Book Review: Queen Defiant
by Anne O’Brien
New American Library, 2011
Poets and writers of all stripes have been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine since her own heyday in the 12th century – indeed, when she was queen consort in Henry II’s England, with money and preferments to shower on those who pleased her, she maintained a regular staff of court poets whose job it was to be fascinated by her. Little wonder, too: she was rich, she had power and property in her own right, she was disarmingly intelligent, and she was reputed to be beautiful. In an age so thoroughly dominated by men, she was a bright little miracle in the courts of England and France, and she herself seemed to know it.
In the centuries since her death in 1204, the fascination has only grown. Not only did Shakespeare add her to his roster of unforgettable old queens, but the 20th century, with its unprecedented strides in women’s rights, has found in her the very spirit of Plantagenet, the perfect figure to conjure issues, or confound them. Readers have reaped the bounty, lavished with more Eleanors than the zones of the zodiac. Novelists have made her bold, trained historians have turned to fiction and made her meek, and every shade of her life and tumultuous times has been illuminated.
Thus Anne O’Brien’s new novel Queen Defiant ventures onto extremely well-trod ground. She mainly concentrates her fictional treatment of Eleanor on the chaotic days and years before she became Queen of England – mainly, that is, on her previous tenure as Queen of France (as noted, she had a top-notch resume), wife of the boyish Louis VII. We follow her through the births of her two daughters, through her extremely delicate first steps onto a broader world stage (delicate but not tentative, since she was already potentate in her own right of the huge province that’s formed the prepositional accompaniment to her name for almost a thousand years).
O’Brien’s Eleanor is certainly not meek. When her husband Louis, fresh from a military campaign turned bloodbath, collapses of exhaustion and guilt, she tells us “I had to leave the room or I would have slapped him,” and she verbally manhandles everybody who crosses her path, like strapping old Count Geoffrey of Anjou, who at one point sues for permission to go join his half-brother in Palestine. The King is hesitant to see his seneschal leave, but Queen Eleanor is more subtle in her manipulation:
“If Count Geoffrey is concerned for his duties as Seneschal of Poitou …” My concern was magnificent, my gaze lambent. I lingered on the pause, looking from Louis to the Angevin and back again. “We could appoint another seneschal if the Count wishes to take up his obligations in the Holy Land … Do reconsider, my lord of Anjou. We would value your company with us. What is earthly power – a mere Seneschal of Poitou – in the balance of God’s approval and the promise of reward in Heaven? There are other men I would trust with Poitou in your stead if you felt God’s call.”
At last I smiled directly into Geoffrey of Anjou’s bland, furiously governed face.
What a beautiful, no-so-thinly veiled little threat.
You can see there one of the besetting problems of Queen Defiant: as readers, we’re instantly less likely to believe how shrewd and remarkable Eleanor was if she’s the one who’s forever telling us. No matter how tempting first-person narrative is for a character like this (and no matter how discreetly encouraging agents and publishers might be about using it, considering how popular it is with the Book Club readers who will perforce constitute the main audience these days for a book like this), O’Brien should have resisted – Eleanor is the last person who should ever be allowed to tell her own fantastic story.
Still, it’s easily possible to overlook that fact for pages on end in Queen Defiant, since O’Brien is such an assured storyteller (with only an intermittent and perhaps endearing weakness for cliches in the Mills & Boon shade of purple). Her Eleanor is a fiery spirit but in no way anachronistic (our author is at pains to hide what I suspect was a truly formidable amount of research), and O’Brien excels at capturing her ever-present contradictions, as in the scene toward the book’s end where she’s spent days sitting vigil at the bedside of her new husband Henry, until he finally wakes:
Did I tell him I loved him? I did not.
Did I soothe and caress my husband, newly returned to life? I did not.
“So you’re awake and like to live,” I said. “And about time too. Do you know how long I’ve been sitting here? Now I can get some sleep.”
“I knew you’d be here,” Henry croaked, voice rusty from disuse.
“Where else would I be?” My heart leaped for joy.
“When I was ill -” he spoke carefully, as if choosing every word – “this is where I wanted to be.” He stretched out his hand and I took it. “I told them to bring me home. To bring me to you.”
Of course most of O’Brien’s readers will know how fragile is the sunshine of that scene; in no time at all, Henry will be flaunting mistresses, Eleanor will be suborning the treason of her grown sons, Henry will be imprisoning her for year after dreary year, and she’ll be a brittle old woman before she comes into any kind of personal triumph. That’s rockier ground for historical romance, which must be why so many writers tend to concentrate on this period of her life instead. O’Brien’s novel joins the work of those other writers with its head held up and its plain-spoken set-pieces polished to a fine shine. If you read only one Eleanor of Aquitaine novel this month, make it Queen Defiant.