An author steadily growing in popularity, Galland cut her teeth on portraying famous historical figures with artistic license, changing historical facts to fit her particular brand of fiction. In Godiva, Galland skewers the legend of Lady Godiva, telling of her place in medieval England and her role in preventing the payment of the heregeld, a draconian and unjust tax imposed on the citizens of Coventry by King Edward, crowned just three years previously.
Infusing her heroine with a believable personality that is both noble and seductive, Galland has Godiva happily married to her older husband, Earl Leofric. They are devoted to each other and have a good reputation among the populace of Coventry, despite Godiva seeming to behave “like a heathen strumpet every day,” using her beauty as “a seductive commentary” for the men who cannot have her. Godiva navigates a difficult and treacherous world where Christianity and paganism are uneasy bedfellows. A woman quite uncharacteristic of her time, she’s not used to being overshadowed by a powerful husband or by other men who rule the kingdom without restraint.
This is 1046, an age of entrenched religious fundamentalism during which the purchase of favors, indulgences and position belie the humility exhibited by the powerful bishops and abbots of Mercia and Wessex. This is not lost on Edgiva, the frustrated abbess of Leominster who has made it her mission to abolish the heregeld. King Edward neglects to heed Edgiva’s righteous gift of rhetoric at a final session of the Great Council, the place where the lords, ladies and bishops, gather. Here at the Lenten Dinner, Edgiva meets the earnest and abashed Sweyn of Hereford, the eldest son of the most powerful man in England.
In Galland’s accomplished hands, we witness the challenges faced by Godiva as she tries to “nip in the bud” the illicit affairs that might destabilize the kingdom; those faced by Edgiva when she’s caught between her duties as an abbess and the sensual whiles of Sweyn, who offers to help her with all of her “mad things;” and those of Edward, who refuses to give up the heregeld because it will jeopardize the appearance of his power. Ironically, Godiva’s urge to do good causes a misunderstanding with Edward. When he accuses her of an appalling act of harlotry, the accusations escalate the growing rift between Godiva, her husband and the bishops, who are well-known for manipulating and twisting everything for their own political gain and personal vendettas.
Although Godiva may be Leofric’s most potent weapon, her machinations come to nothing. The church will lionize her for protecting her people at the expense of her own dignity and then threaten to excommunicate her, though she knows that she will live through the consequences of either choice. She finds herself torn between a forced submission and choice that will probably “beggar her and Leofric for decades,” the church towering over her while King Edward recklessly metes out a punishment that will ensure her eternal damnation.
Fierce heroism and an independence fueled by her pagan roots and her love for Leofric reveal Godiva as an enigmatic figure. Galland brings her vividly to life in an intense environment where the shifting loyalties of those in power and a factionalized England test every citizen. Emotions run high, and when loyal friends make mistakes they can't take back, an honest woman thinks she has no choice but to defend her honor. Godiva, formerly relentless in her pursuit of truth, becomes a sudden master of self-justification. Her scandalous naked ride through Coventry serves as the ultimate proof that she can and will rise above the fray.
It would be easy for Galland’s heroine to become blurred in the flood of male power and desire typical of the era, yet the author so fully fleshes out and humanizes Godiva that I couldn’t help but be captivated and mesmerized. I had to know what happened, and I had to know why. Galland’s deductions, her imagining of Godiva’s world and the circumstances that drove her to do what she did, made sense to me, felt real to me yet still left me surprised, stunned and haunted.