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Aug 13, 2010

Book Review: The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland

See the interview with the author at The Burton Review

The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Berkley Trade (August 3, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0425234501
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:

Eleanor of Aquitaine seized hold of life in the 12th century in a way any modern woman would envy!

1151: As Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor grew up knowing what it was to be regarded for herself and not for her husband's title. Now, as wife to Louis VII and Queen of France, she has found herself unsatisfied with reflected glory-and feeling constantly under threat, even though she outranks every woman in Paris.
Then, standing beside her much older husband in the course of a court ceremony, Eleanor locks eyes with a man-hardly more than a boy, really- across the throne room, and knows that her world has changed irrevocably...

He is Henry D'Anjou, eldest son of the Duke of Anjou, and he is in line, somewhat tenuously, for the British throne. She meets him in secret. She has a gift for secrecy, for she is watched like a prisoner by spies even among her own women. She is determined that Louis must set her free. Employing deception and disguise, seduction and manipulation, Eleanor is determined to find her way to power-and make her mark on history.

Ok, so here we have the zillionth historical novel on Eleanor this year. Are we tired of her yet? I am definitely tired of the sexual references over and over and over. So if you are too, I would recommend reading Christy English's The Queen's Pawn. At least it had Eleanor in it where she did not fantasize about men in her bed (too much). After recently reading The Captive Queen by Weir, I was hesitant to read another novel that is slanted again so much towards that sexual drive of Eleanor. I get it, ya know? And yet, I have to wonder.. what was Eleanor REALLY like? Is she now turning over in her tomb at Fontevraud with these supposed sexual exploits?

The Secret Eleanor opens up to Eleanor in the French courts as she first eyes the must-be-extremely-sexy Henry, future king of England. She is like a cat in heat upon first glance. I didn't really want to read any more after this, because, really, is it possible that we could we get past this? Well, it would have to be the flow of the writing itself. Which surprisingly and so very thankfully was not lacking. Thirty or forty pages of Eleanor scheming to get closer to Henry and finally the story starts taking shape and the humanity seeps through. If we had another thirty pages more of just Eleanor scheming for Henry, I would have given up. A saving grace were the supporting characters in the novel which included a naive young girl named Claire, and Eleanor's own sister, Petronilla and her eventual love interest. The story ultimately focuses on a fictitious illegitimate pregnancy of Eleanor's and once that story takes off, we are in for an entirely different slant on Eleanor as the supporters of Eleanor work to keep this very treasonous secret for Eleanor.

Arguably, the best feature was that the novel started to not focus on Eleanor but instead focused on Eleanor's sister Petronilla. In many of my previous encounters with Eleanor novels, Petra is involved in different capacities. This is the only one that focuses fully on the character of Petra and her feelings from jealousy to low self-esteem. Since Eleanor was secretly having an illegitimate child, Petra dons the Eleanor makeup and the royal clothes and impersonates Eleanor, long enough to fool everyone including Henry the Duke who Eleanor had high hopes of catching. Thus the title of this novel The Secret Eleanor makes perfect sense as Petra actually becomes Eleanor for public spectacles.

Another contrast from this novel to other Eleanor novels is the timeline. Many previous novels have been all encompassing which includes and emphasizes Eleanor's reign as Queen of England and the struggles she has between Henry II and their children, but this novel stops before we get to that point. It opens up to Eleanor as a Queen of France, struggling to find a way out of there as Louis' queen and directly on to Poitiers and her beloved home of Aquitaine. Henry (still just a duke and not yet king) is featured as the catalyst for Eleanor's will to make her split with Louis a reality, and her sister becomes a major mover in her quest as well. The side story of the lady in waiting, Claire, who we never knew if we could trust, was a positive departure from the norm in the novel, as we grew to empathize with Claire and her own plight in the world. She becomes involved with a troubadour which could have disastrous consequences for her and we witness her decisions as we await either her ruin or her rise.

As Eleanor fights to sever her ties with King Louis, the strongest theme of the novel was the relationship between the two sisters. Eleanor was always the one in the limelight, Petra was the shunned one. Once Petra switched places, and became the secret Eleanor, she felt noticed and beautiful. Can Petra find true love after being tossed away by her ex-husband? Can she ever feel as worthy to her sister as merely a sister and not as a servant? And can she do it without breaking the bond with her royal sister?

Those readers who are intrigued by the historical period before Eleanor became the Queen of England and mother of kings, would enjoy this novel if they can appreciate the romantic twists that the author inserts into the novel. It has the aura of a historical novel with its many characters and the nuance of the times, with the romantic overtones heavily laced throughout which makes it also a compelling historical romance. And for me, once the story took shape and I became invested in the storyline of what would happen as a result of the untimely pregnancy, I did enjoy this novel and the surprising plot. I was glad that it eventually did not focus on Eleanor's lusty desires and that it gave me insight into her sister's character who has always been Eleanor's shadow in other Eleanor novels.