Lady MacBethad by Isabelle Schuler

The character of Lady Macbeth is known to many of us through Shakespeare’s play, but who was she really? What kind of person was she and what were the events that led to her marriage to Macbeth and the beginning of the story we think we know? These are the questions Isabelle Schuler attempts to answer in her new novel, Lady MacBethad.

The book is set in the first half of the 11th century and is narrated by Gruoch, the woman who will become Lady Macbeth. With royal blood in her veins, Gruoch has grown up listening to her Picti grandmother’s prophecies that one day she will be Queen of Alba. When she is betrothed to Duncan, heir to the throne, it seems that the prophecy is going to come true and although she is sorry to leave behind her family and her close childhood friend MacBethad, she heads for Scone to join Duncan’s court. However, she is unprepared for the hostility of Duncan’s mother, Bethoc, the scheming of her pagan friend, Ardith, and the arrival of another young woman, Suthen of Northumberland, who also catches Duncan’s eye.

When a dramatic turn of events leads to her having to flee Scone before the marriage can take place, Gruoch falls into the hands of Mael Colum of Moray and his brother, Gillecomghain. Her chances of becoming queen seem out of reach again, but Gruoch refuses to give up on her dream.

Lady MacBethad ends before Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins, so is not a retelling of the play but more of a prequel to it. Also, the characters in Schuler’s novel are based on the real historical figures rather than on Shakespeare’s interpretation of them, which of course can’t be taken as being particularly accurate! I was pleased to find that she tries to use language appropriate to the period and authentic medieval Gaelic naming, such as MacBethad mac Findlaich rather than the anglicised Macbeth. This was a relief after reading Joanna Courtney’s Blood Queen a few years ago, which renamed Gruoch as Cora and Gillecomghain as Gillespie, just in case the original names were too difficult for modern readers.

Schuler works some quotes from Shakespeare into the conversations between her characters – “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent beneath it” is advice given to Gruoch by her grandmother, for example – but no knowledge of the play is necessary to be able to understand and enjoy this book. It can be read as a straightforward work of historical fiction, bringing to life a fascinating and complex period of Scotland’s (or Alba’s) history. It explores the conflict between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs, the fading culture of the Picts and the warring factions trying to gain control of the throne.

Gruoch (or Groa, as her pagan friends call her) is portrayed as ambitious, determined and driven by her desire to become queen no matter what. Yet her narrative voice feels slightly too young and immature for me to find her completely convincing. I think having read Dorothy Dunnett’s wonderful King Hereafter, it was just too difficult for me to put Dunnett’s Groa out of my mind and fully embrace a different version of the character.

The way the book ends sets things up perfectly for a sequel, maybe incorporating some of the more familiar events of Macbeth. I wonder whether there will be one or whether Isabelle Schuler is moving on to other subjects now.

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

12 thoughts on “Lady MacBethad by Isabelle Schuler

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    I’m in two minds about reading this – on the one hand, it looks intriguing, but on the other hand, it would have to be an utterly brilliant masterpiece to be even slightly comparable to King Hereafter. And I haven’t been impressed by several novels set in the deep past that I’ve read recently – they all seem to depict modern young women in long dresses (Cleopatra entering her ‘parlor’ was an epic fail). I think it’ll boil down to whether my library service stocks it or not!

    • Helen says:

      It certainly doesn’t come close to the brilliance of King Hereafter, but I didn’t expect it to so I accepted it for what it was and found it interesting enough. It’s better than the other book I read on Lady Macbeth by Joanna Courtney, which not only ‘modernised’ all the names but also had the men wearing kilts!

  2. Lark says:

    What a great idea to write prequel about Lady Macbeth! I think I’d like this one. (Even though Macbeth is not my favorite Shakespeare play.)

  3. FictionFan says:

    “It explores the conflict between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs, the fading culture of the Picts and the warring factions trying to gain control of the throne.” Haha, if you’ve been following Scottish politics in the last few weeks, you’ll know why that sentence made me laugh. Some things never change… 😉

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