Two women of infamy share the spotlight in Nicole Galland’s latest book, “Godiva,” a familiar name but an obscure character whose exploits are all but lost in the fog of history.
Set during a time when paganism and Christianity lived uneasily side-by-side, “Godiva” interweaves the stories of the scandalous Lady of Mercia and the Abbess Edgiva in a tale full of political intrigue, adventure, heroism, lust and romance — the stuff of a truly captivating medieval tale.
Ms. Galland will talk about the book at the next Speakeasy Series for the West Tisbury Library Foundation on Wednesday, July 10.
Ms. Galland’s four previous historical novels are set in the early Middle Ages. In “Godiva” she stepped back a few centuries to examine a medieval figure whose fame has stood the test of time, but about whom little besides her legendary ride is known. According to Ms. Galland, few people know the motivation behind Godiva’s daring act — a protest over unfair taxes — and fewer still have an understanding of the background of the legend.
In “Godiva,” Ms. Galland strips the cloak off her heroine — both literally and figuratively — to reveal a powerful and complex character who stands for far more than her legendary deed. She portrays Godiva as a courageous, headstrong, and willful woman who uses her charms to achieve political ends for her husband, and eventually finds herself at odds with the king.
Filling out the narrative is the tale of the abbess Edgiva whom Ms. Galland has positioned as Godiva’s best friend. The real Edgiva was also the subject of an historical scandal. She was spirited away — willingly or otherwise — by a powerful earl. Ms. Galland examines that episode and comes up with some interesting speculation. In “Godiva,” the abbess is a woman torn between piety and passion — questioning not so much her faith but the hypocrisy of the Catholic church.
“Godiva and Edgiva are two of the major players of the era. I was curious about that,” said Ms. Galland, whose previous novels featured male protagonists. The stories of both women are shadowy at best. Godiva’s naked ride was first recorded in the 1300s, at least 150 years after it occurred. “The story must have existed in oral form for decades and decades and decades,” she continued. “The moment that something is written down there is less wiggle room for reinterpretation and revision.”
Despite the fact that the facts no doubt suffered from multiple retellings, Ms. Galland conducted extensive research to invent a very plausible explanation for Godiva’s actions. Her take on the legend differs slightly from the accepted one, but, as she notes, “I am not the first person to come up with this theory.”
Edgiva’s story, equally open to speculation, was the one that first captured Ms. Galland’s attention back in 2002. While in Leominster, England, researching her first book, Ms. Galland was befriended by two historians, Maureen and Alan Crumpler. The author spent a month living at the couple’s home working on her book. “As well as being incredibly helpful in my research they kept telling me about the local history,” she said.
The tale of the abduction of Edgiva, known to few aside from English history buffs, captivated Ms. Galland, partly because there were two conflicting versions. Shortly after returning from England she wrote a book centered on the abbess but it was shelved at the time only to be resurrected as material for Ms. Galland’s most recent book.
Godiva’s story, like Edgiva’s, grabbed Ms. Galland because, “I have a fondness for people doing naughty things.” Ms. Galland’s books are generally sprinkled with a good dose of bawdiness and “Godiva” is no exception.
However, it was the opportunity to examine the role of women in medieval times that attracted the author as much as anything. “In the Anglo Saxon era women had a lot more power and were a lot feistier,” she said. “Once Norman law came into effect they didn’t have as many rights. Their role in society was diminished.” Godiva’s life straddled the two eras. “It was a really transitional era,” the author said. “Not a happy time for women at all.”
The two protagonists in “Godiva” embody that conflict. Both are women in a position of power who are encumbered by the restraints placed upon them by a male-dominated society. However, each finds her own way to circumnavigate her male oppressors. Their cunning, and the machinations of the other lead players in the story, provide a rich psychological context to the tale.
“Godiva” is meticulously researched. The reader learns a good deal about pagan rituals, court etiquette, dress and customs, as well as the hierarchy, politics, and religion of the day. Ms. Galland uses an effective mix of Old English and contemporary language and idioms for her dialogue. She reprises her fondness for archaic insults, which account for some of the plentiful humor in the book.
The famous ride, the climax of the story, is described from the viewpoint of Godiva. Ms. Galland relates in depth the wealth of emotions experienced by her heroine during a punishment that ultimately proves both humbling and empowering.
An actress and director as well as a writer, Ms. Galland augmented her thorough research with an interesting use of method acting technique. “Whenever you can research something in a more concrete way, you should do it,” she said. Consequently, last year she recreated her heroine’s bare and bareback ride. “That’s a very vulnerable place to be in,” she recalled. “Not only are you naked, you’re on this enormous animal.”
And so, while the legend of Godiva may be no more than fanciful, Ms. Galland’s description of it is based on personal experience.
Speakeasy Series with Nicole Galland, 6 pm, Wednesday, July 10, Grange Hall, West Tisbury. Refreshments. $25. Doors open at 5:30 pm. For reservations, call 508-693-3489. Visit wtlibraryfoundation.org for more information.