Friday, January 24, 2014

Godiva by Nicole Galland

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 23, 2014

Everyone knows the legend of Lady Godiva-the woman who (in)famously rode naked on horseback through Coventry to relieve her people from unfair taxation. But why would a lady of the court take it all off and risk everything, including husband, home, and well-being? In this richly imagined retelling of an oft-told ancient tale, Nicole Galland gives us Lady Godiva in all her, um, glory, as she and her best friend (the Abbess Egdiva) and husband (Leofric, Earl of Mercia) embark on an adventure filled with courtly intrigue, deceit, back-stabbing, and romance.

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Lady Godiva. Wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, the only woman to remain a major landholder in the years following the Conquest, made famous for the most erotic ride never made.

That's right folks, well-known as the legend is, most scholars agree the ride itself never happened. Why you ask? Well, the first verified record of the countess' exhibitionism was put down in the 13th century, which sounds great until you realize Godiva lived in the 11th century, a fact which makes Roger of Wendover's word for word account of the event inconsequential at best, but why let probable truth get in the way of a good story, eh? 

Being vaguely familiar with the legend I was interested to see how Nicole Galland would fictionalize it and while I wasn't disappointed, I wasn't what you'd call blown away. 

Admittedly, I have high expectations of fiction set in this era. The Norman Conquest is where I started my love affair with historic fiction and I've never quite gotten over it so it's really no surprise that the lack of atmospheric detail in Galland's work rubbed me the wrong way. Galland efforts aren't bad, but they don't jump from the page or give a real sense of life in this period. 

Galland's leading lady is similarly unconvincing. Under Galland's pen, Godiva, who is witnessed standing bare before Sweyn Godwinson by Edward the Confessor and her husband, understands and embraces her femininity, routinely using coquetry and flirtation to manipulate medieval politics. So why I ask, does Galland do a one-eighty in the second half of the novel, suddenly presenting a shy noblewoman who fears riding nude will endanger her immortal soul and the impact such action would have on what I imagine was an already tarnished reputation? Was she the promiscuous siren or the chaste wallflower and am I wrong for wanting continuity in her character either way? 

Galland attempts to explore several themes over the course of the novel, one of which is the relationship between Pagans and Christians in a world where faith is becoming an exceedingly tense political issue. Don't get me wrong, I love this idea and think Galland could have touched on some intensely interesting material if she'd really developed it, but I can't help feeling it overburdened a narrative that was already encumbered by excessive plot. 

By her own admission, Galland set out to write about the Abbess of Leominster and her love affair with the Earl of Wessex and personally, I would have appreciated that story much more than her foray into the Godiva legend. Why? Because, it's the truth. Regulated to supporting roles, Edgiva and Sweyn outshine Galland's headliner. They actually journey from one emotional plane to another in a compelling and thought-provoking series of events that challenge both their personal beliefs and those of the medieval world. Their story, cheapened though it is by the emphasis Galland placed on their contemporary, made this novel worth reading.

So, do I or do I not recommend Godiva? Well, that depends on what you're looking for. There are definitely more convincing and coherent pieces on the market, but the book is notable for its depiction of an all but forgotten footnote of English history. 

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“I do not fear humiliation. I am a woman of the Church. The Church preaches nothing but humiliation.”
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