The Handfasted Wife

Written by Carol McGrath
Review by Sarah Bower

As we all know, the year 1066 was an eventful one. The struggle for the Crown triggered by the death of Edward the Confessor is familiar, but less well known is how the turbulence affected the women caught up in it. Occasionally we are vouchsafed a glimpse of an “official” woman – a queen, a princess. But what of the “unofficial” women, in this case the mistress, or handfasted wife, of Harold Godwinson, conveniently put aside when he becomes king and needs to make a strategic match?

This is the point at which McGrath’s story enters the life of Edith (or Elditha) Swan Neck, whose greatest claim to fame is having identified Harold’s mutilated body on the battlefield of Hastings. Onto the largely blank canvas of Elditha’s life, McGrath embroiders a lyrical tale of loving, losing, and coping with it. This assured debut is not dramatic but low-key and poignant, as Elditha, with stoic and almost bloody-minded dignity, presides over the round of sowing and harvest, potting and preserving, making and mending, which is her lot as mistress of several large estates. McGrath’s research into the medieval quotidian is superb, and beautifully translated into a pastoral fiction in the tradition of Hardy.

Like Hardy, she manages, with deceptive charm, to convey a brutal message about women’s lot. Everything in this novel, like a Greek tragedy, happens off-stage. Elditha is compelled to acquiesce in her lover’s decisions about their children, to wait in forlorn impotence for his rare visits, to repress her emotional life beneath layers of domestic routine. She is wealthy and well-connected, but without agency. This theme runs like a spine of feminist steel through the novel, making it much more than a good read.