The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

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This is a fictional account of the life and loves of Joan of Kent, one of history’s lesser known influential women, whose matrimonial and political experiences had a significant effect on the history of England, Wales and parts of France. Her royal birth and her life choices involved more than one Pope as her husbands and sons gained and lost power in the medieval world of marriages and diplomacy. There are times when it is difficult to remember where the action of the novel fits in with the overall history of the time, so it is fortunate that there are some genealogy tables in the front of the book. This is not a period of history that has been extensively tackled in fiction, in my experience, which gives O’Brien a lot of space to produce her own perspective of the “Fair Joan”.

The first sight of Joan is of a self centred girl who has a high sense of her worth as a beautiful royal woman, whose birth places her near to the royal family in the person of the King, Edward, and his loving wife Philippa. As the story of her life is recounted in the first person, we know that she has grown up with the royal princes and the upper aristocracy, but that her first love is a man of more ability than position. Her early choice means that she must stand against many adults who wish to steer her marriage prospects, and it is perhaps difficult to believe that such a young woman could stand against those who were determined to dictate her fate. Joan comes over as a tough soul, calculating her chances of success, less romantic perhaps than ruthless. Her preservation of legal paperwork is unusual, but proves significant in later days. She does not always gauge the mood of those around her correctly, but later love does come into her life and determines her actions. Her stubborn determination to see her son come to the throne dominates the latter part of the book, and the close of the novel is a little curious as there is more to describe, more left to experience.

I enjoyed the way this book was written, as many of the characters do live on the page and in some ways Joan is not always the most sympathetic.  The book seems well researched, and the settings, which are listed in the back, convincingly described. The book held my attention, as there was much to learn from it, though at no point was it didactic. Rather it swept along, a little gloomy, but realistic. I admired the way that most of the women were strong, especially Joan, fighting for those that they loved with every skill at their disposal. Joan’s hatred of Alice Perrers becomes a strong element of the book, which seems reasonable given her affection and respect for Philippa; an interesting element given this author’s previous book “The King’s Concubine” which tells Alice’s story.  Altogether this is a well written, involving historical novel which looks at a less well known period of British history and the characters which dominated it. I would recommend it especially to anyone who enjoys this genre but perhaps feels that certain periods have been a little overdone.

We have just returned from Derby Theatre where we have just seen a production of “Great Expectations”. An excellent evening, it was brilliantly staged with minimal staging. If it tours, which I imagine it will, do try and see it, even if Dickens is not your favourite author…

The Queen’s Choice – Anne O’Brien (The return of Northernreader!)

So it’s been a while, but you have had the high jinks and churches of http://www.northernvicar.co.uk to keep you going. He has included the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature which we enjoyed last weekend, so perhaps I’ll get round to writing about that sometime. Certainly I enjoyed meeting Kate Charles and listening to her speak of Clergy crimes. Apparently clergy have a lot of experience with murder in her world….

Anyway, perhaps a surprising choice for my comeback, but one I have enjoyed reading and, let’s face it, I can’t read worthy, literary books all the time. Not that there is anything unworthy about this book. It’s a great read, kept my interest throughout, and introduced me to new characters that only Shakespeare had vaguely mentioned. I really enjoyed the twists and turns of a pre Tudor historical fiction writing. I have loved reading about the Tudors since I was about ten (I know, I know. Blame Jean Plaidy) and have worked my way through Phillipa Gregory. This novel is different, and I enjoyed not knowing what happened at the end!

Joanna of Navarre is a woman who has been married off for political reasons at an early age. Her much older husband, the Duke, is affectionate and immensely respectful of her feelings and intelligence. So when he allows her to speak alone with Henry, an exile from the uncertain court of Richard II, he knows that she is deeply attracted to this young widower whose fate is so unpredictable. When John dies, he leaves his title to his young  son, but the administration and effective ruling of his dukedom to Joanna. In a life full of incident and surprises, Joanna rules firmly and well, but is approached by a suitor who she knows, loves and respects, via a man who is to have a profound effect in his own right.Her eventual choice is less dominating of the novel as a make or break decision than you would think from the title, but the results of her choice change her life and in no way leads to a bed of roses. Henry is a difficult man, fighting off challenges of every kind, unwilling to allow Joanna in to his decisions. I was frustrated at her lack of action at times, but given the historical setting she takes control of her destiny on a frequent basis. As I said above, not knowing what would happen to her and those around her added to the novel for me, an element I have enjoyed in The Forbidden Queen, an earlier O’Brien book.

Part of me is surprised that O’Brien is not better known. Her sense of place is great, and her research seems to me solid and reliable, without ever bogging down the plot or characterisation. Her novels feature strong women whose experiences are believable with men who they love, but who frustrate them in a very realistic way. She has written novels about imaginary women, but seems to have settled now for women with a definite footprint in history. These are novels which fairly race along and carry the reader with them, keen to know what happens. The Harrogate History Festival cited one of the problems of historical writing as that the reader knows that the characters “all die in the end”, but these novels are not dominated by that truth. There is always hope, yet a resolution of the female lead’s story.  I find that the writing style is not dense, not bogged down by details which prove that the author has done her homework but slow the action. Not that I don’t appreciate solid research by any means, but sometimes historical fiction seems to leave the characters behind in the rush to impart facts.

Anyway, this is a good book, well written and immensely readable. I’m just going to investigate her other books lurking on my shelves that I may not have read, before looking out my book group novel The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble. Not such a fast read, I fear…

Devil’s Consort – Anne O’Brien

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…