Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Captive Queen by Alison Weir

Having read the reviews of this novel about this year's "It" girl in historical fiction, Eleanor of Aquitaine, I fully expected to hate this book. Instead, I found myself rather liking it.

The Captive Queen follows Eleanor from her marriage to Henry II to his death, with an epilogue that breezes through Eleanor's last years. As the title implies, much of the novel takes place after Eleanor, having helped her sons to rebel against their father, is imprisoned by a furious Henry.

There are some things I didn't care for about this novel. I could have done without Eleanor's flings with her uncle Raymond, Geoffrey of Anjou, and a troubadour, although as Weir notes, these affairs have been the subject of historical conjecture. The flings, however, are past history by the time the novel opens, and they aren't presented in such a way that they make Eleanor appear to be wildly promiscuous; rather, her infidelity is the outgrowth of loneliness, sexual frustration, and even immaturity. Louis, Eleanor's first husband, appears only briefly in the novel in person, but Weir gives him a certain dignity; he's not the butt of contempt he often is in historical fiction.

On the same note, a number of readers have complained about the sex in this novel. This is largely a matter of individual taste, of course. I'm of the "less is more" school, yet I can't say I found the sex here excessive or overly graphic as compared to that in other mainstream historical novels; I certainly never got the impression I was reading a romance novel in disguise. I did find the novel's opening scenes, where Eleanor and Henry jump into bed, then decide to marry, after having barely become acquainted, to be rather improbable, but the novel was far from the bonkfest I'd expected.

There was some awkward expository dialogue here, especially the scene where a nurse is made to tell Eleanor, solely for the reader's benefit, that one of Eleanor's sons is three years old. An equally groan-inducing scene comes when an abbess tells Eleanor, "King Stephen still lives." (How dim do these people think poor Eleanor is?) Fortunately, this type of dialogue becomes less frequent as the book progresses.

Eleanor is the main viewpoint character here, though we sometimes see the action from Henry's point of view as well. This can be rather frustrating, since we're left to guess at what characters like Thomas Becket and Eleanor's sons might be thinking. Those who want a novel on the scale of those of Sharon Penman's, in which we see the action through the eyes of many characters, won't find such a book here.

So why did I like this novel nonetheless? Mainly because Weir succeeded in making me like Eleanor. I'm no expert on the historical Eleanor, but I seldom find myself liking her in historical novels, chiefly, I think, because authors--even good authors--turn her into a feminist icon, the Strong Woman to end all Strong Women. They're so in awe of her, they forget to make her human, and I usually find myself itching to see her taken down a peg. I didn't have that problem here. Eleanor makes mistakes, gets the worse of arguments, says and does things she regrets. For once, I found myself on her side, and I ended the novel wishing I could spend some more time in her company.

FCC guys: I got an ARC from another reviewer. Husband: I bought the hardback anyway. You knew what you were in for when you first saw those bookshelves in my apartment.

14 comments:

Misfit said...

Lol! Glad you ended up liking it :)

I agree there's been sex a whoooooole lot worse than this one, I just felt it was so d*** clinical and cold with no chemistry it didn't help matters at all.

Daphne said...

I'm glad that you liked it. I think you make a good point about Eleanor needing to be brought down a little bit but it seems there should be a happy medium somewhere!!

Elizabeth said...

Heh, 'bonkfest' - and yes, I'm thirteen. But I agree with you on your point about Eleanor very often coming across as existing at this unattainable level of femininity, political acumen and powerful sexuality combined. I admire Penman's portrayals of her and the other books I have read have always been a bit of a letdown.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Misfit, thanks for passing this one on!

Daphne, true. I'm still waiting for a novel about Eleanor that really grabs me. Penman's are some of my favorites, but I much prefer her Henry to her Eleanor.

Elizabeth, I am eager to see what Penman does in her next books, especially with Richard I.

Ragged Staff said...

Nice review, Susan. I know less than nothing about this time period, but Eleanor has always struck me as interesting.

Kathryn said...

Great review! I like your point about Eleanor; I also often find fictional portrayals of her a bit too much.

trish wilson said...

I’ve always been interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since seeing the movie ‘The Lion in Winter ‘ some forty years ago in which the role of Eleanor was undertaken by the late Katherine Hepburn who won her third Oscar as a result of a towering and superb performance.

She was more than matched by Peter O’Toole in his role as Henry II in a film which saw the first big break for two future Hollywood stars, Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal) and Timothy Dalton (Bond) in their respective roles as Richard the Lionheart and King Philip of France.

At the heart of the movie were the internecine squabbles between the members of an extremely dysfunctional family, the major squabble of which was who was going to be Henry’s successor during which Eleanor blurted out that she had slept with Henry’s father – Geoffrey of Anjou- though whether it was true or not is another matter. If the movie is to be believed Henry favoured his youngest son John as lacklustre as apparently he was lackland and dismissed by his elder brothers Richard and Geoffrey as little better than a complete nincompoop. I do feel Nigel Terry who took on the role of John should have received some award himself for showing John in a somewhat different light and in contrast to the evil Prince John of Robin Hood movies.

In respect of Eleanor and later Queens of England such as Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou one has to take on board the misogynistic age in which they lived in which women were not only depicted as totally inferior but morally degenerate as well so strong-willed women were hardly likely to be regarded with any favour by male chroniclers and historians. There was even at one time this great ecclesiastical debate – I kid you not - as to whether women had souls or not and if they didn’t did they have to change into men in order to get to Heaven!

I’m not surprised authors of historical fiction have problems when time and time again 'historical fact' turns out to be historical fiction

For those of you who haven’t see the movie do try. The brilliant if somewhat strident score of John Barry, also of Bond fame, is worth it alone.

zquilts said...

Tee Hee - Shelves? I wish I had enough shelves. I keep thinking that someone from that show "Hoarding" will burst in to my house and groan when the see all of the books everywhere!I too really enjoyed this book,although after reading all of the comments about rampant, explicit sex I thought I might not. I agree - it is much less than many other books I have read in the near past and I think Alison Weir did do an excellent job bringing the reader to like Eleanor!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Trish, good points. I thoroughly enjoyed "The Lion in Winter." One day I'll have to watch it again.

Zquilts, glad you enjoyed the book! I dared to post over in another forum that I didn't think that Eleanor was depicted here as a slut (as a woman who had been unfaithful, yes, but not as a slut) and was told in no uncertain terms that she had been depicted in that manner. There are books that it's deemed impermissible to like (just as there are those that it's deemed impermissible to dislike), and I guess this is shaping up to be one of them.

HODGEPODGESPV said...

i too love lion in winter! between that and the greatest knight, i have thought of her as bright and strong...both qualities i think she would have to be or she would not have found herself locked up...nor would she have been able to influence as many folks as she did.

Carla said...

Interesting review, thank you. I may give it a try some time, although I wasn't enamoured of Innocent Traitor. How much of the novel covers Eleanor's time in prison? I've always been more interested in the times when she was involved in running the show.

Susan Higginbotham said...

True, Hodgepodgespy!

Carla, much of the novel--I'd say a good half--concerns her time in prison. The action pretty much ends at Henry's death, with a last chapter summing up the subsequent events of Eleanor's life. I enjoyed Innocent Traitor, but I'm not sure I would now, as I've been doing research into the period and my perceptions of the characters are quite different than as I remember them in Weir's novel.

Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

I think this is one of the only reviews I've found that somewhat matches my own summation :)

I wasn't at all bothered by the amount of sex going on in this book (and I'm not one for bodice-rippers), though some of the scenes were cheesy and, as you point out, improbable. There were other factors that made it less-than-stellar for me, but all in all, reading CAPTIVE QUEEN just made me want to read even more about Eleanor. I went into it expecting to dislike it based on other people's reviews and found I quite enjoyed it, give and take a few poorly worded one-liners.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Allie! I was glad to see your review--I was feeling rather lonely in my assessment of this book!