The Swan Daughter

Written by Carol McGrath
Review by Tom Williams

It’s 1075. Eighteen-year-old Gunnhild, King Harold’s daughter, is living in a nunnery. She has no wish to be a nun: she is a princess and would rather wed a knight and have the life a princess should. So when Count Alan offers to elope with her, she accepts. But does he love her, or does he just want the lands that she will inherit?

Carol McGrath follows the story of Gunnhild’s marriage. Alan, it seems, does not really love Gunnhild. Both Alan and Gunnhild seek romantic love elsewhere: Alan with the wife of one of his servants, Gunnhild with Alan’s brother.

McGrath’s research is thorough, and her account of castle life is convincing. However, things are seen through the filter of 14th-century notions of chivalric life. While McGrath is generally careful about the reality of the 11th century, Gunnhild’s attitudes often seem rather more what a 14th-century author might have attributed to her. The knights have glistening armour, and the occasional breastplate slips through.

None of this is to take away from McGrath’s substantial achievement. She brings the 11th century alive, packing in a wealth of well-researched detail. Her style is easy to read, and her Gunnhild is a rounded and sympathetic character. If the story sometimes slips into a more romantic interpretation of the past, it has been in good company for seven hundred years. In the end, can we ever know how an 11th-century woman thought? McGrath’s heroine is believable to a modern reader, and her environment should satisfy a historical fiction enthusiast. That makes this a thoroughly worthwhile read.