The defeat of Troy by the Greek armies – historical fiction at its best
Historical novel set in Wales, plus author interview
16th October 2016
CONQUEST: Daughter of the Last King, by Tracey Warr, historical novel set in Wales at the turn of the 11th Century.
I remember vaguely from school history lessons drawing a motte and bailey, a castle essentially situated on a fortified hill. As a child I rather struggled to imagine from a 20th Century perspective what life might have been like 9 or so centuries ago. And therefore I was immediately struck by the detailed drawing at the beginning of the book, together with helpful family trees that set the scene for the period and place.
As the story opens Nest is a young girl, the daughter of the last independent Welsh king, who is captured by the Normans and taken to their lair in Cardiff, imprisoned in the motte. Here she is watched over by heavily pregnant Sybil de Montgommery, sister to Arnulf, who it seems led the attack on Nest’s home at Llansteffan, imprisoning and killing her family members.
In her new abode, Nest must learn Norman, in other words an early form of French. It is more than frowned upon to speak Welsh, and she must find her feet.
There is much political intrigue, both women and men plot and scheme to their own ends, it is a period of upheaval and danger. What is to become of Nest, where does her future lie? Will she be rescued? Whom will she marry?
The sons of William the Conqueror fight with each other for control of the Anglo-Norman kingdom which serves to underline the precarious nature of the peoples, each vying for control. Nest, an astute young woman, has to straddle the warring sides, hone her loyalties and her resolve is tested as she tries to maintain control over her own destiny – and being a woman, that is a hugely difficult thing to achieve.
The detail of daily life of the period seems so well researched – imagine the hand washing of clothes and bedding that must have happened, and factor in weighty woollen blankets and garments; locusts have been brought from the southern lands as a memento and their bug eyes beadily watch the goings-on in the household. The guards keep a watchful eye, sentries are stationed at intervals to keep those inside safe – it all feels redolent of the period.
The writing in the novel flows smoothly, it was a pleasure to read and provides a real sense of the echoes of footsteps past.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
And over to Tracey who talks to us about locale…
I’ve so far written three historical novels, all set in the early medieval era (10th – 12th centuries) and ranging geographically across locations in Catalonia, southern France, southern Wales and England. They are all places where I have lived or travelled, and my writing is very much generated by an immersion in places. In my new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, for instance, the triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay plays a significant role in the experiences of the heroine, Princess Nest. I spent weeks walking along parts of that estuary, visiting the Norman castles strung along it, steeping myself in the place, stewing the writing.
The early middle ages feels a long way from us, nevertheless there are some things that have not changed utterly across that time: landscapes, seascapes, seasons, weather, bird, animal and plant life, human emotions (although there have been some changes, of course).
The castles in south west Wales are especially resonant with the turbulent history Nest found herself caught up in. She was a potent symbol for both sides of the struggle between the Welsh and the invading Normans and has been dubbed the Welsh Helen of Troy. Llansteffan, Cilgerran, Carew, Pembroke, Cardigan castles all played a part in her colourful life story. And her sister-in-law, Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd ap Cynan, led a Welsh army against the Norman castle at Kidwelly and died there with one of her sons.
My novels are concerned with dispelling too easy stereotypes of medieval women as powerless, illiterate, breeders. There is some truth to that stereotype, but there are also complications and anomalies. I read medieval chronicles and recent accounts by historians, but places and objects play at least an equal role in stirring my imagination. My novels are a weave of researched historical evidence and imagining in the gaps in the evidence. I often transpose my own contemporary experiences into this imagined medieval world, for example merging the real Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer for the fictional island occupied by Vikings in my second novel, The Viking Hostage, or remembering seeing a couple parting at a bus stop in Oxford for a scene where a French medieval countess parts from her illicit lover at Narbonne Harbour in the 11th century, in my first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver.
Travelling through places, walking, looking around us, we can see the history that those places have seen if we look and listen hard enough.
Thank you to Tracey, so interesting to read.
You can follow Tracey on Twitter.
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