Alison Weir's "Captive Queen," a novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Carolyn See
Friday, July 16, 2010


A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

Ballantine. 478 pp. $26

The historical novel is a strange genre: very demanding on its author, filled with pitfalls and traps. Beautifully done, it can tell us about a slice of history; we can't be sure if what we read is actually true (unless we check the fictional events against historical sources), but still, such a novel can exercise our minds, something like an intelligent crossword puzzle. If we're lucky, we're visited by a vision of what it may have been like in 15th-century Spain or 19th-century Africa or -- in this case -- the 12th century in what is now England and the South of France.

If you're the author, you can pick an obscure person to pin your story on and thereby exhibit your expertise in leather tanning or falconry or the brewing of beer. ("Kristin Lavransdatter" is the gold standard for this kind of book. By the time Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset got through with that woman, readers felt they had put in a year or so living in a medieval Scandinavian household.) Or the author can pick an important person, dig into the scholarship and come out the other side of this intellectual quest with mountains of history to put to use. The disadvantage is that reality is apt to constrain imagination or leave the novelist with a lot of dull mechanics. I once had a heartfelt conversation with the man who wrote the miniseries of "The Scarlet Pimpernel." It became the curse of his life, he said, to be stuck writing scenes with a coach riding up the gravel path to the manor house and then turning around and driving back from the manor house.

And so we have "Captive Queen," a novel by best-selling biographer Alison Weir. Many of us know something about Eleanor of Aquitaine already. She was active in fostering troubadour poetry, which was a literary side effect of the Crusades and the tradition of courtly love. Her vile-tempered husband, Henry II, threw her in prison on and off for years because she may have aided and abetted rebellion by two of her sons, Henry the Younger and Richard, who grew up to be Lionheart. After Henry II finally died -- and not a moment too soon; he seems to have been mean as a snake -- Eleanor was accorded much love and respect. She seems, even from the highly stylized portraits of the day, to have been a strikingly beautiful woman. But that's pretty much it. According to this novel, she wanted to rule on an equal footing with Henry, to be a liberated woman, to be equal to her man, although I frankly doubt many women of those days declared their wishes to be liberated and equal, or if they did, it meant something other than it does now.

When the novel opens, Eleanor is married to King Louis of France, who is a wuss. She'd rather be married to Henry, 11 years her junior, who has ambitions to be king of England and put the Plantagenet dynasty on the map. Eleanor has some "tumultuous thoughts" and remembers "coupling gloriously between silken sheets" with Henry's father, Geoffrey. Even though Louis "fumes," when Eleanor sees Henry she feels "the lust rising again in her. God, he was beddable!" She makes a few remarks "lightly," and then, "framed with a cascade of coppery tresses," she, "the greatest heiress in Christendom," finds herself in bed with Henry by page 17, and, for another 460 pages, we're off to the races.

The trouble is, as a rule, even if they're Eleanor of Aquitaine, women in history don't do much. Eleanor does plenty of embroidery and gets lost in a labyrinth toward the end of the book, but most of the time she bickers unceasingly with Henry, who won't let her rule Aquitaine, even though she wants to. "You and I are meant to be a partnership," she hectors him. "We agreed. I am no milksop farmwife to be cast aside: I am the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine, and I will be deferred to as such! Do you heed me?" She's pretty tenacious about it, actually. She reminds him again, "I am the Duchess of Aquitaine, and I am fit for higher things than the company of women and babies." They spend years disagreeing, with Henry taking only an occasional breather to say things like, "I will write to the Pope, and to Frederick Barbarossa. . . . I will demand that the excommunications be revoked."

Henry philanders, of course, remarking to a prospective mistress that "the only Hell is the one we make for ourselves on this earth. The rest is just a myth put about by the Church to frighten us into being good." (That's pretty hellbent, isn't it, for someone who lives in the 12th century? Did he ever say anything like that, really?) Thomas Becket gets murdered, but that happens offstage, and Eleanor's sons try to overthrow their father, but we never see how that works exactly. We do read a huge amount about what she is wearing on different occasions, because so many portraits of her remain, but 12th-century France could be the dark side of the moon for all we learn about it by the end of this book. (The citizens of Limoges are made to pull down the city walls because they get on the king's nerves, but that promising scene is over in a page or two.)

The author is frugal to a fault with her use of language. She recycles "lightly" and "tartly" as adverbs; she's crazy about "thunderous" and "glorious" as adjectives. She reuses "fumes" as a verb and "lust" as a noun. Her English is modern, and she must like it that way.

Who's at fault here? (Because this isn't a very wonderful book.) I think we have to pin the blame on Eleanor. She's a historic figure, so she can't be jolted too far out of that position. We don't know all that much about what she actually did. And who knows what the woman thought? She seems to have preferred her sons to her husband, but it's hard to make a book about that. She spent a lot of her life within prison walls. It's a good thing she had an extensive wardrobe! It's not that the author doesn't know everything about her subject, but that what she knows isn't enough.

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