History and Science and Twists of Magic: Dark Earth, by Rebecca Stott
BY LEE ANN ECKHARDT SMITH
Under the remains of medieval London lies the once great Roman city of Londinium. The Romans abandoned this northernmost trading post around 420 AD, and for reasons unknown, it remained empty for over 400 years before it was reoccupied.
These were the early years of the “Dark Ages,” so called because we know so little about the period. In her latest novel, Dark Earth (Random House, 2022), author Rebecca Stott creates a world from what little archaeological evidence is available.
“The gaps were so much bigger than in any other period I had chosen to write about before,” she says. “There are no historical manuscripts, only fragments of archaeological finds.” One such fragment was a Saxon brooch, found in 1968 in the compacted earth (“the dark earth”) that now blankets the buried remains of Londinium. This brooch was one of the triggers for writing the novel. Stott describes her mind racing: “A Saxon woman walks over the fallen roof tiles of a Roman bathhouse in a ruined city and drops a brooch?”
She quickly realized how challenging it was going to be to learn what life was like for women in the Dark Ages. “Almost all the (otherwise very impressive) history and archaeological books I read to start with seemed to be focussed entirely on men: men’s lives, men’s problems, men’s worlds,” she reports. “Sometimes it felt that, from the perspective of these books at least, there were no women on the planet. I was astonished to start with because I had so many questions about women.”
Through the development of her female characters in this ancient time, Stott explores the theme of how we make our destinies. “I did a lot of research into the world views and beliefs of the 6th century in Britain,” she explains, “and of course there were so many world views and beliefs, not just one, just as there are so many now. We don’t absolutely know what the native Britons believed any more than we know what the incoming tribes from across the water believed, or those native Britons who had been Romanised under the Roman occupation.” She was struck, though, by how many of these belief systems included a version of what we might call ‘the Fates’. “This seemed to stress working with what the gods threw you,” she explains, “looking for ‘signs’ of guidance from the gods in the natural world around you but also using them to make your own path and decide what is right.”
In Dark Earth, Stott explores another theme, which she says recurs in both her work and her life. “Science and mystery, I think, go hand in hand,” she says. “They are not opposites. When I started reading about scientific advances and discoveries, in our age and in previous ages, I was struck by how many scientists expressed wonder: about how much we still didn’t know, or how the new knowledge or research they had conducted only opened up new and fascinating mysteries.”
There are also recurring references and images in the book about the patient process of the Earth reclaiming itself over time, obliterating even great man-made alterations like the stone city of Londinium. Stott credits her daughter for the insight that there are “great forces at work in the universe that are much more mysterious and ancient than humans and will outlive us.” Virginia Woolf was another influence regarding this idea. In her book, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth Press, 1929), Woolf described another great city of stone, Cambridge. “In her walk through the city,” Stott says, “Woolf remembers the marsh that lies beneath its stones, where once the ‘swine rootled’. The implication of her beautiful passage is that the marsh will take the land back, that it will rise again.”
To tackle the challenges she faced with writing Dark Earth, Stott relied on “the same old questions that have fired me in all of my work. What woke them at night? How did they see the world through their eyes, beliefs, feelings? How did they make decisions? What mysteries vexed them? How did they go about their days, pray, make sense of death and grief in their lives, find hope? So I kept true to those questions even though I was out of my depth.”
As a writer, Stott reveals, “I have learned to trust the questions that drive and move me. And if I stick to those particular questions, and the material that fascinates me, I have become more confident that I will find a way to something new and interesting.”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith’s passion for history and storytelling has driven her writing career. She is the author of two acclaimed non-fiction history books: Strength Within: the Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005) and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She’s written articles for many magazines and newspapers, primarily about how to write family history and memoir. She is currently working on her fourth collection of photographs and poetry, inspired by the beauty she finds in her everyday world. Find out more at her website.