Lady of Hay

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine (Harper Collins, 1986)

Introduced by Lesley Arrowsmith of Hay Cinema Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye

#HayHOWLs series in support of Hay-on-Wye Library (show your support here)


When I first came to Hay, I was told there were three books that I needed to read.  One was Kilvert’s Diary, and the others were Geoffrey Fair’s History of the Hay and Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay.

Kilvert is wonderfully descriptive about the life and people of the area – and Oliver Balch follows in his footsteps in Under the Tump, bringing stories of local life and people up to date.

Geoffrey Fairs was publishing the collaborative work of the History Group of the time, and the local folklore and history is fascinating.

Barbara Erskine was at the beginning of a long career as a historical novelist, and Lady of Hay is the book that made her reputation – partly because it wasn’t just a straight re-telling of the story of Matilda de Breose, but a time slip novel.  The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is in the same tradition, but this was one of the first for adults – there have been many children’s novels that send children back in time. 

In this case, it’s more like reincarnation – the modern woman, Jo, is Matilda reborn, and the two men in her life are King John and William de Breose respectively, re-creating an original love triangle (though I don’t think there’s any evidence that John fancied Matilda….).  There is some violence, and to be honest I found myself skipping the modern portions of the tale for the well-researched historical portions. 

But there is one lovely moment that shows that Barbara Erskine knew Hay well when she was writing the book (she now lives in Hay, of course).  Our heroine has passed out in her car, in the car park by the Buttermarket, as she re-lives scenes from Matilda’s life, and when she wakes up, she finds that the stalls of the Thursday market have been built around her car, and she can’t drive away.

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Hard to believe, but Powys County Council are threatening to close the public library in Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh Town of Books! Please support the campaign to STOP this absurd suggestion. More on the Facebook page:

In the immediate term, we need as many people as possible to write to Councillor Graham Brown protest ASAP. Please, please send an email. We are looking to postpone the start of library closure discussions scheduled for 31st October, so the more emails the better.


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