Reading History: “Devil’s Brood” (Sharon Kay Penman)

Sometimes you read a novel that leaves you feeling truly bereft when you turn the last page, not necessarily because you are sorry to be done reading it, but because the ending is so heartbreaking.  Such is the case with the last of historical fiction novelist Sharon Kay Penman’s trilogy about the relationship between Henry Fitz Empress and his fiery queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In this sprawling epic novel, Penman depicts the disintegration of Henry’s family from within and without.  Henry is a man who is too clever by half, and he remains unwilling to give up any authority or territory to his sons.  One after another they each rebel-Hal, Richard, Geoffrey and even, at the end, his favourite youngest son John.  Even Henry’s beloved wife Eleanor betrays him and is ultimately imprisoned.  Further tragedy strikes as Henry loses two of his sons before succumbing to his own bitter death, and the novel ends with Richard’s ascending the throne of his father’s domains.

Of the three novels based on the relationship between Eleanor and Henry, this is by far the most tragic.  This was a family of larger-than-life personalities, of men and women who were proud and powerful and unwilling to bend, even if it meant the destruction of their family and the ruination of the lands comprising their empire.  Time and again throughout the novel, the squabbling among the various members of the family end up imperiling the lives and possessions of the common folk who live under their domains

Devil’s Brood suggests that the relationship between Henry and Eleanor, and that between them and their children, was doomed by the very nature of their personalities.  None of them are willing to compromise, and all are valid in their reasons for being so stubborn.  One cannot blame Eleanor, for example, for putting the welfare of her duchy of Aquitaine over that of her marriage to Henry.  After all, it is the land of her birth, and she takes her duties as its leader seriously.  However, one also cannot blame Henry for wanting to make sure that his sons are trustworthy before handing over his political power to them.  Indeed, it is precisely his unwillingness to give them any independence that leads them all to rebel against him, revealing the fatal flaws of his imperial ambitions.

Penman never lets us forget that these are essentially human characters.  They are powerful yes–indeed, some of the most powerful people of the medieval world–but they are also incredibly flawed people.  Henry is as stubborn as he is brilliant, never willing to give in to the advice of others, even when following such advice would have saved a great deal of heartache for everyone involved.  Hal is a fundamentally good person, generous to a fault, but he is far too easily led and manipulated, which leads him to the many bad decisions that lead to his eventual downfall.

Eleanor, of course, emerges as one of the novel’s mainstays.  As one of the most powerful women of the pre-modern world, she is acutely aware of her own abilities, and the limitations she faces.  She is as stubborn and willful as her son and her children, but in many ways she is cannier than all of them, for she alone has the ability to see how the pieces fit together.  However, she is frequently unable to prevent the splintering of her family, can only watch in despair as each of her sons rebels against his father (and even, early in the novel, encourage them to do so).  And she continues to maintain her independence, even after Henry imprisons her for her complicity and keeps her there for many years.  When, at the end of the novel, she emerges triumphant and ready to take her place as Richard’s able assistant, free at last to be the ruler she knows she can be.  Yet even in her victory, Eleanor cannot quite forget the love that tore Europe, and her heart, asunder, and she will, no doubt, mourn Henry for the rest of her long life.

And as savvy readers know, it is actually John that will have the last laugh and whose line will continue the Plantagenet dynasty.  Given the strife that clove his family into warring factions, it is small wonder that he eventually became the grasping, cunning, and ruthless king that he did.  Of all of the novel’s characters, he is both the most broken and the most enigmatic, a son ignored by his mother, mocked by his brothers, and mostly pampered by his father.

All in all, Devil’s Brood is a compelling read, one that paints a portrait of an essentially violent, uncertain, unstable world.  As always, Penman leaves us wanting more and, fortunately for all of us, there are at least two more volumes in the Plantagenet saga.

Score:  10/10

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