In Captive Queen, her third work of fiction, bestselling British historian Alison Weir offers an energetic but uneven portrait of a royal marriage gone sour.
Eleanor of Aquitaine has become the ideal protagonist for authors who like their heroines bold, beautiful and brilliant. Queen of France and then England in the 12th century, she travelled on crusade, served as patron to the arts, gave birth to 10 children and committed treason to support her sons. As an acclaimed biographer of medieval and Tudor royals, including Eleanor herself, Weir has the credibility that readers go for. She puts her own spin on this controversial woman's story by following her relationship with England's Henry II from its lusty beginnings through to its bitter end.
Mixing fact with inspired guesses and invented episodes, Weir turns the heat up right from the start. When she catches the eye of a handsome stranger across the crowded royal court, Queen Eleanor, still gorgeous at 29, sees a way out of her marriage to the dull, devout Louis VII of France. The attraction between her and Henry of Anjou, a "red-headed lion, with a face upon which one might gaze a thousand times yet still wish to look again," is fiery and instant. No matter that he's 11 years younger, or that she fondly remembers her affair with his father - Eleanor determines she'll have him. "God, he was beddable!" she thinks, and within six pages, she's confirmed the truth of it. Henry, two steps away from gaining England's throne, can't resist her or her inheritance.
Because Eleanor has borne only daughters, convincing Louis of an annulment isn't difficult. Her marriage to Henry swiftly follows, and in 1152, they become king and queen of England. But their passionate bond, envisioned via juicy sex scenes, isn't enough. Their union unravels through a succession of betrayals: Henry's preference for chancellor Thomas Becket's company, his refusal to yield to her authority in Aquitaine, his affair with Rosamund Clifford and her decision to incite rebellion among their sons. The latter lands her in prison for 16 years.
This isn't a sprawling Plantagenet epic (Sharon Kay Penman's superb Devil's Brood) or a full-blown fictional biography (Jean Plaidy's The Courts of Love). Weir has a narrower focus, limited to interpersonal relationships and the outside events affecting them. She does a good job illustrating the political climate, from the English and French monarchs' complicated feudal ties to Henry's troubles with the church. There are fabulous descriptions of clothing, cuisine, furnishings and other material luxuries. The travel required of these rich royal overlords provides a lively journey that moves from the sunny climes of Poitiers, France, to the grand palaces of London to the wilds of Oxfordshire in wintertime.
The best historical novels require more than accurate backgrounds, exciting storylines and vivid ambience. Weir has skillfully imagined royal lives before, in both her histories and her fiction, but her style here is marred by less than subtle characterizations and some seriously cheesy writing. Eleanor, headstrong yet naive, expects a "partnership of princes" as well as wedded bliss, and despairs when she doesn't get either. "I am a captive in this marriage!" she complains. Henry can't control his anger, in particular where his religious conflicts with Becket are concerned; he growls, thunders, roars, grunts and fumes. While his bad temper comes through all too clearly, his intelligence and political acumen are given much less attention.
Although the dialogue is modern and accessible, it contains awkward exposition and odd direct statements. "We are neither of us meek and mild, but strong, audacious characters, brave as lions ourselves," Henry declares to Eleanor after their wedding night. If there's a good way to convince readers of people's importance in history, this isn't it. Fortunately, a wiser, mature Eleanor brings a tempered tone to the later sections. The claustrophobia of her dank prison at Sarum is palpable, and because it steers clear of melodrama, her long period of captivity is genuinely affecting.
The author's note is where writers confess any sins of inaccuracy committed in the name of fiction, and the opinions Weir expresses in hers are contradictory. "What is the point of a historical novel … based on a real person if the author does not take pains to make it as authentic as possible?" she writes. "Making up wild, unsubstantiated stories will always fail to convince."
However, nearly every bawdy rumour is given free rein, and Weir takes an unorthodox approach to Becket for which she says there's no evidence. Dramatic licence may be part of the game, but one can't have it both ways. It all makes for an exaggerated take on Eleanor of Aquitaine's life and times, and a puzzling coda to an already bumpy work.
Sarah Johnson's latest book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre. She blogs about historical novels at readingthepast.com.