A recent interview by Dame Hilary Mantel, of Wolf Hall fame, has generated a number of discussions in the historical fiction community on how women have been portrayed in the past. Dame Mantel went on to say women writers who write about women in the past “can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.”
The discussion got me thinking about Æthelflæd, daughter of King Albert of Wessex, who led an army of Mercians into Wales. I first learned about Æthelflæd by reading the novel To Be a Queen, written by Annie Whitehead. I loved her portrayal of Æthelflæd and found her to possess leadership and a natural strength.
I’ve asked Annie to drop by and talk to us about Æthelflæd and how she gave her a voice. Welcome Annie…
In her speech, Dame Mantel also said, “Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale. They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.” How have you given Æthelflæd a voice?
Annie: As I’ll explain later, I wasn’t initially drawn to her as a subject, but I soon realised that here was a remarkable woman whose story has seldom been told, certainly not in a full-length novel. She had been silenced, but only because of the bias of what little documentary evidence we have for her. Thus, simply by writing her story, I gave her a voice. I didn’t set out deliberately to empower a woman from history, more to write a story about a period which has been overlooked. The fact that she was a de facto queen at a time when women were not usually permitted to be rulers, was such an interesting story that it needed to be told.
Æthelflæd led an army of Mercians so it’s hard not to see her as a warrior queen, and yet is she? Would you consider her empowered and if not why/why not?
Annie: It’s a really interesting question. It’s easy, I suppose, for historians to imagine what life was like in the past. We know about the politics, and about the costumes, cutlery, crockery, diet, and mode of transport for most eras. However, do we always consider the prevalent mindset of the day? As novelists, we have to flesh out the characters, make them whole, give them emotions – these things don’t jump out at us from the chronicles, so that’s where our imagination is best utilised. In so doing, though, do we project our own sensibilities onto our characters?
Writing historical fiction gives us licence to read between the lines, and fill in the gaps. But we must be mindful of those gaps: do we have any direct evidence that Æthelflæd wielded a sword? She led an army into Wales, yes, and we infer that she defended Chester from Viking siege, but I suspect that she was, in truth, a nominal leader, a figurehead. I doubt that she was ever taught to fight, (hence the reluctance: mine to show her fighting, and hers in having to do it!) and it is probably best to view her as a peace-weaver, that is to say a woman of extreme political importance, yes, but a woman of her time, nevertheless.
What were women’s roles like in Saxon England? Did they have a voice? What power if any did they wield? How did that shape your Æthelflæd?
Annie: Most women had a fair say in what happened to them. There were written laws which protected the rights of women – widows in particular – and a document which we think dates from around this period states that “If a man wishes to betroth a maiden or a widow, and it so pleases her and her kinsmen…” suggesting that the woman herself had to accept the suitor before the betrothal could proceed. Women owned land, and were free to dispose of it in any manner they saw fit. Yes, this applies only to the nobility, but female servants and/or slaves were mentioned, and to an extent protected, in the law codes.
Æthelflæd’s situation was unusual, of course, in that she was the daughter of a king. But I think that I knew, when writing about her, that she was far from the down-trodden, ‘chattel’ that we perhaps have become used to when thinking about early medieval women. The main difference for her, of course, was that she was destined for a diplomatic marriage. I knew, as she did, that duty would have to come first.
What inspired you to write about Æthelflæd?
Annie: I was initially more interested in her enigmatic husband, introduced to me by my university tutor, who told me that ‘nobody knows exactly where he came from.’ And it’s true. He wasn’t royalty, and yet the Mercians were happy to be led by him and Alfred was happy to treat with him. He must have been possessed of some very unusual qualities. When it came to writing historical fiction, however, the story of his wife just jumped up, begging to be told. The daughter of a king, a queen in all but name, yet virtually erased from the history books? I simply couldn’t not write it. And I was amazed that no-one else had! CB: I have to say, I really enjoyed the depth you gave to Æthelred.
What were some of your challenges in writing Æthelflæd?
Annie: What I said before, really – that she was virtually erased from the history books. Generally as one goes through the Anglo-Saxon period, the body of extant material grows larger. A king in the 6th or 7th century will be mentioned in very few texts and charters. As we move towards the time of the Conquest, the written material expands. Yet there is very little about Æthelflæd, less still about her husband. Why? A lot of it will have been burned; the Viking armies damaged Mercia more so than Wessex and we will never know how much was lost. Another factor is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our main source of information, was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks from Wessex. Their job was to ‘big-up’ Alfred, not his allies…
The other challenge might have been that which lies at the heart of this discussion, I suppose: how to portray a woman who was exceptional for her time, and yet keep her firmly in her time? I have to admit that it actually wasn’t a huge challenge. It never occurred to me to paint her as anything but an Anglo-Saxon lady, and I simply told her story as best I could. I do think she was remarkable; she must have been, in order to inspire an erstwhile kingdom to follow her and allow her to be their leader. Yet she was always going to be restricted by the world in which she lived, and I pictured her as a dignified woman, rather than a feisty one. She was a princess – not that they used that word – and I simply never saw her as any kind of ‘tomboy’. I think all her strength and spirit came from within, and manifested itself in a quiet resolve. What little we do know about her life reveals her to be brave, dutiful, and resourceful. Knowing this, I was able to write her as a strong character without artificially ‘empowering’ her.
I think this is why I was drawn to Æthelflæd right from the opening pages–she had inner strength and put her duty before her own desires.
Thank you, Annie, for dropping by and sharing your thoughts of this great lady. For those who are interested in the Anglo Saxon era, I highly recommend To Be A Queen.
Annie Whitehead is an author and historical, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. As well as To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, she has written Alvar the Kingmaker, which begins with a tenth century royal scandal and ends with regicide. She contributed to an anthology of alternative stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, and her third novel, also set in Mercia, is scheduled for release later this year. She is a contributor for a forthcoming anthology for Pen & Sword Books, and she is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.