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on 4 July 2013
There are books that you want to finish at one go - the ones you want to race through the pages so that you will find out how the story ends. Then there are books that you want to savour - the ones you want to read slowly and enjoy every turn of the page, every single word, and every carefully placed punctuation mark, whilst trying to delay the inevitable end and feeling that you have lost a good friend. Carol McGrath's delightful The Handfasted Wife offers both of these reading experiences. Written in compelling prose, the book adroitly weaves the events of the precarious time to human life, the Norman conquest, into a rich tapestry and brings to life the story of Edith Swan-Neck, the handfasted wife of King Harold, from the few sources available.
The Handfasted Wife is an incredibly well-researched book; it is steeped in the past, but it carries the weight of history lightly, just as a good historical novel should. The characters are drawn deftly and convincingly and you learn to love them. Without giving anything away, if I had to pick a favourite character, it would be, apart from the protagonist and the other remarkable women of the story, Padar, that wandering skald, who also turns out to be a warrior. To me, he is the nexus between the Vikings and the English, one of the intriguing characters that allows McGrath to give life to the multifaceted society of the eleventh century. Those who have knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon culture, enjoy spotting the many references to Old English poems and other cultural references. I personally relished the scene with Beowulf!
I recommend The Handfasted Wife whole-heartedly to all fans of historical novels as well as to those interested in Anglo-Saxon period. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was sorry when the book came to an end, but I am comforted in the fact that the story continues in the next instalment with Gunnhild. I cannot wait!
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on 19 December 2013
Exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, 'The Handfasted Wife' takes a poignant look at the lives of some of the leading women affected by the power politics and turmoil at the time of the Norman Conquest. The novel has an original focus on Edith (Elditha) Swanneck, the love-wife of Harold Godwinson, last Anglo Saxon King of England, a lady who is set aside when her husband is crowned with devastating consequences for her and her children. 'The Handfasted Wife' deals sensitively with the effect of war on women at a time when they had little control over their destinies, and with conflicts in faith and tradition when Christianity was supplanting Paganism. A story as finely worked as a precious tapestry; one for anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages or who enjoys sound biographical fiction.
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on 3 December 2013
Intended to be the first of a trilogy this is the story of Edith who was married to Harold Godwineson the last Saxon King of England who was killed at the Battle of Hastings. They were married according to a Danish, non Christian, rite and though the relationship was a happy one and they had several children after Harold became King in the early part of 1066 he married another lady in a Christian ceremony. This is a superb historical novel telling the story of Edith and her family in the months before the Battle of Hastings and the years afterwards. It really brings the period to life. Very highly recommended.
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on 11 May 2014
This novel interweaves fact and fiction to bring to life not only a pivotal time in British history but also a perspective that I wish we had more of in history: that of the women. I was so fascinated by the former that I had to keep setting the book down to research more about those times, and was so moved by the latter that I had to look up even more. McGrath has successfully recreated the setting, the lives and the difficulties that beset the Godwin women after King Harold Godwinsson was killed at the battle of Hastings.

The story builds slowly, showing the background for why he set aside his `handfasted' wife for a political marriage, and the kind of prejudices that his first wife, Elditha (the main character) encountered. But it quickly builds as war approaches. We are spared the horrific battle, but from there on in, the action builds as we are plunged into the grief of loss as well as the fight for survival and for her children that Elditha and others like her endured.

I was especially taken by how Danish, Irish, English and Norman themes are interwoven, reflecting the way people of that era actually lived and how they perceived each other. So different from dry history books! And had I been more patient, many of the questions I wanted to ask were answered in McGrath's postscript. Best of all, I understand that there are more books about the Godwin women on their way!
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on 28 September 2014
I loved the premise of this novel, and of the series: the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the women of the Saxon royal family. This one deals with Elditha Swanneck, King Harold's 'handfasted wife' and mother of his six children, who was put aside on the eve of the Battle of Hastings so he could make a political marriage.
The fairytale-sounding opening chapter promised something really different, and after that you get a very good idea of what life could have been like in 1066 (for women at the top of the feudal system, at least).
Unfortunately it takes more than a lot of research and some meticulous scene setting for these long-ago events to come alive: this story needed a big injection of emotion to make the characters and their relationships seem real. These women have lost everything, their husbands and sons are all dead or in exile, yet I was left completely dry-eyed as I plodded through some very dull journeys. In places it read more like a modern translation of a contemporary chronicle than a novel.
It's a blank canvas, after all, so she could have done all sorts of things with it. What a wasted opportunity.
But I didn't begrudge the bargain price, and I'll probably try the next in the series to see if it improves.
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on 27 September 2013
I don't really know what to think about this novel (not a great start to a review, I realise). I really want to like it, and I did enjoy reading it, but I'm not sure it entirely found its feet.
For a start, it's a fascinating story - the handfasted wife of King Harold, her place usurped by a church-wed wife in a marriage of political convenience - is forced to make the best of it she can at a time of great upheaval, as the Normans invade and the country is turned upside down by their unstoppable force. Her husband killed at the Battle of Hastings, she has her fair share of derring-do as she struggles for her own survival and that of her children.

So far, so good. A great premise for a story. And clearly very thoroughly researched, which made for interesting reading. I did wonder if perhaps the grittier realities of the Saxon times were rather airbrushed over - there did seem to be lots of fine cloth, clean linen, and delicious food and not a lot of smell, smoke, fleas and animal dung. But I suppose this story was dealing with the upper echelons of society so that's forgivable.

In her notes the author excuses filling in the gaps in the known story of Edith Swanneck, because, as she rightly says, this is meant to be a historical novel and not a work of history. However, I think in working so hard to recreate the history as accurately as possible, she might have lost sight of that sometimes. Ultimately I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for creating real, expressive characters with whom the reader can identify - they all seemed pretty one-dimensional. Eldytha's (and others) emotional responses to traumatic events were barely explored - occasionally she wipes a tear away with her sleeve and says a fervent prayer, but so much more could have been done in this respect that would have lifted the work beyond merely interesting, and made it emotionally involving too. Interactions between characters suffered from the same lack of dramatic interest.

Nonetheless, it's worth reading, it's quite a gripping story and nice to see a historical novel tackle the period from a woman's perspective.

PS, if the publishers read this for heaven's sake remind your copy editors of the difference between 'sliver' and 'slither'. Reading about 'a slither of mandrake root' and 'a slither of the true cross' made me want to howl!
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on 4 March 2014
I am an avid reader of historical novels but couldn't finish this one. I found the text very slow and in many places there is just too much detail and a lot of repetitiion (e.g why she couldn't have a church wedding). I am sure this is exceptionally well researched, but it did not sustain my interest. I stopped reading about half way through when I realised that I just didn't care what happened to the characters.
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on 28 June 2014
It was so good to read a historical novel NOT based in Tudor Times! This story is about the first wife of King Harold who was defeated at the battle of Hastings in 1066.
While a lot of the novel is based on true facts, the story is fictional.
Harold and his first wife were happily 'handfasted' in other words happily married in the old traditional ways without benefit of the church. However when he became king the church had taken hold and he was persuaded that he should marry'properly' for political reasons, even though he had children with his first wife.
Nothing is known of what happened to her afterwards and this novel endeavours to give a fictional answer, whilst using true facts known.
I loved reading about this period in history as it is greatly neglected in a good novel and I look forward to more of the same by the author.
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on 28 July 2014
Apart from the author's inability to distinguish between slither and sliver this novel is well written (in my opinion). The story, although loosely based on fact, is set around the time of the Norman Conquest. I ordered a sample and then carried on to buy the whole thing. If you are looking for an interesting, not too taxing, holiday read then I suggest you download a sample first. That way you won't waste your money if it's not your cup of tea. Edit 15.08.2014: I have been contacted by the author who assures me she has amended the errors. It's nice to know that authors care too.
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on 9 December 2015
Fiction and history are woven together almost seamlessly. Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings, but this novel brings the period to life.I was hooked from beginning to end - so much so, that I have purchased the other 2 books in the series.
It is a fascinating period of history, but we know so little about it. I now feel I know a little more.
I appreciated the short excerpts from translations of The Saxon Chronicles and other sources from the time.They were an excellent authentication of the author`s interpretation of the events and added colour to the story.I was also appreciative of the author`s notes at the end of the book, which differentiate between the real and fictional characters and events.
But do not mistake this for a history book - It is most definitely a novel - and paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of 1066 and its` devastating
effect on the whole defeated populace.
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