Saturday, July 31, 2010

Captive Queen

Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
© 2010 Alison Weir
478 pages

My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. (Peter O'Toole as Henry II, The Lion in Winter)

In my youth there were only a handful of English monarchs I could reliably name: George III, the "bad guy" in my elementary history texts; the latter Tudors, chiefly Elizabeth and Henry VIII (who I knew for his many wives); Richard I and John from Robin Hood fame; and  their father, Henry II, whose bitter feud with his captivating wife Eleanor and their children fascinated me early on. 

Although I approached Captive Queen thinking it a biographical novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, it opens with her spotting young Henry Fitz-Empress for the first time as his father Geoffry pays homage to her husband, French king Louis VII.  The two are immediately swept up by the other, and the rest of the book is their stage:  although Weir's principle character is Eleanor, Henry is by no means a mere supporting character. They are both strong, willful, and wily: they arrange Eleanor to be freed from her marriage from Louis and immediately forge a "marriage of lions". 

Eleanor brings with her the whole of Aquitaine, a substantial portion of France as modern readers know it. Together with the lands from Henry's own Norman legacy and his newly-claimed English throne, these two lions have a domain that rivals any in Europe -- but a mighty nation led by two ferocious partners is not to be, as Eleanor soon discovers. Her heavy-handed, domineering husband rides roughshod over her rights as the Duchess of Aquitaine, and her place at his side in council is lost to the quiet Thomas Becket. Henry's imperiousness lasts his whole life, leading to constant feuds with his children and Eleanor. Their brood of children -- including the aforementioned Richard the Lion-Hearted and John, who is most famous for losing to his barons -- are as willful and self-interested as their parents, and their family feuds lead to war in both England and Europe. 

Captive Queen has drama a-plenty, some of it agonizing. Weir's narrative makes clear that Eleanor and Henry are passionate for one another, wholly captivated by the other in both love and hatred -- but underneath that passion is a long-running, genuine affection for the other so that they both yearn for reconciliation even when sincerely wishing to never see the other again. The relationship between these two dynamic individuals is one of the book's strongest selling points, although it started off a little weak: in the beginning, I thought Weir may have intended this book toward readers who prefer supermarket romances, such was the emphasis on Henry and Eleanor going at each other like rabbits. Happily for me, the book picked up steam with the introduction of Thomas Becket, the troublesome priest who makes Henry's life so difficult when he is promoted from the king's bosom buddy and chancellor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The resulting drama gives Weir ample opportunity to enthrall readers, and the book remains solid from that point on. It ends neatly, with Eleanor on her deathbed reflecting over the glory and tragedy of her and Henry's combined life together -- and the legacy they leave behind.

Captive Queen lives up to the expectations I had of Weir following The Lady Elizabeth. Though slow to get started Weir provided a romping read through some of England's more interesting years. Her notes at the end of the book explain to the reader how she interpreted or took liberties historical facts, and delighted me by confirming that parts of the novel were inspired by The Lion in Winter and Becket, both of which were continually in my mind while reading this: her approach to Henry and Eleanor reminded me strongly of Lion in Winter's, and she states that she wanted to explore the relationship between these two not just over one explosive winter, but throughout their shared lives.

  • Becket, in which Peter O'Toole gives a hilarious rendition of Henry II despite the fact that the movie is about the bitter demise of a friendship. Eleanor plays no significant role except to knit and chide Henry about his closeness with Becket, but it's one of my favorite movies. 
  • The Lion In Winter, in which O'Toole is again Henry II -- this time, an older, angry, and despairing king anguished by his sons' perpetual treachery. Katherine Hepburn plays Eleanor, and the two bounce off one another splendidly. The intro quote links to one of the more pivotal moments of the scene. 

1 comment:

  1. I have a bunch of historical fiction coming up comparatively soon. I'll make sure that there's some Weir in it....


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