Passages to the Past is pleased to bring you a guest post by Sarah Bower in honor of the release of her novel, THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD! And thanks to Sourcebooks I have one copy of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD up for grabs, so be sure to enter the giveaway at the end of this post!
And now, please enjoy this fascinating guest post from Sarah Bower...
When considering what to write for this post, I decided to take my cue from your title, and reflect on the route that brought me to write about the Bayeux Tapestry. The English are famous for being able to transform defeat and embarrassment into a virtue, whether in war or on the soccer pitch. We still somehow manage to regard the evacuation of our troops from Dunkirk in 1940 as one of our finest hours when it was, in historical fact, one of the lowest points in all our long history.
In 1940, we were nearly invaded by Hitler. In 1066, these islands were successfully invaded by William Duke of Normandy, aka The Bastard, but known henceforth as The Conqueror. As a result, 1066 is the most recognised date in English history. Everyone knows that is the year in which Anglo Saxon King Harold was defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings. King Harold’s legend portrays him as the archetypal Englishman – tall, blond, honourable, courageous... and a heroic loser.
William’s invasion, and his reasons for pursuing it, are the subject of several works of contemporary propaganda, but none so famous as the Bayeux Tapestry which, given our English nostalgia for glorious lost causes, has become the ‘wallpaper’ of our history, its images so familiar we no longer really see them. I hadn’t given this remarkable work a second thought since I was in primary school, when a set of circumstances came together to change my relationship with it forever.
I had recently been offered a place to read for a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia. I was beginning to think about what I would write while there. I sat down one evening to watch Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ on TV, and found myself looking at a somewhat crude embroidered image of a woman and child fleeing a burning house. ‘This,’ said Schama, ‘is the first image in Western art of what war does to civilians.’ It was as though somebody had switched on all the lights in my head. That, I realised, was the seed of the story I wanted to tell, the story of how that remarkable image came to be.
Once I began to research the Tapestry (which isn’t a tapestry at all, but an embroidery), however, I discovered that story was impossible to tell. We cannot say how or why the Bayeux Tapestry came to be. We do not know who commissioned it, who made it or why. Why, for example, when only a patron of substance could have assembled the skills, resources and materials need to produce a work over 230 feet long, is it made of such humble materials: woollen embroidery on linen, using a limited palette of what it is reasonable to assume were the colours seasonally available from dyes distilled from local vegetation? When was it made? How was it made? What were the working conditions of the embroiderers, and where was their workshop situated? There are firm answers to none of these questions, merely informed speculation and blatant guesswork. Once I discovered how little was actually known about the Tapestry, I realised it was a perfect subject for fiction. There was plenty of room to make stuff up.
Once I began to look at the work itself, there were more disconcerting and unexpected revelations. The narrative of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to it fills up only about two thirds of the available space on the long strip of linen. In the upper and lower margins other stories are being told, fables, small tales of individual lust and extreme violence, obscure and allusive parables, pastorals of ploughing and vine tending. In the margins of the Tapestry the conquered stitched their resistance, their rage and fear, their jokes, their secret life. There is a truth in the margins which is absent from the swaggering propaganda of the main narrative, but it is a fictional truth, arrived at through storytelling.
As I read into the many interpretations that have been put on these mysterious marginal images, I began to form an impression of who had made them and why, of who would understand them and who be deceived by them, and thus arrived at the spine of my story, the tension between the over-mighty Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the ambitious half-brother of The Conqueror, and a workshop full of English women whose only route to resistance was through their needles. While Odo bestrides the real world of blood and politics, the embroiderers exist in the liminality of the workshop, in creative imagination. Their bodies are at the bishop’s command, but he cannot control their minds.
I didn’t know, when I began the book, that it would be a love story. I thought it would only be a war story, about the wanton exercise of power. But it became a particular kind of love story, one that begins with a rape, and that image, of love out of violence, reconciliation out of hate, seems to me to be symbolic of what the Norman Conquest means to the English. Ultimately, Harold’s heroism is doomed to become myth whereas William’s pragmatism has endured, in everything from the Tower of London to trial by jury, from our great cathedrals to the ubiquity of rabbits (introduced by the Normans, who farmed them for meat and fur). Having begun with nostalgia for a past which never really existed, I found myself moving through the mythology of the Tapestry, and the brutal fairytale of Odo and Gytha, to a sense that the English identity didn’t die with Harold Godwinson but was born out of William’s victory.
My novel shows this, I hope, through the eyes of an ill-matched pair of lovers, unable to live either together or apart, each traumatised by the experience of conquest out of which grows the Tapestry, whose capacity to survive neglect, abuse and even the Nazis is, to my mind, nothing short of magical.
About THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD
Publication Date: March 1, 2012 | Sourcebooks Publishing | 544p
His lust for power gave him everything. But it might cost him the love of his life.
The Bishop hired her for a simple job: embroider a tapestry. It is an enormous work, a cloth trophy of the conquest of England. But her skill with a needle and thread is legendary. It would be uncomplicated.
She plans to kill him as soon as she gets the chance. He and his brother, William the Conqueror, murdered her King and destroyed her world. Revenge, pure and clean. It would be simple.
But neither planned to fall desperately in love. As the two become hopelessly entangled, friends become enemies, enemies become lovers, and nothing in life—or the tapestry—is what it seems. An unlikely love story born of passion and intensity, crafted by critically acclaimed historical novelist Sarah Bower,The Needle in the Blood is a "story of love, war, and the tangled truth of England's birth."
About Sarah Bower
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