Lady of Hay

by Barbara Erskine

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine In Lady of Hay, a psychology professor's 1970 experiment with hypnotic past-life regression almost proves fatal to his subject; he instructs her to forget about it. Fifteen years later, Joanna, a successful London freelance journalist, proposes a skeptical article about hypnotic regression, telling her editor, "The world authority on the subject ... tried to put me under--and failed.... The whole thing is rubbish." Her ex-boyfriend knows better, but she ignores his warnings. When she interviews a psychologist who demonstrates his technique on her, she recalls a life as Matilda de Braose, the Lady of Hay.

Matilda was a real woman. King John imprisoned and starved her to death in 1210 after goading her husband into rebellion. Her fate led to a clause in the Magna Carta five years later forbidding the king to imprison people without legal authorization. Noted for her beauty, Matilda was also courageous (holding off an attack by Welsh forces while her husband was away) and outspoken to the point of indiscretion.

Despite fictional embroidering making Matilda the focus of three men's passions, the medieval setting offers a solid portrayal of King John's England, and an exceptionally vivid one. Readers experience Matilda's story through the twentieth-century character of Joanna, so Matilda remains sympathetic even when she violates modern cultural norms. Written a quarter-century ago, Lady of Hay will also remind readers how much progress women have made during that time; few women in any Western culture today would put up with the patronizing men in Joanna's life.

As a spooky, quasi-supernatural thriller, the novel should not be taken as a realistic introduction to past-life regression therapy. Every professional who regresses Joanna behaves unprofessionally in one way or another, and the risks of hypnotic regression are exaggerated. For Joanna and the men attracted to her because of their past identities, past-life memories unleash violent emotions which push some of them to the brink of insanity. Matilda's story ends tragically; suspense mounts as Joanna's story threatens to echo hers. (1986, new Sourcebooks edition 2010; 575 pages, including a Historical Note and a list of significant dates)

More about Lady of Hay at Powell's Books or

Other novels about reincarnation and past lives:

The Reincarnationist by M.J. Rose (2007), about a man who suddenly, after a terrorist bombing in Rome, begins vividly recalling past lives in Rome in 391 A.D. and in 1884 New York. More info

Castle Dor by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier (1976), about a Breton onion-seller and a recently wed woman in nineteenth-century Cornwall who are compelled to relive the experiences of their past lives as Tristan and Isolde; begun by Arthur Quiller-Couch and completed by Daphne du Maurier after his death. More info

Smouldering Fires by Anya Seton (1975), a young-adult novel about a twentieth-century high school girl with a phobia about fire who has vivid memories of a past life as an Acadian woman in eighteenth-century Connecticut. More info

Nonfiction about past-life regression experiences:

Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss, M.D. (1988), by a psychiatrist about his experience treating a patient who under hypnosis spontaneously described past lives. More info

Reincarnation: A Critical Examination by Paul Edwards (1996), a critical examination of reincarnation by an author seeking to discredit evidence from cases of apparent past-life recollections. More info

Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives by Tom Shroder (1999), by a journalist who traveled the world investigating cases of children who seem to remember past lives. More info

Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot by Bruce and Andrea Leininger with Ken Gross (2009), written by the parents of a boy who at the age of two began having nightmares about dying in the fiery cockpit of a Corsair at Iwo Jima. More info


Reincarnated! Our son is a World War II pilot come back to life, a 2009 article in the Daily Mail

Soul Survivor: The Logic of Reincarnation, an article by a reincarnation skeptic in Lingua Franca Online

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