Lady of the English, Elizabeth Chadwick
I love Elizabeth Chadwick's novels and was super excited to get her newest for review. While all her novels can be read alone, this novel precedes her phenomenal The Greatest Knight which, while about the early life of William Marshal, also covers the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Lady of the English is an amazing look into the life of Henry II's formidable mother Matilda, Empress of Germany and heir to the crown of England.
For those not familiar with the history, Henry I (son of William the Conqueror) lost his only son and heir in a ship wreck, leaving his daughter Matilda (one time Empress of Germany) his only heir. When he died Matilda's cousin Stephen usurped the crown thus beginning a horrible period of war and strife in England. I was immediately drawn into Matilda's story - her sadness at loosing her first husband, the frustration of knowing she would be forced into another marriage to suite her father's plans, the anger after realizing the English barons were not going to support her just claim simply because she was a woman. Ms. Chadwick paints a picture of a very strong and passionate woman who is determined to gain her birthright - first for herself and then for her son - and does whatever is necessary. History seems to imply that Matilda was disliked for her pride and arrogance, that she didn't treat the barons with the respect they thought they deserved, and that she wouldn't listen to sound advice when it was given. While you certainly see some pride on Matilda's part in this novel I didn't feel that she was portrayed as overly proud or as having treated anyone in particular in a demeaning way. I found it very interesting to see how her relationship with her husband Geoffrey matured and developed throughout the novel - evolving from nothing but scorn and passion to (grudging) acceptance and the knowledge that they worked well together. I also liked seeing how the two of them raised Henry (future King of England, husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine) to be strong and proud and very well equipped to handle the quagmire of English politics. You will get glimpses of King Stephen and some of his favorites along with tantalizing scenes with John Marshal (father of the wonderful William Marshal and will make you want to read the author's novel about him!). Their characters, I felt, were not as deeply developed as some would like but I had no problem getting a feel for what their personalities were like. Alongside Matilda's story is that of her stepmother Adeliza. I really liked her character. She was quiet and obedient, did what was expected of her as a wife and mother but underneath the quiet was a woman with strength and opinions of her own. Make sure to have a tissue handy towards the end of the novel as Adeliza's story is quite sad. As with all of Ms. Chadwick's novels, she has blended fiction and superb research beautifully, creating a world that is easy for the reader to visualize. Her writing will make the reader feel like they could reach out and touch these people that lived hundreds of years ago; they become that real.
Every historical fiction fan (and even those that aren't fans) should read Ms. Chadwick's novels. They are always exceptionally researched and written and will transport you to a different time period. This novel is a great read and I highly recommend it. This author has other novels about this time period covering many of the different players and all can be read as stand alone novels or can be read in chronological order.