The Winter Mantle

by Elizabeth Chadwick

Edition reviewed, Time Warner, 2002, ISBN 0-7515-2958-3

The Winter Mantle is set in England and Normandy, with an excursion to Asia Minor, in 1067-1098. It focuses on two marriages, that of Waltheof, English Earl of Huntingdon, to Judith, niece of William the Conqueror, and that of their daughter Matilda to the Norman knight Simon de Senlis. All the major characters are historical figures.

The novel is strong on characterisation and relationships. The four main leads, Waltheof, Judith, Simon and Matilda are all individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. They are not necessarily likeable all the time - there were occasions when I would have liked to slap Waltheof for his indecision and would have liked to shake Judith out of her self-righteousness - but that makes them more real. The novel explores two contrasting marriages, both made for political reasons but developing into quite different relationships. Waltheof and Judith are hopelessly unsuited from the beginning, despite their physical attraction to each other - theirs is a carnal marriage that begins in happiness and ends in misery. Simon and Matilda seem to be less extreme characters and their relationship matures differently. As well as the two marriages, the novel also explores an extramarital affair, relationships between parents and their children (over more than one generation), and the friendship between Simon and Waltheof.

Another strength of the novel is its attention to historical detail, and the presence of a helpful Author's Note. I don't have specialist knowledge of early Norman England, so I'm not in a position to pronounce on historical accuracy in any great detail, but it feels convincing. The details of everyday life in the period are lovingly described, from architecture to clothing to furniture to food, providing a great deal of period colour.

The novel has an episodic structure with gaps of many years between some sections, so you do have to pay attention to the dates and locations given in the chapter headings. I personally would have liked much more on the political background. The Harrying of the North, Edgar Atheling's flight to Scotland, rebellions against William the Conqueror and his son William Rufus, and the First Crusade are all touched on as part of the background to the development of the central relationships. I personally found it frustrating that this wide canvas was only hinted at. But part of the value of historical fiction is that it can provoke curiosity about a period I didn't know I was interested in, so it may prompt me to go and do some research. For example, I'm now curious as to how Matilda met and married David of Scotland in later life; was this connected to the marriage of Henry I to Margaret Atheling's daughter Edith? I'm also mildly intrigued by Waltheof's polar bear cloak (the Winter Mantle of the title) and wonder if it really existed; it's the kind of valuable garment that could just possibly have been mentioned in a will. Of such intriguing details is historical fiction made.

A well-researched tale of emotional relationships in early Norman England, with lots of historical colour and detail.