Saturday 14 October 2017

G.K. Holloway: 1066 (2014)

Edition: Troubadour, 2014
Review number: 1509

What book could be more appropriate to review on 14th October, the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings!

1066 is clearly the defining date in British history, the one year everyone knows. It is probably the most important single date in English history. And it is also the end of a long series of complex events in English history, with roots in the renewed Viking attacks on England almost a century earlier. On top of this, the surviving contemporary documentation of what happened is scanty by modern standards, and some of the events as well as the details of characterisation are either disputed or recorded by biased sources. All of this makes the events of the year a challenging subject for a historical novel.

How as G.K. Holloway approached it? Well, for a start, neither the main title or what looks like a subtitle are entirely accurate. Holloway's narrative begins many years earlier than 1066, and doesn't reach that year until about two thirds of the way through the book. I would also have said that what happened during the year year is perhaps more driven by personalities than many historical events (particularly those of Edward the Confessor, Harold and William of Normandy). Despite the choice of quotation, Holloway's writing does suggest that these played a huge part - fates imposed remarkably little. (The source, by the way, is the moment in Shakespeare's Henry VI when Edward IV is offered the crown of the deposed Henry; another king overthrown by force, four hundred years or so later than Harold). Making the novel not quite as expected from the cover is not a big problem, though.

1066 is told from an apparently neutral third party perspective, as though it were a documentary - far more detailed, of course, than a historian could be with the available sources. Where sources disagree, or where they are biased or disputed by modern scholars, this means that Holloway has had to make a decision. So, for instance, the fictional version of Harold is killed by the arrow in the eye, though some historians would argue that the depiction in the Bayeux tapestry is at least ambiguous. More seriously, I find the character of Edward the Confessor not entirely convincing - the sources for this are works aimed at promoting the campaign to make him a saint, which are not going to present a rounded picture of an individual and which definitely use ambiguous word choices to do this (he is described a chaste using a Latin word which could either mean virginal - an important qualification for sainthood - or faithful within marriage, for instance). Holloway has clearly done a lot of work on researching the background, but it seems to me to be more trusting in the original sources than modern scholars think they deserve. Given the need to make choices, this is not entirely problematic, but a reader who has come across some of the debates will find it a little frustrating. I feel that the third party neutral narrative was a wrong choice; a first person account from an incidental figure (or multiple figures) might well have worked better.

The most important negative aspect for me in 1066 was the unleavened unpleasantness of the characters.  The men are mostly thugs or devious troublemakers, or  worse; the women are sex toys or helpless political pawns (with two exceptions, Harold's common law wife Eadgyth, and William's wife Matilda). There are some very unpleasant passages involving rape, torture and murder. To a large extent, this reflects the realities of life in eleventh century Europe, but it does become somewhat unrelenting. This was the main problem I had with the book, it was at times a chore to read.

However, there are many positive aspects to 1066. One difficulty with writing this novel is the large number of events which need to be described and put into context; here, Holloway succeeds admirably. It is easy to follow what's going on and who is who. The clear writing style helps with this, too. Of course, the astonishing events of the year make for a memorable tale. While this review may have spent more time on the negative aspects of the novel, they are outweighed in my opinion by the positive. My rating: 6/10.