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Wednesday, 30 September 2009 19:09

Rebellion reigns in historical novel

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Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman. G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

 

Politics is not a game for sissies. It is not even necessarily a game for the good of heart.

In the twelfth century, King Stephen of England attempted to act with restraint in regard to his rival claimant for the throne, Mathilda. His moderation and mercy helped create a civil war that cost the English countryside dearly in the numbers of villages burned and inhabitants slain.

The man who followed him onto the throne, Henry II, was a different beast altogether. From his ancestors — his great-grandfather was William I, the Norman duke who in 1066 conquered England, won the throne, and changed the world forever — Henry inherited the ability to win the loyalty of men and the will to crush and destroy all who rebelled against him.

This king led an extraordinary life. At 19, two years before he took the throne, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from the King of France. Their passionate, tempestuous marriage eventually landed Eleanor in a remote castle, where she was confined for 15 years. She bore Henry many children, including Kings Richard I and John, and led those children in rebellion against their father.

Henry is also famous for helping to create the English courts, for overseeing an empire — in addition to England, he made inroads into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and ruled a large part of France — and for his efforts to take charge of the English church, which was Catholic at the time and which owed its allegiance to Rome. Henry wanted to bring the ecclesiastical courts into his own system — a cleric charged with murder could only be defrocked if convicted in a church court — and to control the monies of the Church in England.

In pursuit of these ambitions, he pushed Thomas Becket, his chancellor and friend, into becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. The worldly Becket, who had warned Henry against making this appointment, underwent a dramatic transformation from fashionable chancellor to an austere archbishop. He opposed Henry on every front, so that the frustrated King finally shouted to his court: “Can none of the cowards eating my bread free me from this turbulent priest?” Three knights took him at his word, crossed the Channel, and murdered the archbishop at his Canterbury altar. Becket became an instant martyr, and Henry lost his chance at control over the church.

Such a dramatic life, filled with wars and worries, with patricidal sons and a passionate wife, deserves a good storyteller. We can find just such a chronicler in Sharon Kay Penman, who continues her ongoing examination of Henry, Eleanor, and those around them in her novel Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008, $28.95).

Penman begins her novel in April of 1172, when Henry has sat on the throne for nearly 20 years. As the title implies, the king in this fiction is chiefly concerned with his rebellious sons and wife. The alliances between his sons and other barons were ever shifting during the last 15 years of Henry’s reign, resulting in constant battles, political and military, in which he would have to assert himself over his offspring.

What makes Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood a remarkable read is her deep knowledge of the twelfth century coupled with her ability to bring characters alive on the page. In terms of the history of the period, she takes time to explain events by skillfully incorporating them into the story, letting the characters carry the issues to the readers. At the end of the book, Penman — a grand name for an author — takes the time to explain at length why certain misconceptions of this age and its king, promoted in part by the film “The Lion in Winter,” remain with us. With wit and clarity, for example, she explains to us how different the medieval ideas of sexuality were from our own.

But Penman’s style and her recreation of these historical figures are surely what make her book a winner in terms of historical fictions. She has a knack for blending the language of the Middle Ages with the language of our time, so that the dialogue seems neither stilted nor overly modern; she offers clear descriptions of scenes and people who today would seem quite foreign to us; she makes us feel and empathize with problems solved long ago and with people long dead.

The following exchange, for example, between Eleanor and Henry allows us a glimpse of Penman’s affinity for this age:

“’I fear,’ Henry said, ‘that I could not get out of this bed if the castle caught fire. Jesus, woman, are you seeking to kill me? My very bones feel like melted wax.’

Eleanor cocked a skeptical brow. ‘If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.’

‘I never claimed to be a monk, love. That was your first husband, as I recall.’

Amused in spite of herself, she hid her smile in the crook of her arm. ‘Mock him if you will, but poor Louis has you beaten in one race at least — his sprint toward sainthood.’”

In these few lines, Penman shows us the feelings that run between Henry and Eleanor as well as the fact that Henry, unlike Louis, is not a saint. Since Devil’s Brood runs to more than 700 pages, and since Penman wastes little breath in her writing on the extraneous, the reader is guaranteed an excellent lesson in history told in an exciting way.

Highly recommended.

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