The Whispering Bell
In Anglo-Saxon Mercia at the time of King Penda’s wars, the orphan Wynflaed is taken in and raised by a kindly thegn and his family. Upon her marriage to the son of a wealthy landowner, she is given an abandoned lead mine as a “morning gift”. Clever and practical, Wynflaed makes a success of the mine, thus attracting the jealousy of Rendil, her brother-in-law, who covets the silver by-product of the lead. When her beloved husband is reported killed in battle, Rendil strikes. Falsely accused of adultery and treason, Wynflaed is driven into exile and has her children taken from her. She endures slavery, rape and appalling hardship in her fight for justice.
In his first novel, Sellars presents a detailed, fascinating picture of 7th century England. The Peakland landscapes in all seasons are lovingly described as is the daily life of the thegns, freemen and slaves. He has peopled this landscape with an excellent array of female characters, both high and low. That the women are so much more colourful than the rather dull men is a slight weakness in the novel. Wynflaed herself is a more than feisty match for her various antagonists. She is perhaps not entirely a 7th century creation but not too irritating a 21st century one either. The language combines the colloquially modern with fake but convincingly earthy “Anglo-Saxonisms”—a wife as “cold as a frog’s tit” was a personal favourite.
This is a really excellent read, a page-turner that also gives a vivid and convincing portrait of Mercian England.