind of vengence: if she cannot kill him, she can at least destroy something dear to him. What follows is perfectly predictable: against their natures and strong wills, Odo and Aelfgyva develop a mutual attraction, fuelled as much by hate and disdain as by liking, and eventually fall in love. She becomes his mistress and a point of divisive conflict with the Church and with his brother. (*See below for some historical Tapestry stuff.)
It is what Sarah Bowers does with this material, perfectly mundane in itself, that raises the piece from a romance to literary historical novel. Her narratorial style is initially disconcerting - a kind of omniscient third-person in the present tense, reminiscent of children's books - but is quickly reconciled and her prose is honestly quite startling. She has a gift for simile, and for descriptive language; she likes to stack images, smells and sensations in long, intense paragraphs. This, for example, of Aelfgyva's first glimpse of the sketch plan for the Tapestry:
'Some are charcoal sketches on vellum, mostly palimpsests showing blurred ghosts of their previous uses beneath the fresh drawings, others are painted in linen but unframed, their raw edges curled and fraying. So striking are they, so alive in the warm, flickering, uncertain light, that Gytha [another form of Aelgyva] is indignant at the careless way they have been pinned up, a prey to dust and light, or the first gust of wind strong enough to rip them from the walls. They make little sense to her, showing scenes as varied as ploughing and ship building, the preparation for a banquet, a hunting party, a farmer among his vines, but it scarcely maters. They have, not beauty exactly, but a sense of authenticity... Peering at the images as they shimmer into view, she can smell the turned earth, hear the sucking, sighing waves and the hammering of shipwrights, taste the grapes, the way the sweet juice bursts into the back of your mouth when you press the fruit between tongue and teeth until the skin splits.'
Or this, the great feast given for Odo's birthday:
'This is a nightmare, a dream of excess of the sort you might fall prey to if you go to bed hungry. There is too much of everything, not a square inch of the bleached linen spread over the high table that isn't covered by a dish of food. Venison haunches marinated in red wine with cloves, fowl stuffed teasingly one inside the other, starting with swans and bustards, ending with ortolans and quails, squirrels' legs fried in sweet batter and pasties of songbirds crowned with tiny, gilded beaks. There are wild boar, and tame rabbits kept in cupboards in the kitchen, force fed herbs and corn. Dishes of peas in cream and parsnips stewed with saffron, dried figs and apricots from Aquitaine washed down with sweet muscat from Provence...'
The novel is like this through and through. Languid and deliberate in its telling, vivid and tangible in its world-building. Characters are similarly well-made, composite pieces and shown rather than told. Aelfgyva is herself a palimpsest of sorts, wrought out by a loveless first marriage and by four children dead in infancy, by her experiences of the Saxon court and of prostitution. She is constantly seeking herself out:
'Where am I, she asks herself, where am I? Who is this woman with gold in her hair and the eyes of a mermaid? She looks for herself for a long time... But there are so many selves. Peeping through the legs of the adults is the little girl growing up on oysters and fishhead broth, the silver black estuary... dream princesses, virgin-skinned witches with wits honed like shark's teeth. Here is the bride wreathed with ivy and almond blossoms, carried to her bridegroom's house...and here the young wife, earnest, hardworking, awkward and disappointed in her husband's arms. The mother she will not look at, nor the ghosts whose tiny hands clutch at her skirts. Here is the lay sister sewing her tears into altar clothes, and here she dresses her lady for love, taking her time... The whore... And backwards, and forwards, to the dark woman of Odo's deams. That is all she is, why her reflection wavers and fades in front of her as though she is watching herself drown. She is Odo's dream.'
She is violently self-aware: aware of how her sexuality simultaneously weakens and strengthens her social position, of how precarious her status as Odo's mistress really is, of how vulnerable women generally are and of how narrow their scope of influence. The novel is populated with women in similarly difficult situations - Judith, a Saxon widow pleading with Odo for her mere subsistence and the lives of her grandsons; Margaret and Alwys, unmarriagable twins; Emma, a mute who suffers from epileptic spasms; Agatha, Odo's sister and a nun not out of choice but out of necessity; the Countess of Mortain, barren and put-aside; and the Conqueror's own wife, Matilda, caught between the rivalries of her husband and sons', virtually imprisoned in Rouen. Bowers has an excellent grasp of the bonds of kinship, obligation, religion and biology that bind these women together, and of how they're complicated by the Conquest itself.
Similarly, she understands the bonds of vassalage and fealty that exist between Odo, his brothers, his allies and his enemies. Odo is deliciously drawn, a man of 'vices mingled with virtues' as Orderic Vitalis would have it in his (broadly contemporary) Ecclesiastical History. He is at once a compassionate lover, father and loyal brother, and a harsh master. His justice is brusque and his temper is short; he thinks nothing of destroying villages or striking a woman; he kicks his dog and accepts rape as a consequence of war. He is absolutely a man (and a bishop) of the eleventh century, a product of his education in the Church and of his position in the social hierarchy - ambitious, ruthless and acquisitive, but human. At no point does Bower give into the temptation to make him a 'modern' man - so many male leads in historical romance are 'ahead of their time', incongruously sentimental and feminist. He loves Aelfgyva but is, at times, despicable and unthinking, just as she is, at times, submissive and credulous. He is realistically torn between his love for God, for power, for his brother and for his mistress.
Finally though, it is the way The Needle in the Blood stays true to the spirit of its endeavour that beguiles me. The way it seeks to evoke its period and the way it maintains its characters in context, the way it wears its research lightly and heavily at the same time, the way it makes no concessions to the cliches of its romance plot. The way it alienates and then reconciles its readers to the difficult themes of the eleventh century and of the Conquest. Truly, if there is such a thing as a good medieval historical romance, this is it.
*What this plot seeks to do is 'explain' one of the most disputed images on the Tapestry, the one subtitled Ubi unus clericus et Aelgyva and featuring a tonsured man caressing/slapping an English woman:
The image is mysterious for any number of reasons - because of where it appears in the narrative, because Aelfgyva is a common English name, because of the suggestive sexual image in the margin below it and because of the ambiguity of the priest's action - and has proved intractable. For years commentators have been suggusting that Aelfgyva is the subject of a sexual scandal of the day and have identified her as various high ranking Englishwomen, although none are satisfactory. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the image is a simple metaphor for the Norman chastisement of the English. Personally I think this problematic - true, the Tapestry is full of metaphor but no other scene is purely metaphorical and it is principally dedicated to action. I think Bower's explanation is neatly satisfying, if entirely unlikely.