Whether you like historical fiction or not, Godiva by Nerys Jones really is a very enjoyable book. I needed something a little less demanding after the last couple of books I had read, and this was good fun to romp through after a long day at work.
I’ve tagged it British Literature but Nerys Jones was Welsh, and it is very sad indeed that she did not live to see her first novel published. According to the blurb on the back of the book, she had a joint PhD in Celtic languages and literatures, and sociology. She was a lecturer at Harvard before she started writing fiction in 2004, but she died in 2007. So this is the only book we can enjoy by this talented writer. It’s a shame, because the only other authors I can think of who do this type of light historical fiction so well are Tracy Chevalier, Michelle Lovric and Sarah Dunant.
Godiva is, of course, Lady Godiva who according to legend rode naked through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century to save the people of Mercia from oppressive taxation imposed by her husband Leofric. Wikipedia tells us that she begged him to alleviate her people’s misery, but he refused. She kept at him, until one day he said he would give in to her entreaties if she would ride thrugh the streets naked – and she took him at his word, her nakedness covered only by her long hair. Probably not a word of it is true, but it’s an enduring legend and one which the good people of Coventry have perpetuated with an impressive sculpture for the tourists.
Anyway, although the Earl kept his promise and reduced the taxes, his reputation as it comes to us nearly a thousand years later is that of a mean and oppressive man, one who would rather humiliate his wife than consider her request with respect. (This is in marked contrast to the munificence of the historical figure but only scholars and those who (like me) stumble across it in Wikipedia know that). So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see this nasty man rehabilitated in this novel. Godiva and Lovric are a loving couple, and while they have misunderstandings and conflicts, these are the product of the roles they play, she as mistress of a large estate with complex problems, and he as one of the conspirators to secure the throne of England against corruption, disloyalty, and of course the Normans. His duties keep him away from home and subject to the usual temptations, and they have two sons, both of whom are used as pawns by King Edward the Confessor.
Edward, in this novel, is a sleaze. Suspend your knowledge of anything about his reputation as a pious man who was canonized and became patron saint of England (until St George took over) – there is a chapel scene in Godiva where readers will share Godiva’s inchoate fear. His cruelties seem to be the usual ones at which British rulers excelled, but the insinuations about his failure to produce an heir go beyond what’s in Wikipedia. In this novel, it’s not just that he didn’t fancy doing it with the daughter of his great rival, the Earl of Godwin!
Machinations over the succession and the complicated intrigues which ensue have the inevitable impact on the marriage of Godiva and Lovric. She is intelligent and resourceful but still very much restricted by being subject to her husband and his beliefs about what she should know of what’s going on. The interior voices of both Lovric and Godiva are heard, but his only reinforce the impression that their motivations are entirely different.
To say more would be to spoil the story. I’m not sure why Godiva has taken so long to turn up in Australian bookshops, but it’s worth seeking out.
Author: Nerys Jones
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Source: Angus & Robertson, Southland, Vic. (Book voucher from my MIL!)