Towards the end of last year I was very taken with a historical novel by an author who wrote under the name Bryher. ‘The Player’s Boy’ was a beautifully written, perfectly evoked, story of one young actor in Jacobean England. Even before I put the book down I knew that I would be seeking out more of Bryher’s work.
As I investigated I found mixed reactions to her memoirs, but much praise for her novels. The Cornish Library Service has quite a few in reserve stock, and when I saw ‘This January Tale’ it seemed only right to place my order so that I could read it at the right time of year.
I am so glad I did, because it really is a gem.
History records that in 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings to become King of England, but it has less to say about what that meant to ordinary people. ‘This January Tale’ tells their story, tells what it was like to see a foreign army invade and drive across the land, what it was like to live in fear of losing what little they had, the only way of life they knew.
Eldred had been loyal to King Harold, and he had been a soldier in his army until injury forced him out. When that happened he returned to his home in Exeter, he established himself as a smith and he took a wife.
It wasn’t a love match for Elfreda. But she had been burned by love before, and she knew that Eldred was a good man who would look after her and her daughter. And that she could be a good wife to him, looking after his home and his comfort.
But Goda, her daughter was a problem. She wasn’t a bad child, but she missed her father and resented her step-father.
The people of Exeter watched, fearfully, as Norman forces spread across the country. They hoped that they wouldn’t push that far west, but they did. The city was besieged, and it didn’t take long for the walls to break. The followers of Harold and the Godwinsons fled into exile, sailing across treacherous winter seas, around the coast of Cornwall, maybe to Wales, or maybe to Ireland to rally support for their cause.
Eldred knew that he had to leave, that his family would be sure to suffer reprisals. Elfreda didn’t want to leave her home, her family but she was loyal to her husband and she didn’t want to be a burden to her kin. She offered Goda a choice, but Goda saw her friends leaving and she saw nothing for her in the only home she had ever known. She had no doubts.
The journey would be terrible, the future would be hard, and only one of those who left would see Exeter again.
It’s a simple story, but it’s quite beautifully executed.
The recreation of the England of 1066 is extraordinary: a land dominated by vast forests, a small population scattered in remote hamlets, living off the land and the sea. It’s so recognisable England, despite being an England of which only small traces remain. And the quietness and stillness make the drama all the more shocking.
The people and the communities are just as well painted; their hopes and fears utterly real and recognisable. And that is brought into sharp focus by so many moments that were so very recognisable – Eldred’s emotions when he was forced to change his way of life; Goda’s frustration when her mother misunderstands things that seem obvious to her; and Elfreda’s feelings when her daughter rushes home at the last moment for a little thing that she had forgotten. Those moments were small, natural, quite unforced, but they served as a reminder that though the world may change, generations may come and go, the people who lived in this country centuries before us were not so very different from us.
The prose is lovely, the story quietly compelling, the details plentiful and perfect.
And so this is a historical novel, a story of ordinary people, to believe in.