I discovered the books of Ariana Franklin by serendipitous chance in a charity shop, and have previously blogged about her ‘Mistress of the Art of Death‘ series, and its protagonist Adelia Aguilar, feisty Sicilian anatomist, mother of illegitimate child and agent of Henry II’s. Ariana Franklin’s Aguilar is an unusually well drawn female protagonist of pseudo-feminist tendencies, and I for one certainly found myself drawn into Franklin’s literary twelfth-century world. Ariana Franklin is a nom-de-plume for Diana Norman, and writing as Norman, the author has a long list of books to her name, many of which again seem to be built around female protagonists. Norman died in 2011, and her earlier books are quite hard to get hold of, so at the moment, I have not been able to read one yet, but she commenced one final book, Winter Siege, which was completed after her death by her daughter Samantha Norman. To be fair, a close reading does show two hands at work, but Norman has done a brilliant job in bringing her late mother’s final book to completion. The story line and conception are unmistakably Ariana Franklin’s, and Winter Siege is as compelling a page turner as Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar books. In fact, readers of the Mistress of the Art of Death series will recognize the starting point for Winter Siege because it tells the story of Gyltha’s sister Em, who was abducted by mercenaries during the lawlessness of the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda that ravaged England until the accession of Henry II Plantagenet in 1152 brought peace. Gyltha describes her memories of Em’s abduction in The Death Maze, in a powerful passage that evokes the horrors and atrocities of a Civil War and especially the suffering of the poor and dispossessed.
Franklin picks up the events of Winter Siege from this cue, and tells the story of Em’s abduction, brutal rape and abandonment at the hands of her abductors. As ever, Franklin is a master at creating an obsessive, obsessed, ruthless villain ‘the monk’, whose evil deeds are really only matched by his overpowering reek of the antiflatulent asafoetida. The monk stinks- obviously both literally, but also morally, with Franklin here playing with medieval humoural theories about bad smells being symptomatic of unbalanced humours and therefore a characteristic of lawlessness and depravity. It works fabulously well as a narrative device, because the smell of the asafoetida eventually helps us to ‘sniff out’ the monk.
Em, though, is the changeling heroine, and some of Franklin’s most powerful writing is reserved for the development of the girl’s complex character. Em is left for dead after the attack on her, but is saved by a mercenary, Gwilym de Valherne, who carries her to safety into the ruined shell of a sacked church (some of the quite heavy-handed symbolism suggests Samantha Norman’s hand, but the point is well made). The derelict church frames Em’s resurrection from near death, but the battered, brutalised girl only recovers from her physical and mental ordeal by losing her memory and changing gender. Em the girl becomes Penda the boy, Gwilym’s squire and apprentice, and Penda trains as an archer and arbalist. The girl Em is constrained by family loyalties and expectations of gender, vulnerable to sexual attack because of her gender. The boy Penda, without his memory, is free of any loyalties, whether family, political or religious and he can follow the mercenary Gwilym, with Gwil becoming the father figure whose morality and faith set a compass for Penda’s moral world; again, here the justice and morality of the mercenary are found to be good, while ‘the monk’ is treacherous, evil and depraved in this upside-down world of civil war and lawlessness.
Penda travels with Gwil, in turn hunting, and being hunted, by the Monk. Gwil knows that there is a hunt on because he found a clue to the monk’s identity on the site of the opriginal attack; Penda is unaware of the danger they are in. Gwil’s and Penda’s peripatetic wanderings come to a stand still when they find themselves as part of a force supporting Empress Matilda in the Castle of Kenniford, with the Winter Siege drawing several story lines together and bringing the various plots of the book to a conclsuion. Its at the Castle of Kenniford that Penda the Changeling becomes a woman again, and as before, Penda’s change of gender is born out of blood, injury, pain because of an arrow wound s/he sustains while on the ramparts of the Castle. The little girl who had been brutalised and traumatised emerges from her time as a boy as a strong, confident woman with the mental and physical strength to meet her foe, the stinky (well, literally!), monk.
Playing with and challenging stereotypes of gender is a theme that runs through much of Franklin’s writing, but in the Winter Siege it takes centre stage, and an accomplished and assured writer invests in the creation of strong, female characters. Adelia Aguilar and Penda are a different breed of female protagonist from such characters as Rey (The Force Awakens) or The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen. Franklin’s heroines challenge gender notions by working more within established gender norms, and become all the more potent for it.
Now, I still need to find copies of the books Franklin wrote under her real name, Diana Norman, to get a sense of how significant that theme was for the rest of her work, but for anybody new to her work, Winter Siege is a superb place to start.