This book has the subtitle “England’s Most Ruthless Queen” and, yes, it’s about Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are quite a few novels about this character from writers such as Alison Weir, and very good they are too. They unusually concentrate on her marriage to Henry II, who followed the troubled reign of Stephen. This is not surprising , as they did have eight children together, and during the good times reigned over a vast territory including England and much of what is today France.There are lots of tales about rebellion, mistresses and Eleanor actually being imprisoned by her husband following her support of her sons. This novel takes a different view, of Eleanor’s earlier life, when she was married to Louis, King of France.
This is a novel about how a young woman of fifteen marries a king, mainly because she has inherited a vast duchy from her father. O’Brien paints such a realistic picture of disappointment as it soon becomes obvious that Louis is a very religious man, but a bad king in many ways. Most importantly for this novel, he is a very poor husband. This is a book about how Eleanor establishes herself as queen, ruler of Aquitaine and a woman. She is admittedly selfish, unfaithful and the most unconcerned mother of two daughters, but she is very intelligent, aware of her power, and intends to live on her own terms. She lives in Paris unwillingly, and seizes the chance to escape on Crusade with Louis, which opens up a new world of experience for her. This period of her life is often brushed over in other novels, but this book reveals much about the danger and hardship that she faced, as well as the temptation. There are several theories about what really happened on this Crusade, especially Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle Raymond, ruler of Antioch. This is just one version which shows what may have taken place, but it is probably true that Eleanor was unwilling to leave Antioch. The whole picture of Louis as a fearfully religious man helps explain why she was so keen to leave the marriage, and why she was seen more in terms of a huge opportunity to rule rather than a wife. There is lot about women at this time being seen as merely producers of male heirs, and not rulers in their own right, even if they have inherited vast tracts of land.
O’Brien like many historical novelists has written a variety of books about the great characters of history, as well as semi fictional supporting characters. There is some debate about what readers want; women that they may have heard of, or ‘real’ people who are easier to identify with. I often read books about women (and some men) who were significant in British history, and I must admit this novel went to the bottom of the pile as I have read several about Eleanor (including a very successful series by Elizabeth Chadwick, unfinished a the moment).
(I ought to write a review of these two novels, which I enjoyed reading very much. I must try to get round to it before the third and final volume comes out!)
But I am very glad that I picked this one out to read, as it presents a vivid picture of the young Eleanor, which goes a long way to explain why Eleanor acted as she did, even though Henry apparently was a lot more satisfactory as a husband. O’Brien has written several novels which I have enjoyed as easy to read. Perhaps they are not as densely researched as some books, but are good at the atmosphere and humanity of the women she depicts. A good summer read, well, if we ever get any summer weather…