Romantics have long had a love affair with the noble savage. Uncorrupted by civilization, primitive man lives in utopian simplicity – in total freedom, in harmony with the earth and with a soul as good and pure as the driven snow. That love affair is alive and well in the historical romance novel, Hadrian’s Wall by William Dietrich.
The time is the late 300′s. Christianity is in its ascendancy and Rome is in the beginning of its decline. At the farthest reach of the Empire stands Hadrian’s Wall, the last defense of civilization against the marauding savages of Caledonia. It’s cold, wet, and rustic at the Wall. And about as far from Rome as a Roman can get. But it’s there that the young and beautiful Roman maiden, Valeria, must go to save the senate career of her father.
In exchange for a cash infusion from a noble family, her father has betrothed her to a Roman officer. Not only does the officer get the fair Valeria, but he gets a preferment – the command of a fort at the most western reach of the Wall. Valeria is a dutiful Roman – anxious to do good by her family and her new husband. She’s also an adventurous, head strong girl who openly embraces the wild new world to which she’s sent. But all is not well at the Wall. There’s intrigue among the officers and there are barbarians in the woods. Soon, Valeria finds herself north of the Wall, a captive of one of the clans. And what does she find in the wild North? Freedom and love. Ah, for a life among the savages.
Dietrich has done his research. The descriptions of Roman customs and culture are done well and are accurate. But he suffers from Romantic delusions when it comes to the barbarian tribes. In the novel’s world, the Picts are a free, uninhibited and democratic people. The reality is more complex. They, like the Romans, had a hierarchy. They, like the Romans, had slaves. And they, like the Romans, had good men and bad men. And they weren’t above brutality, as even Mary, Queen of Scots learned oh so many centuries later.
The clash between cultures is a fertile field for novelist and historian alike, and it can make for compelling reading when not distorted by romance. When two very different cultures meet, there’s no shortage of drama. And when they meet in one character it’s doubly compelling. Norwegian novelist Singrid Undset explored the tensions between pagan Danes and Christianity from the pagan viewpoint in her historical novel Gunnar’s Daughter, without resorting to romancing the primitive. And historian John Demos tells the true and intriguing story of Puritan New Englander Eunice Williams, taken captive by Indians, never to return – by choice – in The Unredeemed Captive. (Not only did she become a savage, she became a Catholic savage. A double horror for her Puritan family.)
The fictional Valeria is herself an unredeemed captive. Seduced by the otherness of her captors, (not to mention the freedom to ride a horse wherever and whenever she wants and the good looking, muscular chieftain who falls in love with her), she willingingly leaves her Roman world behind forever. The weakness of Hadrian’s Wall is that nothing is given away by revealing those details. The book is set up as a mystery. The chapters alternate between interrogations of witnesses by a Roman inspector sent to the Wall to solve the mystery of the missing Valeria and flashbacks to the story of the maiden, the garrison, and the barbarians. It’s an unfortunate technique, for it gives away much of the mystery before it ever gets afoot. It also leaves nothing to the imagination when it comes to the motives and actions of the characters. If the reader has any doubt about a character’s goodness or villainy, one of the witnesses in an interrogation scene will shortly set him straight. And that’s a pity. For it makes what could have been a page-turner an all too predictable read instead.