Reading History: “Time and Chance” (by Sharon Kay Penman)

Sharon Kay Penman’s second novel about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine picks up roughly where When Christ and His Saints Slept left off.  Henry is now king of England, and Eleanor rules by his side.  Theirs is in many ways a marriage of equals, two powerful souls determined to rule the greatest empire Europe has seen since the days of Charlemagne.

Unfortunately, the once-passionate relationship between Henry and Eleanor begins to turn sour, as Henry, his will as indomitable as always, declines to take Eleanor’s advice and continues to sideline her.  To make matters worse, he also takes into his bed a young woman by the name of Rosamund Clifford.  Eleanor, a proud woman, cannot bear the thought of her husband so openly flaunting his concubine, and it is this decision, as well as Henry’s inability to speak about it with her, that drives the ultimate wedge between them.  Such is the depth of Eleanor’s pain and rage that she cannot even bring herself to love the child born upon the date of her discovery of the depth of his betrayal.  Her youngest son, John, emerges into the world unwanted by his mother and underserved by his father.

Even Ranulf, easily Penman’s most modern character, finds himself tested by his continued divided loyalties between his nephew the English king and his Welsh liege Owain.  His greatest trial, comes, however, when his best friend Hywel is slain by his treacherous half-brothers on his way to claim his rightful inheritance as the heir of his dead father Owain.  Faced with the naked hostility of the new Welsh ruler, he flees into exile with his beloved wife and his children.  While he finally reaches a reconciliation with his nephew Henry–who had blinded a group of Welsh captives–the reader is left in no doubt that he feels a part of him has been lost with his exile from his beloved Wales.  While Ranulf does not play as substantial a role as he did in Christ and His Saints, he is still a powerful presence in Time and Chance, a familiar personality amongst the changes taking place around him.

The dramatic heart of the novel, however, lies with the infamous feud between Henry and his best friend, chancellor, and future archbishop Thomas Becket.  The novel makes it clear that both men are equally at fault for the feud that ultimately destroys their friendship.  Both of them refuse to budge on any of the issues confronting them.  Certainly, there can be no doubt that the conflict between religious and secular authority was an important issue for almost everyone in Europe of the period, and it is perhaps because its high importance that, in the novel (as in life) the problem was never solved to anyone’s complete satisfaction.  In Penman’s brilliant rendering, the fraught relationship between two friends ultimately nearly brings ruin to both their relationship and the kingdom.

As with Christ and His Saints, Penman’s characters seem to leap off the page into startling and vivid life.  What has always struck me as one of her particular strengths is her ability to convey not just the main characters of the story (Eleanor, Henry, etc.), but also the various side characters whose fates interweave with theirs:  the bishop Roger (caught between his friend Becket and his cousin Henry), Roger’s sister Maud (caught in the crossfire between Eleanor and Henry), and numerous others.  This is a world where the political and the personal remain thoroughly and inextricably intertwined and where personal loyalties are often at odds with one’s personal wishes.  Truly, as Penman helps us to understand, a world of terrors and delights.

Penman also does an excellent job of painting the mix of beauty and brutality that characterized the medieval period and its worldview.  This is a world in which women are, for the most part, denied the political prerogatives of men, yet also offers opportunities for advancement and power if they happen to live in the right places (Eleanor’s native Aquitaine stands out as a haven in this respect).  Yet even those women who dwell in more conservative nations have their own fierce pride and intelligence, such as Henry’s cousin Maud, who is as spirited and clever as her aunt the Empress (who, sadly, dies during the course of the novel).

All in all, Time and Chance offers a compelling portrait into one of England’s, and Europe’s, most contentious and powerful dynasties.  Theirs were the loves and hates that would tear apart the lands that they ruled.  If the book has whetted your appetite for more, you are fortunate in that Penman has several other volumes on the fiery and controversial Plantagenet dynasty, including the sequel to Time and Chance, entitled Devil’s Brood.  As we shall see, Henry and Eleanor’s large brood of sons will prove as much a liability as a blessing.