Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Disappointing Look at a Controversial Queen

Thanks to Alianor, who sent me a photocopy, I just finished Alianor by Maureen Peters. (It’s not every day you get to write a sentence like that.) This is a 1984 historical novel about Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s queen. It’s easier to find in the UK than in the US, apparently, but whether it’s pounds or dollars that are in your pocketbook, I’d keep them there in this case.

A woman who was so hated by the Londoners that they pelted stones at her ought to make a fascinating subject for fiction. Unfortunately, this novel doesn’t live up to its subject; it’s disappointingly shallow. The events of Henry III’s turbulent reign are only touched upon; for instance, although Simon de Montfort makes a few appearances, it’s only to spar verbally with Alianor, then to disappear for a few chapters until he turns up again for another sparring match. Events such as the attack on London’s Jews and Guy de Montfort’s murder of Richard of Cornwall’s son, vividly portrayed by Sharon Penman, are described only fleetingly here or ignored altogether.

The main focus of the novel, instead, is on the unconsummated love between Alianor and her brother-in-law, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Curiously, Alianor’s wistful longings for Richard are about the only interior life she has—she’s never shown as worrying about the captivity of her son or her husband, for instance, though she's depicted as a loving mother. Though she’s portrayed as being greedy for jewels and clothing and overeager for the advancement of her family, no attempt is made to explain her motivations. There’s the occasional glimpse of tension between her and Henry, but the couple’s relationship is never explored in any depth. It’s quite typical that when Henry dies, his death is mentioned only in passing, as are the deaths of two of Alianor’s daughters.

The star-crossed-love theme here leads to a very odd scene when Eleanor de Montfort, Alianor’s widowed sister-in-law, turns up solely for the malicious pleasure of telling Alianor that Richard has died. Eleanor’s pleasure is tripled by the fact that both of Alianor’s young grandsons have just died of a fever. We should feel pity for Alianor, but there’s so little depth to her character, we don’t feel a thing (except, perhaps, indignation that Eleanor, historically in exile at France at the time, is being hauled clear across the Channel to do the author’s dirty work for her).

The most frustrating thing about this novel is that it could have been so much better. It’s certainly not badly written—there are some nice turns of phrases, including Alianor’s last spoken line, “Well, at least I kept my looks.” Alianor has retired to Amesbury priory when she utters that line, and it’s typical of the novel that we don’t have the slightest idea of why she’s there or why she hasn’t seen her family for five years before her daughter-in-law finally visits her. A good historical novel should illuminate the past; this one keeps us in the dark.

2 comments:

Alianore said...

Yes, Alianor's pretty shallow in this one! And the novel skims over everything to a quite ridiculous extent. You turn the page and think 'Huh! Henry's died??!'

Another annoying thing about the scene where Eleanor de Montfort tells Alianor about the deaths of Richard of Cornwall and two of Alianor's grandsons: in reality, these events all happened in different years. Richard of Cornwall died in 1272, Alianor's grandson John in 1271 and the other grandson Henry in 1274. Another reason why I found it impossible to feel any sympathy for Alianor!

I'm intending to write a blog post on Peters' novel about Isabella fairly soon.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Looking forward to seeing it! It's a pity this novel's so inadequate, because I rather liked the one she wrote about Katherine Howard.