An Epic Historical Novel Relates History From the Women’s Points of View
Sandra Wagner-Wright has an outlook on history that has served her well, first as a professor of women’s and global history at the University of Hawaii and now as an author of historical fiction, most recently Saxon Heroines: A Northumbrian Novel (2021). “I used to tell my classes that basically, history is gossip about dead people,” she says. “Once I said that, I had their attention. History is a lot of fun, but it’s not fun if you just make people memorize things.”
Since retiring in 2010 and beginning to write full time, Wagner-Wright has put that definition to good use as an author, first with Rama’s Labyrinth: A Biographical Novel (2015), then with Two Coins: A Biographical Novel (2020), a finalist for the Independent Audiobook Awards and the Chanticleer International Book Awards.
Both of those books are set in the 19th century, while Saxon Heroines is set in seventh-century England, but they all have something in common: strong women characters. Six women—all real figures from history—take turns narrating Saxon Heroines, which covers the years 624 to 706. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a captivating account of the lives of extraordinary women in perilous times” and says Wagner-Wright “thoughtfully captures the religious conflicts of the time and the ways in which they feed into political and territorial ones.”
The book was borne of a trip to Whitby Abbey, a seventh-century Christian monastery overlooking the North Sea and a fixture in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Wagner-Wright was taken with the story of Hildeburg of Whitby, a Christian saint and the founding abbess at the monastery at Whitby.
“I did a program for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and I became drawn to the image that presented of Abbess Hild,” Wagner-Wright says, referring to the historically shortened name for Hildeburg. “Her claim to notoriety was that because there was a great synod, or church meeting, at Whitby in 664 when the Venerable Bede was compiling names of English people, she got her name in there.”
For Wagner-Wright, the story of Hildeburg was intriguing, and the fact that she knew very little beyond the basics became a challenge for someone who prides herself on her research. “The type of writing I do is very much based on real people who were kind enough to leave some kind of evidence, and what they don’t leave, I have professional permission to fill it in any way that fits for me,” she says. “I always want to be true to the people as I understand them rather than [change them to] what I need them to be.”
But other than her characters’ names and the barest of historical details, there was not a lot to go on for the author. “When you [are researching] the seventh century, there aren’t a lot of documents,” Wagner-Wright says. That meant multiple trips to Whitby Abbey, research at the British Museum, and studying reports of archaeological digs, both at the abbey and in the British port town of Hartlepool.
“Slowly, I began to see that there was a really good story there,” she says. Even more so, it was a good story with strong women at the forefront of history. Textbooks may not have seen them as heroines, but Wagner-Wright did. “When I sit down to write, I always have this question: I have this material, and I have my people, but whose story is it, really?” she says. “It wasn’t just [Abbess] Hild’s story. In my view, it was more of a female-energy type of story. Hild is the primary thread, but she’s not the primary character.”
Saxon Heroines is framed by Hildeburg’s life, beginning with her as a rambunctious child and ending after her death. Along the way, we’re introduced to other women (and men) of the time period, including Abbess Hild’s fellow narrators, all women. Wagner-Wright uses vivid but understandable language throughout, as in this bit of narration from the abbess, in her 20s, assessing her status after her father is killed and his uncle, King Edwin, begins to raise her:
Our family’s misfortune brought back the princes my uncle drove out of Northumbria when he returned from King Redwald’s court. King Edwin said he ruled by Woden’s luck. Later, he gave credit to God. But he was only a small piece in a cosmic struggle. When gods dispute, kings die. Edwin’s princes are dead; his queen in a monastery; his daughter, Enfleda, neither nun nor princess; and I am less than that.
Enfleda would later become Queen of Northumbria, and Wagner-Wright says she’s her favorite of all the characters in Saxon Heroines. “She was a survivor,” the author explains. “She was thrown to the wolves of the north, as it were, and she managed to do what needed to be done. Normally when a king is defeated, pretty much everyone in his family is slaughtered, and she got through that. Then she was basically dumped in the wilderness. I admire all of them for their tenacity, but in that sense, she was probably my favorite.”
An inveterate reader, Wagner-Wright says her tastes have changed a little bit, from literary and historical fiction to women’s and fantasy fiction. “My research and writing are so intense, and those genres are so completely removed from what I do, it’s almost a guilty pleasure,” she says.
Still, she points to Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel as her favorite writers of historical fiction. “They bring in the humanity and the depth and the cares of the people they’re writing about,” Wagner-Wright says. “Thomas Cromwell is not an attractive person, and Hilary Mantel makes you give a damn. She does it with a deft hand. It’s about bringing people to life so that we who are so far removed from that time can in some sense appreciate what it was like.”
That’s exactly what Wagner-Wright does when she sits down and writes—three or four hours most days—in her home in Hilo, Hawaii. “I would happily spend most of the day writing, but then there’s life,” she says. “Life is my husband and our grown children. I tend to do life in the mornings and then after lunch I go upstairs and write.”
Alec Harvey, former president of the Society for Features Journalism, is a freelance writer based in Alabama.