In 2018 I'm featuring other authors who write books set in the so-called 'Dark Ages'. This time it's the turn of Theresa Tomlinson, whose two books, A Swarming of Bees and Queen of a Distant Hive are set in seventh-century Northumbria, specifically at the abbey at Whitby, run by Abbess Hild.
They concern a herbwife, by the name of Fridgyth, who discovers that she is quite the detective when she sets out to find out the truth about a series of murders, for, as she says, 'a herbwife on a mule may go where warriors cannot – she may see what warriors cannot see and hear what warriors cannot hear.'
In the first of these books, what begins as a seemingly straightforward, but nevertheless devastating plague is revealed to be something much more sinister. The Synod of Whitby is in full swing, and two mysterious 'scholars' have arrived. Are all these events linked?
In the second, a widowed Mercian queen arrives at the abbey, and almost immediately a young tanner, who'd been having an illicit affair, is found dead. While royalty and nobility busy themselves securing peace between kingdoms, Fridgyth sets out to investigate what is happening among the people.
A Swarming of Bees is an enjoyable and easy read. The author's research sits lightly in the background and only explains what we need to know. There is just enough description to give a sense of time and place. She is not telling a story about history but telling a story set in history. And what a fine story it is. It sits perfectly within its time frame, it's plausible and in Fridgyth we have a believable sleuth. This is no standard whodunnit; Fridgyth doesn't have all the answers. There are some lovely touches - the different age groups are portrayed well, and backstories are given where needed and in a readable way.
In Queen of a Distant Hive, we meet the widow of a certain King Penda, sworn enemy of the Northumbrians. This was interesting for me, because obviously some characters are the same as mine in Cometh the Hour (and its as yet unfinished sequel) and the big difference is that our sympathies lie in different areas, and I wondered how these characters, who I feel that I have moulded, would be presented. And it's lovely to report that even though they were in places I hadn't put them, I never felt that I didn't know them - I wasn't screaming at unjust portrayals. Again it was a great mystery story and not obvious. Perfectly in keeping with its setting and its history again, and very plausible.
Fridgyth is no Miss Marple or Hetty Wainthrop. She becomes detective because she's there, in her community, she's not shoe-horned in or brought in from outside. In this respect she is more like Brother Cadfael. Everything fits, everything works, and nothing is forced. We are reminded how the ordinary folk are affected by wars, and how the consequences linger long after the fighting ceases.
After I'd read the books, I asked Theresa a few questions.
AW: I presume that the setting for these two novels has a great deal to do with your knowledge of the local area. But what, in particular, drew you to write about this period?
TT: My fascination with Anglo-Saxon Whitby goes back a long way. As a young child I lived near Whitby and was sent to a convent boarding school in the town, where we had views of the famous abbey from our classroom windows. The nuns who taught us were great fans of Abbess Hild and stories attached to her were part of the curriculum. What really caught my imagination was not the religious aspect, but the image of an extraordinarily powerful woman who was a princess in her own right and set to rule over both men and women in her monastery. At a time when most disputes were settled by battle, Hild was determined to promote peace. Later as a younger writer I saw the exciting potential for basing a series of historical novels on Hild and her monastery (perhaps in the Cadfael style) but felt that the use of such an iconic setting must deserve a trained historian for the research and a more experienced writer, so I held back from the task.
Years went by and I successfully produced many children’s and Young Adult novels, while my interest in the 7th Century was fuelled by the thrilling discovery of an Anglo-Saxon Royal cemetery at Street House to the north of Whitby, followed by the opening of the exciting Saxon Princess Exhibition at Kirkleatham Museum, where the artefacts are still displayed. At last with a sense of increasing age and improving confidence, I decided to try using a local 7th century theme as the setting for a Young Adult mystery/adventure entitled Wolf Girl. I loved writing it and enjoyed the research too, but the book didn’t sell widely and the publishers rejected the idea of more Anglo-Saxon settings. However, by then I was deeply into research for the period and felt that I couldn’t allow my ideas to simply melt away, so set about adjusting my plans towards a murder/mystery aimed at adults. Since then many more writers have also taken up similar themes, including Annie Whitehead - and I am delighted that this fascinating period is now coming much more to the fore and readers do seem to be really interested in it.
AW: Many of the characters in the novels are based on real historical figures. But Fridgyth herself is fictional. Where did she come from?
TT: My version of Fridgyth is entirely fictional, but the name Fridgyth does appear in Bede’s History of the English Church and People, as a woman associated with Hild, usually assumed to be a nun. (See Begu’s dream at the time of Hild’s death - Chapter XXIII) I enjoyed using a real 7th Century name, but created my own version of Fridgyth. She first appeared in Wolf Girl as a useful secondary character, who had an important role to play when I needed someone who could give wise advice and move freely around the community. Making her the resident healer or herb-wife seemed to fit the bill and being half-pagan meant that she could reflect the older beliefs alongside the new Christian teachings, which I think must have been how it was at that time. When I planned to aim A Swarming of Bees at a more adult market, there was Fridgyth all ready and waiting to be my protagonist. I also felt the need to create an older central character, so that I could reflect my own experiences of ageing and feel comfortable in her skin.
AW: Before writing these books you wrote children's books. Did you find the transition relatively easy?
TT: I thought at first that I could move into an older market fairly smoothly as I’d been writing some fairly chunky Young Adult novels, in which I’d tackled themes of birth, death, sex, disease and had even a few critical reviews suggesting that my themes were too adult and at times too depressing. However, in reality I didn’t find the move to be as easy as I’d hoped. Although most of the reviews for A Swarming of Bees were positive, a few suggested that I hadn’t made the transition totally successfully. I think I’m still progressing in this direction as some comments on Queen of a Distant Hive have suggested that it has a more mature feel about it.
AW: Can you tell us about your latest project? Are you staying in the 'Dark Ages'?
TT: At the moment I’m working on a Young Adult novel, which is set in Whitby in 1861/2. The theme relates to the time when Prince Albert died and Queen Victoria went into mourning, setting off an astonishing boom period for the local jet industry. I’ve got a full draft finished, but realise that I need to do more research in order to get a correct and vivid picture of the busy, thriving town at that time.
I’ve also got new ideas forming for another Fridgyth investigation, perhaps moving on towards the time when King Oswy died – which might take Fridgyth to Bamburgh and should provide some very enjoyable and pleasant research in Northumberland over the summer months.
Find Theresa on the links below: