Captive Queen, Alison Weir
I thoroughly enjoyed Weir's Innocent Traitor about Jane Grey and though I didn't agree with of her take on Elizabeth I's early life, I enjoyed her The Lady Elizabeth. So when I saw her newest historical fiction about the illustrious Eleanor of Aquitaine I was quite excited and looking forward to it. This has been the year of Eleanor! Needless to say, I was highly disappointed and actually scratching my head through out, wondering if this was indeed the same author.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was Duchess of Aquitaine, Queen of France, and ultimately Queen of England, wife to Henry II and mother to Richard I (the lionhearted) and King John. She lead a very full and exciting life which included (but is not limited to!): going on crusade with her first husband, marrying the tempestuous Henry, rebelling with her sons against him, spending sixteen years as her husband's prisoner, and watching two of her sons become King of England. She was a formidable woman by all accounts though, as is usually the case with those "in the spotlight," there was much rumor swirling around her. Her life was quite fascinating and really needs little embellishment for dramatic purposes; really, the truth is far better than what anyone could make up! Unfortunately, Weir seems to have decided that including all the old (and unfounded) rumors about Eleanor would make for a much more interesting and entertaining story. It didn't. The first few chapters of this novel read almost like a Harlequin romance with details (way too much detail!) showing Eleanor either diving into bed with Henry within a few hours of meeting him or reminiscing about her affairs with various other men (quite an impressive list actually). I could have overlooked all the cheesy and numerous, detailed sexual encounters if the story itself had been well written and was believable and interesting. It wasn't. The entire novel (with the exception of the last few chapters) is just poorly written. I find it hard to believe that the same person who wrote Innocent Traitor actually wrote this! The dialogue and sentence structure is only marginally better than an elementary school reading lesson (See Spot. See Spot run. Good Spot). Her attempts at filling the reader in on background information is not well done either and made me feel like she was "talking down" to the readers. There are always going to be these instances in historical fiction where the author needs to find a way to inform the reader of this background information and most authors manage to work it into the character dialogue. Weir's attempts are rather clumsy. For example, when her eldest son William has come down with a fever the nurse actually tells Eleanor: "Young ones of that age - he's not yet three - take ill quickly ..." I am a mother and I certainly do not need to be reminded of my child's age. There are many frustrating instances of this through out most of the novel. So many momentous events in their marriage seemed glossed over or rushed along, giving them a much less important place. It all felt very juvenile and I've wondered if Weir possibly wrote this when she was much younger. Besides the poor writing, the characters themselves are just not believable or interesting; Eleanor comes across as way too concerned about getting into bed (at least throughout much of the novel), Henry really seems like a big oaf who does nothing but drink and chase women, and the personalities of their various children seem almost wooden (though, to be fair, we don't see that much of them throughout the story - it is from Eleanor's perspective). Besides the sexual situations and poor writing, there just didn't seem like there was much substance to the story and frankly, it was a bit boring (again, the last few chapters are an exception). I thought it was impossible to make Eleanor of Aquitaine boring but I suppose if you try hard enough, anything is possible.
All that being said, there were some moments of good writing and story telling. I felt Weir's delving into the relationship between Henry and Thomas Becket was quite well done and gave the reader an interesting look at why that relationship really formed the first cracks in Henry and Eleanor's marriage. The last few chapters of the novel were much better than all that came before (which really makes me feel like it was written much later than the rest of the book) and I actually found myself enjoying that part of the story. It is just disappointing that the rest of the novel was so lacking, especially after I enjoyed her other works. This is a work of fiction and authors are going to take liberties to create their story and fill in gaps that history has left however I just felt this novel was a mess from the beginning to (almost) the end. I have no problem with some embellishment to a story if it works and if it is well done which this wasn't. Trying to recreate the life of someone who lived so many years ago and where so much of the history is probably lost is a daunting task and I commend Weir for taking on the challenge. She just did a rather poor job at showing this incredibly fascinating woman. The author's note at the end did really left me scratching my head as it came across - to me anyway- as Weir defending herself for the changes she made in Eleanor's story and at the same time discussing how important historical accuracy is in a novel.
This novel was a disappointment for me and I feel like I can not recommend it to many readers. Those who are not overly concerned about details and historical accuracy will probably really enjoy this novel but those who like a bit more historical accuracy in their historical fiction will most likely want to steer clear. As always, if you are interested in reading more about Eleanor and Henry, I can't recommend Sharon Kay Penman's novels (Time and Chance and Devil's Brood) enough!