Jun 7, 2010

Book Review: Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

Another headless cover. Le Sigh. But, beautiful colors!
Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
Published July 13, 2010
Ballantine Books, 496 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four stars!

Having proven herself a gifted and engaging novelist with her portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I in The Lady Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey in Innocent Traitor, New York Times bestselling author Alison Weir now harks back to the twelfth century with a sensuous and tempestuous tale that brings vividly to life England’s most passionate—and destructive—royal couple: Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II.

Nearing her thirtieth birthday, Eleanor has spent the past dozen frustrating years as consort to the pious King Louis VII of France. For all its political advantages, the marriage has brought Eleanor only increasing unhappiness—and daughters instead of the hoped-for male heir. But when the young and dynamic Henry of Anjou arrives at the French court, Eleanor sees a way out of her discontent. For even as their eyes meet for the first time, the seductive Eleanor and the virile Henry know that theirs is a passion that could ignite the world.
Returning to her duchy of Aquitaine after the annulment of her marriage to Louis, Eleanor immediately sends for Henry, the future King of England, to come and marry her. The union of this royal couple will create a vast empire that stretches from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, and marks the beginning of the celebrated Plantagenet dynasty.
But Henry and Eleanor’s marriage, charged with physical heat, begins a fiery downward spiral marred by power struggles, betrayals, bitter rivalries, and a devil’s brood of young Plantagenets—including Richard the Lionheart and the future King John. Early on, Eleanor must endure Henry’s formidable mother, the Empress Matilda, as well as his infidelities, while in later years, Henry’s friendship with Thomas Becket will lead to a deadly rivalry. Eventually, as the couple’s rebellious sons grow impatient for power, the scene is set for a vicious and tragic conflict that will engulf both Eleanor and Henry.
Vivid in detail, epic in scope, Captive Queen is an astounding and brilliantly wrought historical novel that encompasses the building of an empire and the monumental story of a royal marriage.
Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor. This is her year for novels. A rare treat is to have one penned by historian Alison Weir, so I relished the chance to read this novel on the famous Queen who had shrugged off the title of Queen of France in hopes of being Queen of England. Most importantly, Eleanor was proud of being Eleanor of Aquitaine. I had read several novels that have endeared me to the rebellious Eleanor, such as the spectacular Plantagenet trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman and Pamela Kaufman's The Book of Eleanor. Most recently, I read The Queen's Pawn by Christy English which focuses on a snippet of Eleanor's life, which is barely touched on in Weir's telling. I have yet to immerse myself in a non-fiction read of Eleanor, therefore I do not have a strict stance on some of the rumors that surround Eleanor such as her possible infidelity to her first husband King Louis. Right away, Weir sets the tone for this novel as it dives into Eleanor's lustful ways, and therefore, less than faithful ones. This will be a huge turn off to Eleanor fans, but I chose to accept it for its fictional power only. And I am not entirely sure the excessive amount of sexual encounters and sexual thoughts really had to be included here; it is a significant drawback to the rest of the novel as it takes away from the already incredible story of Eleanor's life which doesn't merit the need to spice it up with as much sex as Weir does here. Thankfully, this occurs only for the first half of this novel on Eleanor, as eventually she does lose her sexual power over her husband as she is kept captive away from her family for many years. Eleanor was famous for being the Queen of the Courts of Love where Aquitaine was proud of its troubadours and courtly flirtations, and England took awhile to accept the ways of these troubadours.

Alison Weir's new novel of Eleanor begins when Eleanor is unhappily married to the very pious but respectful Louis VII, after she has given him two daughters but no heir to the French throne. She works on his advisers to persuade Louis to denounce their marriage due to the ever present fortunate escape route of consanguinity, and Eleanor is gleefully free to sow her wild oats away from the French courts and their disapproving eyes. As mentioned, I was a bit shocked at the immediate sexual nature that was displayed, as the Angevin devils otherwise known as the future Henry II and his father Geoffrey V of Anjou appear at court and Eleanor is deep in lust for them. Immediately Eleanor plots her fate and is successful at ridding herself of King Louis and within months she marries the nineteen year old Henry Fitzempress. The prospect of the merging of the lands of Henry's and Eleanor's together is a great one, and propels Henry on a course to succeed King Stephen as the next King.

Eleanor and Henry's marriage is the one major focus in the novel, as well as how the relationship develops and then flounders over the years. The power that Eleanor wants to maintain as a sovereign over Aquitaine is a thorn in Henry's side, but in the beginning of the marriage, their confrontations were smoothed over with another romp in bed. Eleanor is shown as putting up with her husband to keep the peace as much as possible. Thus the title of the novel, Captive Queen, becomes understood as we watch Eleanor struggle to maintain her Queenly stature and to continue to be revered as the beautiful yet intelligent Queen that she was. She is also shown as a loving mother to their children, especially after she walks away from her daughters that she had with Louis previously. How this separation affected her in reality we will never know, but I cannot think of it being so simple as it is glazed over in many Eleanor books, simply because there is not much to tell. It is brought up a few more times as Weir demonstrates Eleanor's motherly nature with her and Henry's children well, and helps to endear us to Eleanor. All of the children are featured but not as prominent as other novels such as Penman's books; this is truly focused on Eleanor and her personal travails.

The novel moves forward as the conflicts with the chancellor Thomas Becket appear, and Eleanor and Henry are beginning to not get past their marital problems and Henry's infidelity with the "Fair Rosamund" who Henry really loved. Becket is portrayed as a man who was enamored of Henry, and probably a bit in love with him, and vice versa. Henry valued Becket's camaraderie and knowledge, and may have seen him either as a father or a brotherly figure. Eleanor and Thomas each recognized a silent rivalry for Henry's ear with each other and Weir demonstrates this threatening undercurrent several times.

The second half of the novel was much better in my opinion (probably because of the way that Eleanor was not given the opportunity to have sex that often), therefore it was focused on the turmoil within her family and how it affected Eleanor. The sons were causing trouble and strife as they fought for more power in the lands they inherited, but Henry II had troubles relinquishing much power to his boys due to their untrustworthiness. I had begun to dislike Henry and his controlling ways, but with the way that Weir wrote his story towards the end I was sympathetic by how Weir demonstrated how Henry was defeated during his last days. Richard the Lionheart was not featured as much but was more of an enigma to the reader; was he great, was he knightly, was he passionate?... it was hard to decipher with this telling. He seemed focused on destruction at one point in the novel which gave him a bit of a forbidding persona.

Overall, the novel is an intriguing look at the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine as she marries Henry II, but Penman is still the queen of that fictionalized story in my eyes. If Weir used a bit more grace and less bawdy tales from the start, she may have matched Penman's novels Time and Chance, or Devil's Brood. For those readers who have not yet read those Penman novels, this would be an interesting read if you can tolerate the multiple sexual references. And for those who have read the William Marshal novels by Elizabeth Chadwick, I think this novel would be a great tie in to those as well. The story was focused on Eleanor and how she may have felt during most of her life, as opposed to much of the politics of the time; and it was done in a plausible, understandable and intriguing way. I am happy to have read Weir's entertaining story of Eleanor for myself, and perhaps you will too, as I believe the novel did Eleanor justice overall.