Written by Alison Weir, my favourite historical fiction writer, this book tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her tumultuous marriage to Henry II. I love historical fiction because often the facts on which these stories are based are more dramatic than anything a fiction writer could have dreamed up.
Eleanor is a novelist’s dream – an unusual woman in 12th C, as she was the richest heiress in Europe, married the King of France but then fell in love with Henry, who went on to be King of England thanks in no small measure to the resources and land she brought with her when she dumped (i.e. browbeat into a divorce) Louis of France. She was rumoured to have had a couple of other sexual partners, again unusual for an aristocratic woman of her time. Because she was Duchess of Aquitaine she wielded considerable power. She was mother to nine children three of whom were King of England and as her sons kept rising up in revolt against their father, she played an important political role even as a mother.
As described in the novel, Eleanor and Henry’s relationship, in addition to be politically astute and ambitious, was one of great passion, emotional and physical. There is much in the story that is relevant to even the modern reader. The making of a successful marriage. A woman’s relationship with her mother-in-law, especially when both are powerful in their own right. A wife’s reaction to her still-loved husband’s infidelity. A mother’s love for her children and her fondness for some of them above others, her despair on them being sent away young to be groomed for greater things as was the practice in aristocratic society. How to reconcile with a husband who betrayed you and treated you cruelly. The desire of a woman to exceed the constrained role set for her by partriarchal society.
For those interested in arranged marriages and who believe these to be an Indian phenomenon, reading these histories is instructive. A king, as expressed by Henry, would want sons first and foremost as heirs but after three or so sons (enough to ensure succession if even one died), he would also want daughters to use as pawns in marriage for political gains. The marriages of both sons and daughters were arranged and often formalized as children with consummation being allowed as early as 14. The feelings and interests of the child brides and grooms were of course not considered. The political import of their alliances was and the dowry the women would bring. It’s another thing that we continue these medieval practices even today in India with great pride.
My first critique of the book is that I felt that sometimes Weir was anachronistic. As a writer of fiction, she must necessarily imagine and put words in the mouths of the historical figures. However, some of the things she has them say, I felt were expressed in too modern terms.
For example, she often expresses the desire for her marriage to be a partnership. This seems to me a thoroughly modern aspiration. I can imagine that Eleanor being a rich, powerful woman used to a certain degree of respect and deference, and bringing into her marriage the rich dowry of her lands which would enable Henry to fulfill his dreams of founding an empire, would expect to continue to make decisions and wiled political power after her marriage. But to use the “partnership” doesn’t seem to gel well with the times. It may have been what she wanted, but I don’t think that people at that time knew to think in those terms, for the thought of a partnership to crystalise. The use of the word seemed too glibly modern.
My other criticism is that Weir stresses Eleanor’s sexual appetite a bit too much. She possibly wanted to present this 12th C woman as a sexual being but I found that her writing in a sexual longing into every encounter with Henry – even when she was 60 years old – a bit overdone. One would have got the point with just a few descriptions of passion.
However, since there are such slim picking of historical fiction and Philippa Gregory’s work seems a lot worse than this, go read it.