Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life is turbulent almost from the start. At age fifteen she comes into her inheritance as Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers; while she holds both of these titles in her own right, her husband will still be the one who rules them, and as such she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. For three months, anyway, until the French king Louis VII marries her and makes her Queen of France. Eleanor’s adventures don’t stop there, however; her marriage with Louis is annulled after her failure to give him sons (and after a crusade), after which she promptly marries the future Henry II of England, and gives birth to a proper devil’s brood of sons who later change the face of Europe.
Older historical fiction, in my mind, has one big problem; it romanticizes everything. This book was written in the fifties and it’s glaringly obvious to any reader of historical fiction (or student of history). Everyone is, naturally, noble and kind and beautiful, loyal to the king, and even the merest of peasants can spout long sentences of astonishing fealty when prompted. Eleanor, despite being lauded, rarely shows any example of her will here. She seems afloat on the seas of fate; about the only thing she decides to do herself, and which she actually controls, is her decision to go on crusade. Otherwise, it’s always the men. I wanted to go back in history and tell Norah Lofts that it’s okay for women to take initiative; pointing out the influence that women may have had, which is almost never recorded, is what historical fiction is for.
Anyway, that doesn’t erase all the problems with the story either. Most of the book reads like a listing of facts, especially in the beginning. The few times that Eleanor speaks up, we’re mostly told she does, like when she explains things out to Louis about her lands. We don’t know what they are, we’re just told that she makes all things clear to him, and that later he’s persuaded otherwise. The whole book is a lesson in how to write a story by telling and not showing. Eleanor’s life was long and it’s compressed so much that there’s not space for anything else for most of the book.
Surprisingly enough, the book did pick up towards the end. I still noticed irritating things, like the fact that Geoffrey is mostly ignored until he dies. I’m pretty sure that, in real life, Eleanor and Henry wouldn’t ignore one of their children so flagrantly, though I guess I could be wrong. Richard and John are the bad kids that grew to manhood and kinghood, so I guess when you have only 300 pages, you talk about them. But the story did get interesting, Eleanor started to stand up for herself a bit more after she got out of prison.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a fascinating woman and she deserves all the attention she’s getting these days. Unfortunately, Eleanor the Queen is definitely not the first book I’d recommend reading on her. Choose Sharon Kay Penman’s books, starting with When Christ and His Saints Slept, or for non-fiction, Alison Weir’s Eleanor Of Aquitaine is both interesting and accessible. Word on the street is to avoid her fiction title about Eleanor, which I have managed so far!
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.