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This is a fictionalised tale of a historical woman, Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, based on true facts of what is known of her and the times in which she lived. Teasel, as the author has nick-named her, is the daughter of the great king, Alfred of Wessex. Her father wants her to marry a Lord of Mercia to form an alliance between the two English kingdoms so that they might be ever stronger to defeat the scourge of the Danes. For years, these 'Vikings' have been invading and settling, raping, pillaging and sending terror into the hearts of the English people. Teasel has grown up as a child living with the threat of the Danes always hanging over her, but it is not until she is old enough to understand the fear that her mother constantly displayed when she was a child, that she understands what it is she fears the most. Then the day comes when her heart, who she had given to another, is broken and she is set on a course of unhappiness and despair as she struggles to come to terms with her plight. Married to a man she does not love, who is indifferent to her, she must first gain the respect and understanding of the suspicious Mercians, before she can give herself wholly to him, mind body and soul. This is no easy task through the years, but eventually she wins out, through her indomitable, endless spirit, and then she must act to save her beloved adopted country from the Vikings.
This is one of the rare books that have managed to captivate my heart. I’m a fussy reader, that’s not to say that I can’t enjoy many books, but only on some occasions does a book take my breath away, completely. For a book to do this, there must be a plot that grabs me, make me either smile to myself, or sigh wistfully, wishing that it was I who had just written that passage. Strangely enough, the plot in To be a Queen, has no arc, there are 4 parts to this book; first being, Girl; the second, Woman; third, Wife and finally, Queen, which, in reality she never was. The narrative moves through each stage of her life and it is only towards the last half of the book that we see the characters of Teasel and Ethelred come into their own, both as a couple and as individuals as their story develops more deeply. To begin with, whenever there was a hint of conflict, it would always come to naught. (It would not be appropriate to give an example as it may be considered to be a spoiler.) I found this a little frustrating, because I was expecting something to ‘happen’ but it never does. There are no storming build-ups to tension, nothing really bad ever happens, (not that we see, anyway) and in most cases, this would annoy the hell out of me, but strangely enough, the slower pace and the lack of action are exactly right for this book, and although I might not have written it that way myself, Whitehead manages to captivate me with her beautiful prose and in-depth knowledge of the period and the language which shines throughout the whole of the book.
This is not a book that follows Æthelflaed into war, although we do see some of that later in the book. It is essentially a story of how things might have been, using the known facts and events that happened during her time to design a plausible story of her life. It is a love story, but not in the bodice ripper style (not usually my cup of tea), but written in beautiful, deep emotional scenes, that give us a vision of a woman’s love for a man she had never wanted to wed. What I loved most about this book is the way Whitehead uses a wide knowledge of vocabulary of the time and a skilful writing talent to describe characters thoughts, feelings and actions. The dialogue is well crafted, and made me imagine that I was hearing the language in the manner it would have been spoken, not of course in Old English, but using the modern equivalent of. All this, and what we are given, is a subtle story that filters its way into the reader’s mind in the same way a patient might be drip-fed blood. It flows, like a boat carried on a river's current, passing through time, stopping for a while before it continues on again to reach the end of Æthelflaed’s life.
It is a shame that we know so little about this amazing woman who, it was said, was so beloved of the Mercians, she was trusted to lead an army against the Vikings and other enemies. We know she did this, but we don’t know whether or not she actually wielded a sword and fought in the battle itself, or just commanded. We don’t know to what extent her knowledge of warfare was, though there is evidence to say that Ethelred was advising her. In Whitehead’s version, she has ‘Teasel’ learn to fight and wield a sword so she can ride out with her army and at the very least attempt to protect herself. Personally, I think she was too important to actually fight in the shieldwall, for she would no doubt be injured at some point, not having the strength, as a woman, to fight hand to hand with experienced male opponents. But that’s just my opinion, perhaps she was skilful and strong, but given that even the dangerous, most doughty warriors could not always protect themselves from being mortally wounded in a melee, then I think it unlikely. She was needed as a figurehead more than a warrior, and although Whitehead puts her in the midst of a shieldwall in one scene, she doesn’t have her doing anything foolhardy or practically impossible. Æthelflaed is not a shieldmaiden, nor is she a walcyrie. and I was glad of that, as I do not like historical fiction where women are made to do the impossible. Shieldmaidens would not have lasted long in a battle, and although I can see no reason not to have women fight if the story asks for it, it must be plausible. If they are going to fight, then they should not be slaughtering multitudes of men in one strike, and anyone who wants to write a book called ‘Shieldmaiden’ needs to do so with caution.
We probably know more about Æthelflaed than Ethelred, her husband, but we know nothing of their relationship, whether it was a good one, or if it was troublesome. There is later evidence that cannot be fully believed, that she had only one child because of the pain she had endured in childbirth. I’m not entirely convinced that this is true, but if it is true, then perhaps we can imagine that her relationship with her husband might have been strained.
I cannot praise Annie Whitehead’s style of prose enough. She has a very fluid approach to her writing, which is deep, and thoughtful, and encompasses what is going on in the background around her characters. Each passage is generally shown in the point of view of either Æthelflaed, her brother Edward, or her husband Ethelred. There is no head hopping, which if overdone, usually drives me insane. The narrative is solid, and the story flows along.
If you cannot tell by now how enamoured I was with this book, I must impress upon you that this book is one of those that I have enjoyed reading most in my life. It is definitely going on my must read again shelf, though I rarely read books more than once. If you enjoy historical fiction, this should be on everyone’s must read shelf, especially if you like stories told through the eyes of women, and don’t mind that the battle scenes are scarce. The story of Lady Æthelflaed as told by Annie Whitehead will haunt you and stay with you for a long time, as I know it will with me.
A well done to Ms Whitehead.
|Victorian statue of Aethleflaed and her nephew, Aethlestan.|
About the Author
Annie Whitehead isn't 'from' anywhere. She was born in Germany on British soil and has two birth certificates. Her father was in the army and the family lived all over the world, but she has lived in the Cumbrian Lake District since 1986. She graduated in history having specialised in the 'Dark Ages' but after a career break to raise her three children she qualified as an Early Years practitioner before concentrating on teaching Music to children aged 1-11. She has written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great's daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society's Indie Book of the Year 2016, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. She hopes the third will be published early in 2017. When she's not writing novels, she writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Yoga Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine's Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for non-fiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site - Casting Light upon the Shadow. When she's not working or writing, she can generally be found living up to the title bestowed on her by her offspring and their friends - "Mother Hen", or doing a spot of kick-boxing and weight-lifting.
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