03 August, 2006

Wolf Girl, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Corgi, 2006, ISBN 0-552-55271-2

First, two disclaimers:
1) This is billed as a teenage/young adult novel. I haven’t read one of these before (no, not even Harry Potter) and I don’t know if they follow conventions of their own, so I’ve simply reviewed this as if it were general fiction.
2) I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind.

Wolf Girl is set in Northumbria in 663* AD. The central character and her family are fictional. Real historical figures also feature, including Abbess Hild, the poet Caedmon, several members of Northumbria’s royal family, and some who are little more than names in the surviving records but are fully-developed characters in the novel (e.g. the nuns Fridgyth and Begu).

The central character is Wulfrun, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Cwen, a weaver who works for Whitby Abbey. Wulfrun accidentally reveals that Cwen possesses a valuable gold and garnet necklace, as a result of which Cwen is accused of theft and possibly treason and imprisoned awaiting trial. Wulfrun sets out to clear her mother’s name, by finding out the history of the necklace and seeking proof that her mother owned it by right and had not stolen it. Wulfrun finds help from unexpected friends, but unknown enemies are working to prevent her finding out the truth. Soon Wulfrun and her friends find themselves drawn into dangerous political events that threaten to pitch the whole kingdom of Northumbria into civil war.

I liked a great many things about this novel. The setting is very well researched and Hild’s monastery at Whitby is brought to life as a self-sufficient community in a working economy. The political undercurrents are credible for the period and the geography is accurate. The old pagan gods are still very much part of the culture, which is very likely as Northumbria’s then king had been officially converted to Christianity less than 40 years before. In her historical note, the author says, “there is still much that is unknown about the period and acknowledged historians interpret the evidence in different ways. Because of that I decided to create a picture [...] that is really Anglo-Saxon Whitby as I would like it to have been, rather than an attempt at accuracy.” Given the patchy nature of the sources, I would say the novel achieves this admirably.

The characters are for the most part likeable and well-rounded, and include people from all walks of life. Wulfrun in particular is bright, resourceful and brave, a strong and capable heroine. Abbess Hild is as forceful as I have always imagined her from Bede’s account of her life. There are plenty of other strong-minded and independent female characters, yet the roles they play are credible in the context of the time. No misplaced feminism or Xena-type warrior princesses here, I am glad to say. If I have a complaint, it’s that all the really strong and well-developed characters are women. The men, by comparison, fade into the background and hardly get a look-in.

The story ticks along without ever dragging, and as everything Wulfrun learns about the necklace raises as many questions as it answers, the plot naturally expands beyond Wulfrun’s family. Since Wulfrun, daughter of a poor weaver, knows nothing about Northumbria’s political history, the reader learns about it along with her. This results in quite a lot of exposition as various people explain things to Wulfrun. One particularly interesting feature is an exploration of what it might be like for a child to be dedicated as a nun as a baby and brought up in a monastery.

There is a helpful plan of Whitby Abbey and a map of Northumbria, and a useful historical note listing the real and the invented characters. Modern place names are mostly used, except for kingdoms (e.g. Deira, Bernicia, Rheged). The Old English personal names have been simplified, e.g. Cadmon rather than Caedmon, Elfled rather than Aelfflaed, or modified to make them more easily distinguishable, e.g. Ianfleda rather than Eanflaed. However, they still retain the feel of the period; they still look like Old English names rather than modern ones. (By the way, am I the only person who has real trouble when an author converts a name like Aethelstan to ‘Stan’ or Aethelred to ‘Red’? Votes, please).

Was there anything I disliked? Well, I think Iurminburgh probably doesn’t deserve her portrayal, not least because if she had behaved as described here it is perhaps unlikely that she would have played her later, documented, role in Northumbrian history. But little is known of the historical Iurminburgh, so who’s to say? I also thought that the political sub-plot seemed rather too elaborate to have been initiated by a chance find, and yet it turns on the discovery of the necklace. I also have my doubts as to whether any commander of the time would have planned major military activity for November. But really, these are very minor, and could be explained as opportunism on the part of the plotters and inexperience on the part of the commander.

A rattling good yarn with a capable, determined heroine, in a splendidly authentic setting.

*The action takes place in spring, summer and autumn of one year, but I’m not quite sure which year it is. The date is variously given as the year before the Synod of Whitby, which would be 663, ten years after the Battle of Winwaed, which would be 665, and 25 years after King Edwin’s death, which would be 658. 663 fits most closely with the age of Ecgfrid as given in the novel. (Note that this chronological discrepancy, if such it is, doesn’t interfere at all with the story and only a pedant who’s spent far too long poring over the history of early Northumbria would even notice).


Bernita said...

I agree with you about the names.
For me they invoke.
Get enraged when they are messed with beyond reason.

(Always had a fondness for the kingdoms - especially Bernicia!)

Sarah Johnson said...

Nice review. I'm not familiar with Iurminburgh, and you have me curious.

I agree, I don't care for it when authors change historical names to modernize them - it makes the story lose its historical feel for me.

Alex Bordessa said...

Not come across this book, so will chase it up. Thank you.

Nah, shortening those names to Stan and Red sounds too modern.

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, I can see why Bernicia would have a special appeal :-) The Brittonic form of its name is Bryneich, by the way.

Sarah - hard to think what to say about Iurminburgh that wouldn't count as a spoiler! Her name is variously spelled as Ermenburgh, Ermenburga and Irminburgh. She's recorded in history later than the period covered by Wolf Girl, when she was the second wife of King Ecgfrid of Northumbria (reigned 670-685). Ecgfrid's first wife, St Etheldreda/ Aethelthryth/ Audrey refused to consummate the marriage and eventually divorced him to become a nun. Bede seems fairly clear that Audrey was the instigator, though there are traditions that Ecgfrid divorced her because he wanted to marry Iurminburgh instead (not unreasonable, I would have thought, given the circumstances). Eddius Stephanus' Life of St Wilfred (a distinctly partisan account) portrays Iurminburgh as Wilfred's enemy and blames her for Wilfred's banishment. I rather think that Ecgfrid was probably already pretty fed up with Wilfred (think Henry II and Thomas Becket, but less extreme). Iurminburgh was widowed when Ecgfrid was killed at the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685. I haven't been able to find out her pedigree, although I suspect she may have been connected with the royal house of Kent, as the first element of her name (Irmin-, Eormen-) occurs in other Kentish royal names.

Alex - I only came across it by chance; the YA label meant it wasn't in my usual haunts. Hope you enjoy it.

So far: Aethelstan/Aethelred 3, Stan/Red 0. [Or 4-0 if you count me]

ali said...

I also vote against Stan/Red. They would just make me cringe.

I'll have to look out for it. Obviously I still read a lot of YA books. They tend to be shorter and cheaper :).

Gabriele Campbell said...

Stan and Red? Sounds like Stan and Ollie to me.

Sarah Johnson said...

Oh yes, I'm familiar with Audrey/Etheldreda, but not so much with Ecgfrid's second wife. I read Moyra Caldecott's Etheldreda some time ago and don't remember her being mentioned... hmm.

Is it cheating to say I know the book with Stan and Red in it? And that it didn't work for me at all? :-)

My word verification code is ylovyx. Sounds like a Dr. Seuss character.

Carla said...

I make that 6-0 in favour of Aethelstan/Aethelred, so that looks fairly comprehensive, at least on this small and unscientific sample :-)

Ali - why do you suppose YA books tend to be shorter? I certainly had more time for reading as a teenager than I've ever had since.

Gabriele - my thoughts exactly. I just cannot shake that mental image.

Sarah - not cheating at all. I've seen said book on Amazon and dithered over buying it, because I love that period of history, but I just cannot get past the names. Useful to hear your view on it! I may get it out of a library one day, when I run out of things to read (!). What did you think of Etheldreda? I hadn't heard of it before but I Googled for it and found it's available as an e-book (hurrah!) which means it's actually accessible to me. The blurb sounds heavily into 'spiritual' themes - is it an inspirational?

Sarah Johnson said...

That would be a good plan, to get it out of the library. I appreciate the author's efforts in writing about Aethelflaed, since few novelists have written about her, but the novel itself isn't very well written (imho) and the modern versions of her characters' names really got me.

Etheldreda can be considered inspirational of a sort, though it was originally published by a "New Age" publisher and not a Christian one. Moyra Caldecott's written quite a number of historical fantasy novels, but this one was strictly historical, as I recall. I don't think the spiritual themes were overdone. It's been about 15 years since I read it, so that's about as much opinion as I'm good for!

Rick said...

Stan and Red crash and burn with me, too. But this raises an interesting question about whether long names were shortened in some way in daily usage, and if so how?

Carla said...

Sarah - many thanks for the information.

Rick - shortened forms of two-element Old English names are known. The usual method of shortening an Old English name was to use the first element, so Wulfhere would be shortened to Wulf, Leofwine to Leofa, Cuthbert to Cutha, Hildigard to Hild, and so on. I don't know if the second element was ever used as the shortened form (like Stan and Red), but if it was, it was rare.

Some name elements could be used as either the first element or the last element - e.g. Wulf can be used in Wulfhere and in Raedwulf, Ric can be used in Ricbert and in Eadric - so I don't suppose one can be certain whether a man called Wulf was originally a Raedwulf or a Wulfhere. Single-element names, like Lilla, Leofa, Dudda, Fulla, Cutha were also in common use as names in their own right, so a man called Cutha might have been called Cutha as a given name, or might have been using it as a short form of a longer name such as Cuthbert or Cuthwulf.

Occasionally there are short names recorded that seem to bear no resemblance to the original full name, e.g. King Edwin's queen Aethelburh (Ethelburga) was, according to Bede, known as Tata. He doesn't say why.

I would also guess that there were nicknames in common use, not unlike Norse nicknames, and as many of the name elements had a meaning in the language, it might be hard to tell a nickname from a given name. E.g., perhaps a man might be called 'Wulf' if he fought like a wolf, or was shaggy like a wolf, or ate like a wolf, or even if he had killed an especially savage or dangerous wolf, even if his actual name was something quite different. The 'Wolf Girl' of the novel's title is a nickname like this, although in the novel it's also a play on the heroine's name, Wulfrun.

As 'Stan' is Old English for 'stone', I suppose it could have been used as a nickname or as a name in its own right, like modern French Pierre ('stone'), but it's not likely to have been a short form of a -stan two-element name. As far as I know, the modern name Stan is a shortening of Stanley, which in turn is derived from a place name meaning 'stony clearing'.