Eleanor of Aquitaine is just fifteen years old when her father dies and she marries Louis, the future king of France. They’ve not even reached Paris before the crises in Eleanor’s marriage become apparent; her husband has no interest in consummating their union, despite his physical attractiveness, is ruled by several members of his government, and has ascended to the throne without knowing anything about what he is doing. Taking us through Eleanor’s life from this moment through her journey on Crusade and second marriage, Devil’s Consort (Queen Defiant in the US) explores what might have really happened to one of history’s most well known royal women.
Historical fiction and Eleanor of Aquitaine are not strangers to one another; in fact, I feel like she’s been the subject of more and more books lately, both fiction and non-fiction. She’s a character that’s hard to resist, after all, a strong woman who broke free of convention, possibly had several affairs, and was the queen of two rival countries in the High Middle Ages, also known as the part of the Middle Ages that best represents our imaginings of it. She divorced her French husband and almost immediately dashed off to marry the future Henry II – so quick we can’t help but think she planned it – but also represents a woman who was easily capable of ruling, even if she did have to do it under her husband’s and son’s names.
Devil’s Consort is a hugely enjoyable book; it doesn’t precisely challenge any of the leading ideas about Eleanor, which means she does have those affairs I mentioned, one in particular with a crusading knight, and she does get very frustrated with her first husband Louis. Naturally he adores her, in a puppyish way, as he completely ignores her and goes off to pray instead of make heirs. At times I did wish the book reached beyond conventional ideas, but for someone who is a bit less read in Eleanor’s life and times, I don’t think this would at all be a problem. One thing I did think was that, outside of Eleanor and Henry, a few of the characters were more cardboard than flesh, in particular Louis. This doesn’t at all mean that history is neglected; I particularly enjoyed the mention of a particular rock crystal vase, the only item that we know Eleanor actually possessed (and can see for ourselves).
Overall, it’s a fast-reading, entertaining romp through medieval England and the thoughts and struggles of a woman who clearly knows who she is and often what she wants as well. I enjoyed in particular the bits when Eleanor herself goes on crusade; obviously she didn’t participate in the fighting and I was very curious to see how O’Brien depicted her time in the holy land. Devil’s Consort is a book well suited for others who love historical fiction and should stand firmly on the shelf next to other works about her. I’d recommend it!
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