Barbara Erskine’s books have something of a formula to them. A woman of the present drawn back in history by a woman of the past. A narrative that moves from the modern day to the historical era of the novel. Tales of the past are woven with sorrows that need resolving, witnessing, healing to achieve reconciliation. Erskine’s books are hefty, several hundred pages long. She has tackled a range of historical periods, from Roman to Victorian times. She has also published short story collections including Distant Voices and Sands of Time.
Erskine utilised her knowledge of Scottish history – which she studied at Edinburgh University – in Kingdom of Shadows. Clare Royland is drawn to find out more about ancient family history and thus becomes entwined with the story of Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who crowned Robert the Bruce. This is a harrowing story, as are many of Erskine’s tales, and as always she brings history vividly to life.
Barbara Erskine first came to prominence as a writer in 1986 with the publication of her novel Lady of Hay. Jo Clifford, a journalist, enters the world of twelth century Matilda de Brose - unhappy in marriage, doomed in love. The Hay referred to in the title of the book is Hay-on-Wye, located on the border of England and Wales – the author was living near Hay when she wrote the book, and intensively researched the historical aspects of her work. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Lady of Hay contained an extra story at the end of the book linked to the novel.
I have found when rereading some of the older books that the modern parts of the stories can seem dated – dialogue, references to old technology etc... Yet the novels still hold their power. Midnight Is A Lonely Place, published in 1994, builds up a huge sense of menace and suspense as Kate Kennedy, a writer working on a book about Byron in an isolated cottage on the Essex coast, unearths hidden truths about a prominent Roman whose bones lie in a local museum.
Time’s Legacy, published in 2010, has a modern twist with the key character being a female priest. The novel moves from Cambridge to Glastonbury and touches on some of the old legends linking the area to Christian and pagan history.
I would recommend Erskine’s books to anyone who enjoys learning about historical periods through fiction. Try River of Destiny which touches on recent and ancient history.