Queening it up

I’ve had an Eleanor of Acquitaine thing for a long time. It hasn’t been as virulent as my Elizabeth I thing, probably because there are a lot fewer novels, movies and TV shows made about the Plantagenets than the Tudors. The 12th century was a long time ago and we have a lot less to go on about how they lived, what they wore, said, ate, etc. Still, there’s some good stuff — the book that got me started was A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by the great E.L. Konigsburg. She’s better known for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the story of two kids who run away and spend a week or two at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (how DID that woman get away with those crazy hard-to-remember titles???). But her book on Eleanor is superb, especially for a kid who’s into history and appreciates a strong woman character.

And what a woman! Eleanor was a significant landholder in her own right — her holdings dwarfed the smaller lands that then made up the kingdom of France — and she was queen of France AND England, annulling her marriage to Louis of France in order to run off with the future Henry II of England, 12 years her junior. It was an alliance of power and property, to be sure, but appears to have been a love match, too, at least in the beginning. By the end, Eleanor joined her sons in rebellion against their father and when that rebellion failed, was imprisoned by him. After he died, her son Richard the Lionheart let her out and she kept the country together while he went off on crusade, got himself held captive then was killed. Very dramatic all around.

Eleanor is probably best known fictionally via Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal in the movie version of The Lion in Winter and that’s good, too, though I’ve always thought the movie came off as one of those stagey let’s-take-a-play-and-perform-it-outside-and-call-it-a-movie movies. I prefer the younger Eleanor, the one who insisted on joining her first husband on Crusade and on dumping him for the more suitable young Henry Plantagenet. Now that would make a great movie. Starring Cate Blanchett.

It looks like Eleanor might be coming in for a Tudor-like popular revival — there are several new novels out about her and I snapped one of them up as soon as it arrived at the library, especially since it was by Alison Weir, a historian/novelist I knew had written a well-regarded popular (as opposed to academic) biography of Eleanor. But I’m sorry to say Captive Queen was a severe disappointment (2 stars). More on that later — I’m reviewing it for Solares Hill and don’t want to scoop myself here — but it just wasn’t good. I checked A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver out of the library just to check up on my Eleanor and found that it holds up very well and was a good reminder of a good fictional treatment (4 1/2 stars!).

I would still like to read a good one meant for adults and I keep seeing references to Sharon Kay Penman’s trilogy on Eleanor and Henry II — When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance and Devil’s Brood. We have all three of them in the library collection — but they are big books, especially the first, and I just haven’t been in the right place to take them on. So instead I went with Penman’s mystery series set in the same era, featuring a bishop’s bastard son named Justin de Quincy. The first is The Queen’s Man (the queen of the title is Eleanor) and found it was a very capable historical mystery. So if you like that Ellis Peters sort of thing, check out this series. (3 1/2 stars). Another enjoyable medieval mystery featuring Eleanor (this time as a murder suspect after the death of Henry’s mistress Rosamund de Clifford) is The Serpent’s Tale, second in Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Finally, one I haven’t read but that is recommended by a library patron with whom I am sympatico in literary taste is Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly.  Unfortunately it’s not in our library collection but this patron got it via Interlibrary loan — and you could, too!

I’ve also started Weir’s own biography of Eleanor and am finding it very informative and enjoyable — which just makes it all the more heartbreaking that the novel turned out so badly. It shows, too, how difficult historical fiction can be. You can have all the settings and facts right, but if the characters are wooden and implausible, it just doesn’t work. I should have realized this was a possibility — Weir’s first foray into fiction was a novel about Elizabeth I, whom she has also written about as a biographer. I started that book with the same sort of high hopes and could not proceed past about 50 pages, which is very unusual for me. But I thought her novel about Lady Jane Grey, Innocent Traitor, was just fine, so I thought she’d figured it out.

One last queen: Tudor popularizer extraordinaire Philippa Grey’s new series ventures back into Plantagenet territory, with the Wars of the Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks, the wars which were finally resolved with the arrival of the Tudors.  The second installment arrived at the library recently and I grabbed that one, too. The first in this series, The White Queen, focused on Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV (York).  The second is called The Red Queen and its narrator/heroine is Margaret Beaufort (Lancaster) who was mother of Henry VII (Tudor). It was OK — better than Captive Queen — but something of a slog, because Margaret just isn’t a very compelling character. She’s pious, cold, and ambitious, all of which I’m sure was perfectly normal and appropriate for her time and station but who wants to spend all that time inside her head? I’ll give that one 3stars. And I’m looking forward to a small break from all this queenship and a return to the dystopian YA world of Suzanne Collins, with Mockingjay, the final installment in her excellent Hunger Games trilogy.

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Filed under fiction, Key West Library, recommended reading, YA

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