Famous for her battle to win the English throne as rightful heir from her cousin Stephen, Matilda ‘the Empress’ is still young when her husband, the Emperor of Germany, passes away, leaving her childless and off to be reunited with her father Henry I. Matilda is Henry’s only living child, which means that she is his heir unless his young wife Adeliza can get pregnant. The two women become fast friends but are separated when Matilda is married once again to Geoffrey of Anjou, a man much younger than her and not at all to her taste. Matilda’s marriage becomes a smaller problem in the wider scheme of English and French politics, however, when her father dies and her cousin Stephen grabs the throne before Matilda can even get to England. Matilda’s fight for the throne for herself and then for her son Henry is juxtaposed with Adeliza’s rediscovery of herself and her possibilities through a second marriage.
Every single time I read a book by Elizabeth Chadwick, I find myself wondering why I haven’t devoured her entire backlist by now (trust me, that day will come). Each book is a treasure to savor and Lady of the English is no exception. Even knowing the history and the outcome of the book, I found myself captivated throughout, spellbound by Chadwick’s well told version of a tale I’ve read before. I loved many, many things about this book, not least its realistic portrayal of historical figures as complex human beings that can’t be summed up in a chronicle.
Matilda, Adeliza, Geoffrey, and Henry all walked and breathed in my mind at least. Matilda in particular stole the show for me. Chadwick’s depiction of her genuine struggle between showing authority as the rightful monarch and being womanly as required was just fabulous and I got a real sense of how frustrating this must have been for her. The very idea of a king was completely at odds with the concept of femininity and Matilda really has nowhere to go.
I also found the friendship between her and Adeliza to be a inspired way to tell this story. Their lives become very different, but they can represent two paths while still remaining connected. Matilda is ambitious and determined to get what is hers by right, turns off her emotions in public as best she can, and is fundamentally a leader, even as she rages against her own powerlessness. Adeliza is more submissive, using more traditional female power tactics to get her way from her husbands, and seems content in the domestic sphere even at the highest levels. The contrast brings more life to the book and I think women who read this book will find a little bit of themselves in both Adeliza and Matilda.
Lady of the English is an excellent read, with a lot in it for both people who like to read historical fiction and those who like to read about relationships. It’s a fascinating story grounded with very real people. Very highly recommended.
For a little more about the book from the author, check out my interview with Elizabeth Chadwick.
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