Prized for her beauty and prosperous lands, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed remarkable independence for the C12, divorcing the pious King Louis of France, to marry only a few weeks later the virile and dynamic Henry 11 of England, eleven years her junior. This relationship proved stormy: infuriated by Henry’s brutal tyranny over the nobles of Aquitaine and humiliated by his public affair with the much younger, “fair” Rosamond Clifford, Eleanor incited her three eldest sons to lead a revolt against their father. This was only the first in a series of tortuous struggles in this dysfunctional family, which we know are doomed to end badly since the youngest child is of course destined to become King John of Magna Carta fame.
The tale is mostly narrated by Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart. Clara Dupont-Monod’s poetic prose can be quite powerful, as in the description of the perilous crossing of the Channel to England which Henry insisted on making during a violent tempest, with a seven months’ pregnant Eleanor and her ailing infant son in the hold, pitched and tossed in a pool of seawater mixed with wine the broken barrels rolling around them. Another vivid description is Richard’s siege of the great fortress at Acre, where the catapults alternate a barrage of stones with the putrid carcasses of cattle and horses, which must land inside the walls in order to trigger an epidemic.
Yet I often felt unengaged in the narrative, largely because the focus on describing past events reduces the dramatic tension. It is so disjointed and sketchy in places that it seems essential to have some prior knowledge of the background history. Yet this creates the problem that Eleanor is not as one expects. Although clearly clever and highly educated for a woman, with her retinue of admiring troubadours, she is portrayed as cool and controlled, concerned about her children but showing them no affection (except grief for the first-born she lost), manipulating her sons to perform the acts she cannot, as a woman, carry out herself.
The lack of dialogue also distances the reader from the characters. Their rare speech tends to take the form of contrived monologues. When the new young French king Philippe offers Richard his support and soldiers to fight Henry, “Plantagenet”, yet again, it takes up more than two pages. Only near the end is there a touch of dramatic menace to imply Philippe’s dubious motives, “Look, here’s my falcon. His beak is red.”
In many ways this novel is more about Richard the Lionheart than his mother Eleanor. His acts of brutality in war, excessive even by the standards of the day; the violent rages to match those of his father; his complex relationship with his mother, in which even his wife clearly takes second place, all combine to form what could be an intriguing, if inevitably speculative psychological study, but in this, the book falls short.
I have at least been left with a strong interest in finding out more about the characters and events described, and the impressive crusader castles in the Middle East at least some of which hopefully still exist.