Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Forever Queen of Helen Hollick’s title is one of the most remarkable women of the eleventh century. Emma of Normandy was the queen first of King Aethelred of England and, after his death, of Cnut of Denmark, who won the thrones of England and Denmark and for a while also ruled over Norway. Hollick tells the story of Emma's life from her arrival in England as a frightened thirteen-year-old bride, from an unhappy marriage to her English husband to her happy one to his Danish successor, and after Cnut’s death, through the reigns of her step-son Harold and her son Harthacnut, ending with the succession of her son Edward, whose piety earned him the sobriquet “the Confessor.” The tale of Emma’s trials and joys is enmeshed with the incredible story of how her first husband’s ineptitude brought about England’s conquest by the Danes, and the twists and turns that eventually placed the crown in the capable hands of her second husband Cnut, and after that, of two short-lived sons.
Hollick’s novel is a splendid recreation of this pivotal phase in English history. It brings to life the key personalities of the age which, in addition to the assorted royal figures already mentioned, include Emma’s supporter Godwin Wulfnothsson, her rival Aelfgifu of Northhampton, and the era’s great villain, Eadric Streona, not to mention a judicious sampling of Eadric’s purported victims. The drama of The Forever Queen unfolds in a sequence of very short chapters - 157 in 616 pages - so the whole amazing journey can be completed in easy stages. Hollick’s scholarly background serves her well, and her choices in interpreting the people and events of a poorly recorded age show such keen understanding that I’ve suspended judgment on those passing details that clashed with my own understanding. All in all, this is a masterful retelling of a life and age that deserves to be much better known. (2011, 616 pages; originally published in 2004 as A Hollow Crown)More about The Forever Queen at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository