Mainly, this is a book review of part of my summer reading, Hereward by James Wilde, loaned to me by a colleague with a warning that it was probably historically suspect. It is a thriller, set in history, and follows a pretty formulaic pattern through a poorly understood and poorly known period in English history. Heck, in British history. No, World history. Anyway, I shall be attempting to plumb the depths of that here.
Would you like to know more?
James Wilde sells himself as a historian with an ancestral pile and a deep connection to Mercia and its history. Already my alarm bells were ringing. Why? Well, Mercia was no longer a kingdom by the time of his novel's setting and, from what I can glean from other sources, this had little effect in the lives of ordinary people. Secondly, he is no historian, he has read three books (no, and he's proud to have read so many) based on the kind of right-wing narrative history that was popular in the '50s and '60s and is seeing a resurgence in these straitened times as people search for meaning and reassurance that the Great remains in the name of the country.
And so we begin. It is trashy-thriller stuff, reminiscent of such literary luminaries as Sten and The Last Ace by Henry Zeybel. It's cheap and sets up fights and sex as being the main issues that will be dealt with. There's plots, subterfuge and politics but these are not the parts that vex Mr Wilde, if it can't be stabbed, thrust or cause gouts of crimson (and it's always crimson) blood then he's really not bothered and doesn't believe you will be either. There are linguistic bones thrown in the direction of actual historical accuracy but these are isolated and very poorly understood. Thus we have a Cymri princess as a slave who is powerless before the rippled muscles of the eponymous protagonist, witches that spit bile at the Church who is peopled with weak-willed subservient fools out to burn witches.
A historical note here to explain my ire at this point. One: women in pre-Conquest England occupied a position of equality unrivalled until modern times and, in many ways, better off socially. When married they were given land by their husbands and had the social and political power that went with that land. They could refuse marriage if they didn't like the match, suggest their own and maintain political roles at virtually any level. Slaves, especially female ones, were simply servants who weren't paid. There was nothing much else to denote slavery as we would understand it - essentially slaves could not pass on property to their children. Interestingly, most children were not automatically slaves if born to slaves and could be given land by the owners of the slaves who bore them.
Two: witches. By the eleventh century the New Ways of Christianity were pretty much accepted by most people in the British Isles, there would be vanishingly few who clung to the Old Gods or the Old Ways. This was a time when the Church was out for feasts and festivals and appropriated, by design or by gift, the ceremonies existing in locales. So a local saint might be substituted (mainly by locals rather than deliberate Church oversight) for an Old God or just because it was a time when they have a piss-up.
Three: politically, the feudal system did not exist. There was loyalty to one's thegn, one's king and one's ham but not to a nation or anything like that. Most anglisc would have been hard pressed to explain what the difference was between anglisc or ingenga beyond the concept that one was of a Ham or known to be from a nearby ham or not. Thus the 'nobility' weren't as we understand them. They fell in and out of favour, in and out of wealth, and in and out of power with a slick ease not really seen since. Socially mobility was, it appears, pretty easy if one had the desire but most did not. Why? Well, the augurs seem to be that the Britain pre-Conquest was well known as being a place of plenty and had the time and the inclination to produce some of the best art in the world at the time. This fact Mr Wilde knows but does not understand why.
So it is that the book becomes a fight, then a fight, then a fight, some sex, some fighting, sex, fighting, almost-sex, fainting women, fight, fight, politics, fight, witch, fight, anti-Christian, fight, anti-Church, fight, sex, denouement.
The galling thing? The last chapter or two are actually quite good. Once we hit the meat of the book there is a better awareness of the history, Mr Wilde writes a decent post-Conquest political shift and understands the feudal system quite well. What I want to know is why it took so long and why he didn't make more of the huge social difference between the invading Normans and the anglisc they conquered. It's a shame that such a good ending of the novel follows such tripe in the first place. I mean, it can't have been that bad, I did read iyt all the way through after all, and I am considering reading the next in the series.
I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I'm loathe to recommend it as there is much better fiction based in the post-Conquest world, I'm thinking of The Wake, and there is much more interest in the actual history rather than the almost pornographic and modern-thinking version that Mr Wilde masturbates to. By the same token, it is trashy fiction and, sometimes, that's all you want. On that basis, this is a bit like Bond with swords and Vikings. If that's your bag, then I can say you will enjoy this, so long as you don't decide that this is the history or even well-researched, because then I shall have to have words with you, esol.