‘She bit clean through the master’s ear’
Emily Bearn admires this tale of a feisty slave girl on the run in Roman Britain
Fiction for young adults is now so dominated by novels set in the dystopian future that the past can feel overlooked. Thank goodness for Tanya Landman, then, whose books have galloped us through several centuries. The Goldsmith’s Daughter was set during the Aztec civilisation of South America; Buffalo Soldier (winner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal) took place in the aftermath of the American Civil War; Hell and High Water was about a puppet showman in 18th-century Devon.
Her latest, Beyond the Wall, takes us to Roman Britain and the story of Cassia, a slave girl in the household of a lascivious Roman, Titus Cornelius Festus. Cassia is raised to be a concubine for Titus’s sickly son Lucius but she has other plans. When Titus tries to rape her, she shows her independent streak: “The master’s blow sent a wild wolfish rage coursing through her veins… the lower half of his ear was severed from his head. She had bitten clean through it.” She then flees
north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, falling on the mercy of a Roman herb trader. All the while, she is propelled by fear of Titus’s retribution: “She had seen slaves burned with firebrands, their skin bubbling like a roasted boar.”
Landman says that the story was inspired by her research into the Great Conspiracy of AD367, during which slaves in Roman Britain rose against their masters. But her skill is that of the novelist, rather than the historian. As with Rosemary Sutcliff ’s classic children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, Landman is particularly good on the domestic nitty-gritty of Roman Britain. Dates and timelines are swiftly dispensed (“This was Britannia… occupied by enemy forces these last 300 years”) but, when it comes to the hue of a mosaic or what’s in a cooking pot, her eye never blinks and the pace of her story never slackens.
“I have played fast and loose with strict historical accuracy,” she explains in an afterword. And, like any of the best historical novelists, she gets away with it.