Fetch My Embroidery!
By Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2010
The appetite for historical novels centered on female characters has never been stronger than it is today, and part of that is a product of hegemony: many of the best-selling popular historians – and virtually all of the best-selling historical novelists – currently publishing in America and the UK are women. Most of the publicists for their books are women; most of the book-clubs that bulk-order their work are run and populated by women; and although there are no hard statistics to verify it, I’d bet most of the readers out there, just in general, are women.
The focus of this vast sisterhood has been a glut of heroines. We’ve had Biblical handmaidens and priestesses, nymphs and abductees from every out-of-the-way corner of Greek mythology, enslaved Nordic princesses, valiant medieval midwives and professional healing women, naves full of abbesses and prioresses, frustrated female Renaissance painters and musicians, enough mistresses to fill a whole afternoon at Confession, put-upon domestic servants, dutiful Presidential wives, a few contending versions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, real-life mystery writers re-invented as imaginary sleuths, Ahab’s wife and Macbeth’s, the Lady Murasaki, and a certain tattooed girl. And most of all, we’ve had royalty – queens, queen mothers, empresses, princesses, almost-princesses, and imperial bedmates of every hair color, waistline, and skill-level with a dagger. The procession has included historical figures whose place in the chronicles ranges from one obscure line to whole books of dedicated hymns – almost nobody has been overlooked.
Alison Weir is in a virtually unique position when it comes to all this: she has been both a best-selling popular historian and, lately, a best-selling historical novelist (‘virtually’ unique only because her fellow Anglophile Carroly Erickson has recently managed the same feat). She’s written biographies of Katherine Swynford, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, and she’s written novels about the young Elizabeth and about Lady Jane Grey. Her latest novel, Captive Queen, is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was also the subject of a Weir biography back in 1998.
At first glance, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems the ripest possible subject for both biography and fiction. Born sometime in the early 1120s, she became Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right at age 15, thereby gaining control over one of the largest and richest duchies in Europe. Shortly thereafter she married King Louis VII of France and ruled the country with him until their divorce in 1152, whereupon she married young Count Henry of England (she was at least ten years his senior) and on the death of King Stephen in 1154 ascended to the English throne when Count Henry became King Henry II. There she acted as regent for Henry during his absences and gave him eight children, including four boys, three of whom – Young Henry, Richard, and John – would become King of England in her lifetime. This was a woman (reputedly beautiful) who went on Crusade with her first husband, patronized and inspired historians and poets, and moved her sons to civil war against their father; lives don’t get lived on any bigger scales, especially not for women in the Middle Ages. Biographers and chroniclers have flocked to her story since Eleanor herself was in her mid-forties. In the 20th century, Mary Kelly’s Eleanor of Acquitaine and the Four Kings was reprinted several times, and Weir’s own biography was a bestseller.
Those biographies involve lots of guesswork. We don’t have any official documents of state over Eleanor’s signature; we don’t have copies of any speeches or proclamations she might have made; we don’t know what she did all day long. We can infer that she was powerful – but the inference is mostly based on how powerful the men around her were. And that means it’s equally possible to infer the opposite: that she was essentially decorative.
That’s certainly the conclusion of the most scholarly and venerated book on the period, W. L. Warren’s 1973 biography of Henry II. His verdict on Eleanor couldn’t be clearer:
To judge from the chroniclers, the most striking fact about Eleanor is her utter insignificance in Henry II’s reign. The chroniclers say nothing about her except occasionally to mention that she was present with the king here or there. And what makes this all the more remarkable is that her dominating personality is so marked a feature of the reigns of her sons until her death in 1204. Moreover, her liveliness as the wife of King Louis VII suggests that she was far from being a nonentity even before she became a matriarch.
She is a figure of legend and romance, but not of history.
But most of her biographies I’ve read lean the first way: they assume that anybody who was the wife of two kings and the mother of three had to be extremely influential behind the scenes. That kind of assumption is what makes Kelly’s book so readable after all these years, and that kind of assumption is made throughout Weir’s own biography.
But fictional treatments are different. Oh, they still feel the pull of grandeur; the Eleanors in Jean Plaidy and Sharon Kay Penman are mighty queen-empresses who thoroughly dominate all the men around them except for Henry II, the one who keeps locking them up in castles for decades at a stretch. But they can also swing the other way. Insults fly like tennis balls in Jean Anouilh’s famous 1960 play Becket, but in this case they’re all at Eleanor’s expense (here she’s called the Young Queen because Henry’s imperious mother is still alive):
Young Queen: I gave you my youth! I gave you your children!
King: I don’t like my children! And as for your youth – that dusty flower pressed in a hymnbook since you were twelve years old, with its watery blood and its insipid scent – you can say farewell to that without a tear. With age, bigotry and malice may perhaps give some spice to your character. Your body was an empty desert, Madam, which duty alone forced me to wander in alone.
A few years later, when James Goldman dramatized Eleanor in his play The Lion in Winter, he gave us an Eleanor who’s a good deal more effective (she gets exactly half of the play’s best lines and is an incredibly formidable role for an actress – I saw Stockard Channing attempt it and only barely succeed), but even his Eleanor seems aware of her own historical contradictions:
Like any thinking person, I should like to think there was – I don’t care whose or which – some God. Not out of fear: death is a lark; it’s life that stings. But if there were some God, then I’d exist in his imagination, like Antigone in Sophocles’. I’d have no contradictions, no confusions, no waste parts or misplaced elements and then, oh, Henry, then I’d make some sense. I’d be a queen in Arcady and not an animal in chaos.
Still, despite this conflicted fictional history, you’d expect that Alison Weir herself would be pretty clearly pro-Eleanor, and since she’d already written a biography of the woman in which she was hampered time and again by the lack of documentary evidence, you’d expect that the fictional license she’d use in her novel Captive Queen would be liberating – both for her and for Eleanor. But you’d be wrong, and that’s what makes this such an incredibly frustrating book.
The frustration starts early and stays late. Right at the onset, when Count Geoffrey (here presented as a former lover of Eleanor’s – Weir revives every hoary old medieval rumor about Eleanor’s infidelities and endorses pretty much all of them) comes to her court in France with his young son Henry in tow, we not only get language ripped straight from the bodice of a Harlequin Romance (“Eleanor took one look at him – and saw Geoffrey no more”), but we get a 30-year-old Eleanor whose thoughts sound like the tweets:
“Madame the Queen, I see that the many reports of your beauty do not lie,” Henry addressed her, sketching a quick bow. Eleanor felt the lust rising in her again. God, he was beddable! What she wouldn’t give for one night between the sheets with him!
Eleanor in lust quickly becomes Eleanor in marriage – and just as quickly becomes Eleanor as chattel:
“I would rather be hated and resented than not have my vassals fear me,” Henry declared. “How would it look, retracting my order? I would be seen as a weak man whose word is not his bond, one to be cozened and wheedled out of decisions. No, Eleanor, once my mind is made up, it is made up for good. There is no point in trying to dissuade me.”
“You might have taken counsel with me first,” she protested. “I am the duchess, after all, and these are my people.”
“You are my wife, and your part is to obey me,” Henry flared. “I am heartily sick of playing a subordinate role in this duchy. Now get on your back and learn who is master!”
What follows is the first of half a dozen rapes Henry performs upon his stubbornly loving wife. I don’t know which is worse: the fact that Weir tells us Eleanor “usually thrilled to rough handling” or the fact that she so often has the two of them laugh it off the morning after. And you can tell from the above example that it leaves nothing in doubt: this Eleanor is a captive queen long before she’s locked in any castle. Henry has all the power, and not only does he leave Eleanor entirely out of its exercise, he constantly brags about the fact. Here at the beginning of the 21st century, in the middle of a resurgence of female-oriented historical fiction, in a novel with the full range of fictional invention at its disposal, we drift back so close to Anouilh it’s depressing:
“You never show me the proper meekness of a true wife.”
“I never did!” She laughed mirthlessly. “It didn’t bother you in the old days. You liked my spirit – you often told me so. But I now speak a truth you do not want to hear.”
“Just stop interfering. You’re a woman, and these are affairs for men.”
“Then why did you send me here to rule Aquitaine? Did you think me incapable of sound judgment then? God’s teeth, Henry, I could run circles around you!”
“You think you have some fatal power over me, don’t you?” Her husband sneered, his features contorted in what looked like loathing. “Well, you don’t. You are an irritation, that’s all.”
“I am your wife and your queen!” Eleanor cried, incensed. “You were lucky to marry me, for I could have had my pick of the princes of Europe. But I have always done my duty by you. I have been a true wife these many years, and a helpmeet when you needed it. I have borne you sons -”
And the worst of it is Weir’s active complicity! It would be one thing if she had a slave’s tale to tell and felt compelled to interject some of her own sympathies from time to time, but when that happens in Eleanor’s case, it’s almost painful. At every one of Henry’s triumphs – like this over some unruly priests – her role is that of a Lhasa Apso:
Eleanor twined her arms around his neck; these days, they were not so openly demonstrative toward each other as they once had been, but she was so pleased to see Henry’s face lit up by his victory that she could not help herself. She knew he was reluctant to display his inner hurts to her nowadays, yet he would not despise her sharing his victory. But although he briefly returned her embrace, he soon disentangled himself and went to warm his hands by the fire.
She could not – thank God! – know that he had just come from the arms of Rohese.…
That “thank God!” isn’t any unnamed narrator – it’s Weir herself, and it show just how terrible sympathy can be. In this instance as in so much of the rest of the book, Weir (the novelist, as opposed to the historian) could have opted for a formidable Eleanor, and Eleanor who not only helped to orchestrate that victory behind the scenes but who knew perfectly well – thank God! – that Henry had just come from the arms of his latest mistress. History can’t do any of that, but fiction revels in it, or should. And where should it revel more strongly than with a figure as grand and storied as Eleanor of Aquitaine? Why go to all the bother of focusing on such a figure and researching your book only to give us a woman who’s happy her husband doesn’t always despise her? And her Eleanor is if anything more humiliated (and humiliating) in her rare moments of dudgeon than she is in her abject servility:
“My lady [a handmaiden testifies], my betrothed told me that the Lord King insisted on acting as servitor to the Young King, and when he carried the boar’s head on a platter to the high table, he jested that it was unusual to see a king wait at table. But the Young King replied that it was no condescension to see the son of a count wait upon the son of a king, and, … and he was not joking, my lady.”
Eleanor concealed her dismay well. “I suggest you cease telling tales like this about your betters, young lady,” she chided. “Now, fetch my embroidery.”
The mind thrills to all the delicious ways Goldman’s Eleanor would have handled that tale-telling handmaiden, but none of those thrills are here. This Eleanor (despite sleeping with every warm-blooded man in Europe and the Levant) is a dry, moralizing stick who’s usually too timid even to be outraged. Had Henry repented of his “immoral life,” she wonders at one point. “Was Rosamund still his mistress? She dared not ask.”
(Even the book’s prose is lazier than in Weir’s nonfiction: at one point Eleanor is “a woman on a mission” and at another Becket is “a man on a mission”; Henry ‘sees red,’ Eleanor faints ‘dead to the world,’ and characters ‘gird their loins’ in every chapter. At one point a character offers condolences to Eleanor on the death of Young Henry, saying, “This has been a sad time for your both. I am deeply sorry for your loss.” And we’re told, “Eleanor inclined her head, not wanting to go there …”)
In all this, there’s one question readers must dare to ask: just what is going on here? Weir’s Jane Grey is a simpering nonentity – she has Aristotle at her fingertips, but she has not one atom of personality. Even worse, her Elizabeth is a near-brainless wide-eyed hysteric who couldn’t have ruled a dolly’s tea party, let alone a war-threatened kingdom. In both those novels, there’s at least the potential excuse of timing: Lady Jane is executed while still a teenager, and Lady Elizabeth is given to us in what might have been her tender, formative years.
This book has no such excuses. Captive Queen deals with Eleanor of Aquitaine in her prime, when she had land, money, and power of her own, a court of her own, and kings and princes for sons. If this Eleanor is a wimp, there’s literally no hope for any woman as the star of a historical novel.
And this Eleanor is most certainly a wimp. She’s slapped around by Henry, she’s ineffectual at every crisis point, and her main hope is to be useful. It’s safe to say Alison Weir knows as much about the actual history of this period as anybody, yet when she freed herself from the strictures of that history and decided to write a novel about it, she not only created a colorless and unmemorable Eleanor but an Eleanor who wants to be colorless and unmemorable. And the reader is entitled to ask why.
Entitled to wonder, too, if it all doesn’t boil down to money. Those book publicists want heroines they can market, after all, and those book-clubs want main characters they can identify with, yearning, flawed characters who are, to use a disgustingly vague publishing term, “compassionate.” An Eleanor of Aquitaine schooled from childhood in the cold arts of ruling, an Eleanor smarter than all the men around her, perhaps an Eleanor who cared for none of her sons except for the power they could bring her, an Eleanor who would do something in a battle of wills with Henry other than immediately forfeit … that Eleanor is the only likely alternative to Warren’s woman of myth, but she won’t sell novels to the knitting-and-merlot crowd who want to sympathize with the main character of any book they skim for the book club on Wednesday. Readers of Captive Queen are entitled to wonder if the queen hasn’t been sacrificed to win the game.
Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen lives in Manhattan and attends college in New England. Last month she wrote about Alice Perrers.