Jun 9, 2011

Review: Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick
544 pages Hardcover, Little Brown/Sphere UK 6/2/2011
Sourcebooks US Release 9/1/2011
ISBN 13: 9781847442376
Review copy provided by the UK publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:Five Glittery Stars

Two very different women are linked by destiny and the struggle for the English crown. Matilda, daughter of Henry I, is determined to win back her crown from Stephen, the usurper king. Adeliza, Henry's widowed queen and Matilda's stepmother, is now married to William D'Albini, a warrior of the opposition. Both women are strong and prepared to stand firm for what they know is right. But in a world where a man's word is law, how can Adeliza obey her husband while supporting Matilda, the rightful queen? And for Matilda pride comes before a fall ...What price for a crown? What does it cost to be 'Lady of the English'?
As mentioned before as a preface to Elizabeth Chadwick's article she provided us with here, I had first tapped into my historical fiction passion with the novel When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman. Henry I's son and heir to England, William, dies in the White Ship disaster, leaving his daughter Matilda as sole heir to the throne after her father's death. The path to that throne is littered with obstacles for the woman, as the new King Stephen usurps the throne of England from the Empress. Elizabeth Chadwick focuses her newest novel on two women: Matilda, Henry I's daughter, and Adeliza, Henry's beautiful wife, as turmoil ignites throughout the lands of Normandy and England.

The novel opens up to when Matilda's first husband Emperor Heinrich has died and left her as a young widower. Matilda returns to her father's keeping after living in Germany and enjoying her status as Empress. Matilda and Adeliza form a bond out of loyalty to King Henry, which proves useful to Matilda when she most needs it. Although King Henry has many illegitimate children, he cannot get a male heir from Adeliza, much to their chagrin. Thus, Matilda becomes a pawn in her father's realm, as nobles are forced to pay homage to the Empress, although they renege on this fealty once her father dies after eating lampreys. Was he intentionally poisoned? Did the Blois faction have something to do with Henry's convenient death? Despite the three separate times those nobles swore fealty to Matilda as heir to the throne, her cousin Stephen of Blois immediately takes England for his own while Matilda is faraway in Anjou with her children. Her new young husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, fights for their children's right to the throne of England, as loyalty is put to the test between family members and old alliances.

True to her form, Elizabeth Chadwick recreates the era with ease as we watch through the eyes of Matilda and Adeliza the struggle for the right to the throne. Given the coincidental timing that was always in favor for King Stephen, Matilda was always just a stone's throw from the throne's grasp, as she slowly began to groom her son and her own growing faction to prepare for the day her son would rightfully gain the throne. Adeliza's story of being a Queen and then almost a nun was also compelling, as she performed her role as peacemaker admirably and gracefully alongside Matilda's own efforts to safeguard her son's rights. Adeliza's story is not one that I've read before, and I found her part of the book a sweet counterpart to the story of the struggling Matilda. The few characters that Chadwick expands upon are Brian Fitzcount and William D'Albini, while others like Geoffrey of Anjou, King Stephen, and Robert of Gloucester only support the greater stories of Matilda and Adeliza.

Elizabeth Chadwick creates a fervor each time a new book of hers is even rumored to be released. This is due to her years of research, intelligent writing style and descriptive prose, along with her excellent ability to engage her readers within the first page of her novels. Chadwick knows how to spin the weaves of history's cloth, embroidered with captivating details, that seem to mirror the very image of the era. The historical fiction genre has quite a few of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II novels, but Chadwick does her readers a service by giving us the before picture. She weaves us through the reign of Stephen, otherwise known as the Anarchy, using several key characters and mentioning some lesser known ones, as the age old debate of Church vs. State come into play. The era was rife with dissemblers and floundering loyalties, as greedy nobles reached for titles beyond their grasp.

Empress Matilda always held to her son's goal as the King of England first and foremost, and learning the story of how she helped achieve that is a refreshing change of pace for historical fiction fans. Chadwick marvelously pinpointed the character of the young Henry II as an eager and ambitious boy who held fast to his destiny in England. Always a magnificent storyteller, Lady of the English does not disappoint. Up next for the author is indeed a trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I am eagerly awaiting how Chadwick tells Eleanor's story.

Related links from Elizabeth Chadwick's website:
The Enigmatic Brian FitzCount
Adeliza of Louvain. Lady of The English. The Forgotten Queen
An extract from the novel can be found here.
See my other Elizabeth Chadwick posts here.
 
Check out Book Depository.uk to order your copy of Lady of the English, and as of the date of this review you'll find some of Chadwick's previous titles on sale. I am slowly acquiring her back list, and I just ordered The Falcons of Montabard and The Winter Mantle.