Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine

Lady of Hay As a university student in Edinburgh in the 1970s Jo Clifford agrees to take part in a study into regression and past lives. She allows herself to be hypnotised, not really expecting anything to happen, but she proves to be such a good subject that both the Professor and his assistant, Sam Franklyn, are alarmed. They lie to her, telling her that they’d failed to hypnotise her, and then send her home.

Fifteen years later, now a journalist living in London, Jo is working on a series of magazine articles, one of which will be about hypnotism. As part of her research she agrees to undergo hypnosis again herself to prove that it doesn’t work. Jo has just split up with her boyfriend – Sam’s brother, Nick Franklyn – so when he and Sam try to warn her of the dangers, she doesn’t want to listen. Going ahead with the regression, she makes a shocking discovery: hypnotism does work and it seems that in a previous life she was Matilda de Braose, a 12th century noblewoman.

Intrigued by Matilda’s story, Jo spends more and more time in the past, reliving the events of Matilda’s marriage to the powerful baron William de Braose, her affair with the handsome Richard de Clare and her turbulent relationship with King John. As she learns more about Matilda, it becomes clear to Jo that there are some frightening similarities between her previous life and her current one – and that events from the past could be about to be replayed again in the present.

Barbara Erskine’s books always sound very intriguing to me, yet I’ve now tried three of them and have had mixed feelings about all three. There were some things I liked about Lady of Hay but other things that I really disliked, and overall I wish I hadn’t bothered with this one.

Let’s get the negative points out of the way first. My biggest problem with this book was the modern day storyline…the characters were so difficult to like! It seemed that they were all either cheating on their partners, betraying their friends or plotting and scheming against family members. There was also a lot of domestic violence and abuse which the women just seemed to accept and view as normal. I’m aware that this book was published in 1986 but I don’t think things have changed all that much since then and I wanted to see Jo stand up for herself and let the men in her life know that the way they were behaving was wrong. In some cases I couldn’t understand why the police weren’t called.

I did find it interesting to read about the theories behind reincarnation and the various methods of hypnotism and regression but it was difficult to believe that so many people in the novel were experts on the subject. Jo was constantly meeting people at random who just happened to be trained hypnotists! There was also a suggestion that other people in Jo’s present had also lived in the 12th century, but I felt that this was never fully resolved. In particular, I struggled to understand what was going on with Sam Franklyn, whose personality seemed to change entirely within the space of a few chapters; it wasn’t clear whether this was supposed to be the result of a past life, a mental illness or something else.

I really enjoyed the historical sections of the book, which didn’t surprise me as I almost always do prefer the historical parts of a multiple time period novel. I have heard of Matilda de Braose before (mainly in Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons – although she was known as Maud, a variation of Matilda, in that book) but I have never read about her story in any detail. It was fascinating…so much more interesting than the modern day storyline; I was always disappointed when we had to leave medieval Wales and return to 20th century England.

I did feel a bit cheated when I turned to the author’s note at the end and saw that Erskine had actually invented a lot of the things that happened to Matilda in the novel. The affair with Richard de Clare, which forms such a big part of the story, was entirely imaginary, and so was the nature of Matilda’s relationship with King John. Not a problem if you already know a lot about the period, but if you don’t then it could be confusing as you would come away thinking that things really happened which actually had no basis in reality. Despite this, I would still have preferred this book to have been set purely in the past!

The edition of Lady of Hay that I read includes an additional short story at the end, written specifically for the 25th anniversary edition and following on from the ending of the original novel. I didn’t like the story and didn’t think it was necessary, though I suppose people who read the book years ago and have been desperate to know what happened next may feel differently! My advice if you’re reading the novel for the first time is to leave it at the original ending, which is fine the way it is.

Lady of Hay was not a great success with me, then, as the negative points probably outweighed the positive. If nothing else, though, it reminded me of the very similar Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which I enjoyed a lot more and would like to re-read one day!

6 thoughts on “Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine

    • Helen says:

      Barbara Erskine’s books always sound like the type of books I should love, but I’ve read three now and can’t really say I’ve enjoyed any of them. I don’t think I’ll be looking for any more.

  1. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I’ve read two of Barbara Erskine’s books, but not this one. I had very much the same reaction as you. I thought the books I read were far too drawn out, and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I had to suspend my disbelief a little too much for my liking and there were too many coincidences and contrivances. I thought I’d like the books much more than I did, because usually I like time-slip novels, but there was just too much fantasy and not enough historical facts for my liking. I have another book by her – Sands of Time, a collection of short stories, but I shan’t be looking for any more of hers.

    • Helen says:

      This book was full of coincidences and contrivances – the plot just didn’t feel plausible at all. It was disappointing, considering this is one of her best-known and most successful books. I’ve accepted now that Barbara Erskine just isn’t for me.

  2. litlove says:

    I read this when I was ooh 18 or 19 and I loved it. Remembering that, I reread it last year and thought the modern sections were utter tosh and wondered what on earth I had been thinking! However, the historical bits were still good. Poor old Barbara Erskine; I think she just doesn’t last over time, which given her books is rather ironic.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed the historical sections but the modern day storyline was terrible – too reliant on coincidences and too much violence and abuse. I know there are a few of Erskine’s novels which are purely historical, so maybe I would have preferred one of those instead.

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