Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Captive Queen

Author: Alison Weir
Publication Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 473
Cost: The list price is around $15.00, but I'm sure you can pick up a copy for less than that.
Where Did I Hear About It: I generally enjoy Alison Weir's work, although I acknowledge some historical issues here and there.  I try to keep an eye out for new books.

The Backstory

Eleanor of Aquitaine is second only to Anne Boleyn when it comes to history's most notorious English queens.  Unlike Anne, who was born into the more modest English gentry, Eleanor was destined for something significant early on.  Her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died seven years after his only son, William, leaving Eleanor his heir.  Right away, men of rank and substance--and many fortune hunters who were not--were eager to capture her hand in marriage.  It was, however, Louis VII, King of France, who was the ultimate victor, becoming Eleanor's first husband in 1137.  The marriage was not a happy one.  It seems Eleanor and Louis were two very different people--Louis was primarily guided by the formidable Abbot Suger, who encouraged him to avoid his wife's company, particularly in bed.  It was agreed that Eleanor and Louis should seek an annulment, which they did in 1152.  The official reason was their all-too-close blood ties, but many suspected that the two of them would never see eye-to-eye, and their marriage had only produced two daughters, both barred from inheriting the French throne due to their gender.

Eleanor's second, and more successful marriage, to the future Henry II of England, was made about two months after her annulment.  Although the age difference was significant--Eleanor was 11 years his senior--the marriage produced 8 living children, and perhaps more who died in infancy.  Regardless, they seemed to have quarreled quite a bit.  Eleanor was frequently left on her own while Henry quelled various rebellions across what would be called his "Angevin Empire."  In 1167, Eleanor traveled south with Henry, staying in Poitiers and effectively ruling Aquitaine on her own (or on Henry's behalf).  Her eldest living son, Henry, who had been crowned king by Henry II to acknowledge him as his successor, revolted against his father in 1173, bringing his younger brothers, Geoffrey and Richard, into the fray.  Eleanor was assumed to have encouraged her sons, and perhaps the Aquitainian nobility, to revolt, and, as a result, she was captured and held in either Winchester or Sarum starting in 1174.  In 1183, however, she was granted a greater degree of freedom, occasionally accompanying her husband and participating in state affairs, but she was generally accompanied by a guardian of some kind.  She was officially freed by her son, Richard, upon his succession after his father's death in 1189.  Eleanor acted as Richard's regent while Richard was off on the Third Crusade, and, her son, John, Richard's successor, sent her to Castile to choose the future wife of the King of France's son, Louis.  Eleanor returned to Fontevraud Abbey in 1201, dying there in 1204.

There were, of course, many stories, legends, and rumors of note associated with Eleanor.  She was described as a great beauty in her own time.  There were rumors that she had several out-of-wedlock trysts, particularly when she was married to Louis.  Two notable examples were: Geoffrey Plantagenet, father of Henry II, and Raymond of Poitiers, her uncle and Prince of Antioch while accompanying Louis on Crusade.  There were also rumors that Eleanor had somehow killed Henry II's beloved mistress, Rosamond de Clifford.  Historians generally accept that Eleanor must have been remarkably beautiful, but they debate many other details associated with her life.

What about the book?

Although I started out as an avid reader of Alison Weir's historical works, I truly believe she is at her best as an author of historical fiction.  She knows the topics of her novels very well, having often researched them for published historical materials, and she has a gift for writing lively prose.  She is clearly interested in what the historical sources can tell her about the characters of the people she writes about, and those characters are well-developed in her work.

I have to admit that it took me much longer than it usually does to get down to reading this book in earnest.  I picked it up months ago, got about 20 pages into it, but I was generally turned off by her approach to Eleanor.  I thought I would try again, and I am very glad I did. 

This book is generally very enjoyable.  If you know the basic outline of the details of Eleanor's life, you'll find it particularly interesting to see how Weir treats them.  She has a very clear idea about the characters of her primary subjects--Eleanor and Henry.  She also does a good job with Henry's son, Henry, who died young and never succeeded his father.  She writes the novel in such a way as to keep the reader moving through it, and the pieces fit together well.

There are a few drawbacks--first, she covers a very long period of time, and not all of it is treated equally well.  I would argue that the earlier parts of Eleanor's life were covered better than the later ones, as if Weir either ran out of steam going into Eleanor's later life or she was, herself, more interested in Eleanor's earlier life.  I felt that the details got thinner as the novel wore on, which is possibly a response to how lengthy it ultimately became.  The cast of characters was also a bit too extensive, and many were left without a postscript save Eleanor's children.  The novel's primary action ends in 1189 upon Richard's accession as king, but this leaves out some of the more interesting events in her later life.  Although convenient to frame the novel around Eleanor's marriage to Henry II, the reader could have regained something of Eleanor as autonomous elder stateswoman if her post-Henry years were somehow included.  In fact, there is a short epilogue, taking place in 1204 upon her death, during which she reflects upon her life.  All of her reflections were about events through 1189, and one would think that the ensuing 15 years would have had some kind of impact on her to warrant a mention at that stage.  To think she would be pining for Henry at the end, a decade and a half after his death, seems a little ridiculous.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this novel quite a bit.  There is a lot of action and some great dialogue and exchanges between characters.  I would make the argument that Weir's treatment of Henry's relationship with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the novel's highlights.  Henry, Eleanor, and Thomas are all developed as complex characters, and Henry's relationship with Thomas is equally complex. 

If you're interesting in reading more about Eleanor, Alison Weir wrote a biography in 1999 entitled Eleanor of Aquitaine, and, more recently, Ralph V. Turner wrote a biography by the same name (published 2009).

Rating: 7.  It's well worth a read.
Buy it or Borrow it: Borrow it--after I read the book, I truly felt that I wouldn't read it again even thought I enjoyed it.  Overall, it is great, but I can't identify any passages in the book that I will think on and ultimately wish to revisit.

1 comment:

AKi_nG said...

300-400 yrs of Tudor reign astonishes me, even in a Eleanor article seeing Henry II in 1190s