Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Reading History: “The Confessions of Young Nero” (by Margaret George)

The release of a new novel by Margaret George is an event that occurs every six years or so. The author of such well-known works of historical fiction as The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII is well-known for her extraordinary detail in her magisterial works of historical fiction, in which she inhabits not just the mind but the very time of her subjects.

Imagine my delight, then, when release day at last dawned, and her new masterwork, The Confessions of Young Nero finally saw the light of day.

The novel, narrated in first person by the emperor himself, starts with a horrible moment of cruelty when he is tormented by his uncle Caligula, and moves through Nero’s childhood in the house of his aunt. Gradually, however, he is drawn into the poisonous atmosphere of the royal court, particularly after his mother Agrippina replaces the adulterous Messalina as the wife of the Emperor Claudius. Of course, he eventually comes to power as the emperor, all the while continuing to indulge in his true passion: the arts.

Nero as George depicts him is a man tormented by the demons of his childhood. Brought up in a nest of vipers in which the blood of royalty can be as good as a death sentence, he struggles to be a good person, even as a darker side of him gradually emerges, the side that will, we are led to believe, lead him down the road of madness and cruelty.

However, he is also a man who can see the beauty in the world. He is not the vain and awful faux artist as he normally appears in the popular media, but instead a man genuinely driven to create. He idolizes the Greek world and the beauty that it created, and he does everything in his power to create it. In this novel’s imagination, at least, he succeeds, several time entering into that beautiful and orgiastic state in which true art is produced. There is, though, a slight note of ambiguity, as we’re not quite sure whether those who flatter him are doing so because he’s the emperor or because they genuinely think he is good at what he does.

Just as he loves the world of beauty, so he often falls in love. His abiding love is the freedwoman Acte, who sees him for who he really is, for both good and ill. She, along with the famous poisoner Locusta, make infrequent appearances throughout the novel as a sort of Greek chorus, providing commentary on the events of his life and offering a counterpoint to his own perspective. Unlike Nero, whose perspectives on the world are more than slightly skewed by both his upbringing and by the art that is his solace, they are able to see what he refuses to.

Then there is Poppaea, the woman who gradually becomes the focus of all of Nero’s affections and attentions. At first she is married to his friend Otho, but she manipulates the emperor into coercing her husband to divorce her. She and Nero quickly marry one another. It’s rather difficult to determine how we should feel about her. Is she indeed the agent of her own destiny, or is she merely the screen upon which Nero seems determined to project his desires? Or is it some combination of the two? I suspect it’s a combination, and this allows her as a character to trouble the narrative that Nero tells and which he uses to try to make sense of the life that he has led.

Given that the majority of Nero’s reign was peaceful in terms of international politics, this gives George the opportunity to really dive into Nero’s psyche. In both its prose and its narrative, The Confessions shows a tortured and battered soul attempting to make its way in a milieu that is as dangerous and deadly as it is beautiful. Haunted by the spirit of his predecessors–including Augustus–and hectored by both his mother and his tutor and adviser Seneca, Nero tries to forge his own path. When the novel ends, right as the great fire has begun to consume his capital, Nero knows that this will be the greatest challenge that he has yet faced. Of course, we as readers know that this event will mark the beginning of the end for him.

While the novel seeks to explain Nero’s actions, some of which are quite terrible, it doesn’t excuse them. It doesn’t paper over the fact that Nero did indeed have his mother Agrippina killed, but she does go to pains to point out the lengths to which his mother is willing to do to solidify and maintain her hold on power, even if that means doing away with her own son. While Agrippina, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges as the villain of the novel, one also gets the sense that she, like her son, like her brother Caligula, is the product of a poisonous and traumatic environment that leaves many scars. When we finish the novel, we’re left in no doubt that the shadow that has already fallen on Nero’s psyche is one that he will never entirely leave behind; some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal.

As always with George’s work, the book is saturated in period detail, bringing ancient Rome to piercing and vibrant life. There’s even a delicious little detail that I found particularly lovely: Nero ends up meeting the aged Alexander Helios, the son of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (and therefore Nero’s great grand uncle). As a result of George’s prose, we get a surprisingly strong sense of what it must have been like to live in the Rome of the first century of the Common Era.

All in all, The Confessions of Young Nero is a story of a broken and tortured young man thrust into a power he did not want who nevertheless does everything he can to be a good emperor to his people. I know that I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the second installment, which will cover the last years of Nero’s reign.

I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!

Reading History: “The Taming of the Queen” and Donald Trump

In the wake of November 8th, it’s really difficult–nay, impossible–to not read and watch everything produced in the years leading up to Trump’s electoral victory through the prism of the dystopian perspective he brings to the world. As a trained historicist–that is, one who views all cultural artifacts as existing in an ongoing relationship with the social and political world in which they are located–it is both fascinating and disconcerting to begin piecing together a historical tapestry, even while living in the middest of this pivotal historical moment.

As I was finishing up my reading of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Taming of the Queen, which follows the marriage of Kateryn Parr to Henry VIII, it was hard not to view it as a precursor to the dark times in which we now live. While I don’t think that Gregory necessarily had the conflict between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on her mind when she wrote this novel, it’s hard, in hindsight, not to see it as at least tapping into the rumblings and seismic shifts that have been detectable for quite some time now. How could you not, when its central characters a brilliant woman who is erudite, learned, and intelligent and a blustering, capricious, and cruel man whose only true investment remains in himself and his own pleasures?

In Gregory’s always-capable hands, Parr emerges from these pages as a fiery, passionate, intelligent woman, one who is as fiercely in love with the dashing Thomas Seymour, a bit of a rakish character who nevertheless has managed to steal the heart of our heroine. However, despite her love of this man, she knows that she has no choice but to give him up once she finds herself caught up in the net of Henry’s court and his own rapacious desires. She knows that if she were to deny the king, she might very well meet the fate of so many others (both men and women) who fell afoul of Henry and attempted to deny him what he desired.

In the world of the Tudors, the monarch’s wishes and demands are the only thing that matters, and gratifying them is the surest way to the pinnacle of power–or to the absolute depths of defeat and death on the headsman’s block. It is largely because of this that Kateryn must continue to wheedle and cajole this aging tyrant, both so that she can continue pursuing her ardent intellectual passions but also, and just importantly, so that she can save herself from the death that met two of his other wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). The novel refers again and again to the jewels, furs, and belongings of those former queens, and these material remains of the past continue to haunt Katern as she must struggle against those in the court (Stephen Gardiner foremost among them) who would love nothing more than to bring her down and destroy her.

Indeed, it is precisely her intellectual acumen that nearly proves her undoing. Utterly dedicated to the rising tide of Protestantism, Kateryn soon associates herself with the foremost reformers in the country, inviting the fieriest of Protestant preachers to preach in her rooms. She also begins doing her own translations, and Gregory shows her to be a woman who manages to find a balance between her intellect and her faith. While this at first pleases Henry–who always did fancy himself a scholar–all too soon it proves to be her weak spot, as her outspokenness alienates her.

It is only when she thoroughly abases herself before him–allowing him to beat and humiliate her in the most degrading ways–that she is saved from the headsman. From that point on, she must bury all of her intellectual, romantic, and spiritual inclinations under a veneer of submissiveness, and it is only Henry’s timely death that releases her from her chains.

Henry emerges as very much a man cut in the mold of what we have seen of Trump. Utterly capricious, vengeful, gluttonous, and venal, this Henry sees himself as a grand pupper-master, determined to keep a stranglehold on the power that has been his for so many years. He turns against anyone who dares to whisper a word of opposition to him, and indeed it is only his abrupt death that saves the Duke Thomas Howard–a man who has served Henry since the beginning of his reign–from the headsman’s block. Indeed, some time ago the noted feminist scholar Susan Bordo (author of the excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn) drew out some of these uncanny similarities between the 16th Century monarch and our current President-Elect.

Yet, despite the clouds of impending darkness that seem to have obliterated any hope for an enlightened future in which women’s voices are recognized and celebrated as valid, the ending of Gregory’s novel does provide some solace and hope for a better future. As Kateryn writes:

“I believe that to be a free woman is to be both passionate and intelligent; and I am a free woman at last.”

Though these lines provide narrative closure, they also remind us of the fierce spirit that motivates women both past and present, and that beyond the darkest days there still lies a glimmer, however faint, of hope.

Reading History: “The Conqueror’s Wife” (Stephanie Thornton)

As readers of this blog know, I have a voracious appetite for historical fiction set in the ancient world. Fortunately for me, Stephanie Thornton has again released a fantastic tale, this time focused on the men and women surrounding that most powerful of ancient generals, Alexander the Great.  With The Conqueror’s Wife, Thornton takes her place alongside Mary Renault as one of the handful of writers who has a strong grasp of the effect Alexander had on those who surrounded him.

The novel follows the fortunes of four primary characters:  Drypetis, younger daughter of Darius III; Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander; Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and best friend; and Roxana, Alexander’s conniving yet beautiful first wife and mother of his child Alexander IV. They each find themselves caught up in the powerful, overwhelming personality that was Alexander the Great.

Through some strange skill known only to her, Thornton manages to make Roxana, certainly one of the novel’s most vicious and bitter characters, into an understandable figure. We see through her eyes as she suffers first the brutal punishments of her cruel and uncaring father and then the depravity of the usurper Bessus, before finally becoming the original Queen of Queens to Alexander. Her position remains unstable, though, and becomes all the more so after the conqueror marries the royal Stateira and then dies of a fever. Desperate to retain her status, Roxana resorts to ever more desperate measures, and while we are led to feel revulsion at her increasing bitterness and cruelty, we also understand their source. She recognizes the cruel necessity that her body is her key to power, even as she grows to hate (at least at a subconscious level) what she has gradually become.

Roxana’s fellow Persian, Drypetis, could not be more different. She yearns to understand what makes things work, and her restless desire for more knowledge keeps her going even through the hardest moments of her life. She gradually endues the loss of almost everyone that she cares for, from her father Darius to her husband and true love Hephaestion.

Thessalonike is in many ways the twin of Drypetis. Both are royal young women who are exceptional in that they do not fit comfortably into the roles expected of them.  Thessalonike yearns to be a fighter and a warrior like her elder brother,while Drypetis has a mind for mechanical things.  Neither is willing to let the limitations imposed on their gender keep them from doing what they want, and both are fiercely loyal to their families. Unfortunately, they both also find themselves subject to powers greater than they are, and both experience unimaginable loss.

Fortunately, they also find strength in one another. As two of the fortunate survivors of both Alexander’s reign and the bloodbath that followed his death, they are able to find solace and power in the companionship that they have so long been denied. It is a fitting reminder of the intensity of the relationships that often emerge between and among women.

Finally, we come to Hephaestion. He has always been an ambiguous character in much historical fiction, given the fact that many authors prefer to refer to him as Alexander’s “best friend” or some equally innocuous term. Thornton cuts through all of that and makes it clear that the bond between Alexander and Hephaestion was deeply passionate and intensely sexual. While the novel does not go into too much detail about the mechanics, it also does not leave any doubt that, even after many years, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was almost certainly still sexual and that they really did love one another with a power beyond that of mere friendship.

Thornton paints a compelling and visceral portrait of a dark and brutal world. She doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying both the grit and gore of the battlefield, as well as the equally bloody and dangerous worlds of the bedroom and the political arena. All of the characters find themselves forced do things that they would rather avoid, and they have to live with the scars that these actions inflict on their psyches.

There are two casualties of the novel, Alexander and his mother Olympias. Unfortunately for Olympias, her actions–most of which had at least some measure of justification given the dark and tumultuous times in which she lived–do not lend themselves to sympathetic portrayal. For my part, I did feel a pang of sympathy for her when Cassander at last outmaneuvers her and has her stoned to death. This, after all, was a woman who managed to survive everything thrown her way, only to at last meet the most ignominious of deaths. But, I have to admit, she makes a compelling villain.

As for Alexander, the novel paints him as something of an egomaniac (as he probably was), and in that sense is a useful corrective to some of the more hagiographical approaches of other authors. Much as I love Renault, she tends to gloss over some of Alexander’s more glaring faults. Thornton shows Alexander as an undeniable genius, one of those rare leaders who combined phenomenal charisma and military acumen with more than a touch of madness.

Thornton does an excellent job, as always, of painting exquisite portraits of the conflicted and compelling personalities that had an enormous impact upon the world in which they lived. I cannot wait until she reveals the subject of her next novel.

Reading History: “The First Congress” (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable.  While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier.  Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich.  With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation.  While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention.  He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania.  These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book.  Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation’s financial infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate.

As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital.  Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties.  It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency.

There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress.  Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture.

The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans.  While the question of slavery was punted to future generations–a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation–Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress.  While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves,  Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all.

All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style.  Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision.  In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America.  Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events.

Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress.  Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good.  I only hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book.

And, finally, here’s to my 200th post on this blog.  Let’s hope for 200 more!

Reading History: “The Secret Chord” (Geraldine Brooks)

Some writers of historical fiction have a particular knack for evoking a sense of the strangeness of a past culture, capturing in their language the ethos that drives a particular culture.  Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, and Madeline Miller are examples of such writers, and with The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks proves that she can also be numbered among those with a keen understanding of the ancient world and an appreciation of its differences from the modern we currently inhabit.

Told from the point of view of Natan, one of the Old Testament’s most  famous prophets, the novel follows the rise of the biblical king David and his gradual decline, as well as the rise of his son Shlomo (known to us as Solomon).  We see David through Natan’s eyes, as a brilliant but flawed man who managed to forge a measure of peace and unity upon a fractious and warlike people.  David is also a man driven by passions, including his ill-fated (and, in this novel, explicitly physical) love of Yonatan, the son of tragic King Shaul, and his ruinous and ultimately catastrophic lust for the woman Batsheva, the wife of his general Uriah.  Natan stands with David through all of the trials that follow until, as the old king nears his death, he conspires with Batsheva to ensure that Shlomo inherits the throne.

David emerges from this novel as a compelling but flawed king, a man capable of bringing the scattered and feuding Jewish tribes together into a nation.  However, for all of his political and military abilities, he is also prone to his own sexual desires, and he is stubbornly blind to the numerous faults of his many sons.  It is the combination of these two flaws that ultimately rends David’s family and threatens to undo the unity of the kingdom, a fate only narrowly averted by the manipulation of Batsheva and her ally Natan.

While Natan is our access to this world, he is far from an idealized hero.  Like David, he makes choices that seem morally and ethically questionable from our modern perspective.  In perhaps his most important and morally dubious move, he lies to David about a promise that he supposedly made to Batsheva regarding Shlomo’s right to inherit the throne, taking advantage of his monarch’s aged weakness in order to usher in the period of greatness that he has seen as a result of his visions.  Is he justified in doing so?  Probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has taken advantage of an ailing man in order to bring about that vision.

Thus, Natan is also a hero who struggles to enact or maintain his own agency.  The Name constantly subjects Natan to a fate that he cannot control.  He does not get to choose when the moments of prophecy come upon him and, even when he is granted a vision of what is to come, he can only do what he thinks is best in order to bring about that period of future greatness.  Often, while the Name gives him the opportunity to see things that are denied to others, Natan is often unable to do anything to change the course of events.  He cannot, for example, do anything to stop David from his affair with Batsheva, and he similarly can do nothing to stop the assault of David’s daughter by her half-brother.  The sight is a blessing, but it is also a burden and a curse.

While this is undoubtedly a thoroughly patriarchal world, the novel does acknowledge the ways in which women in this culture are consistently devalued and treated as little more than either receptacles of male desire or as political pawns to be utilized as the men in their families see fit.  Rather than romanticizing the relationship between Batsheva and David, for example, is explicitly framed as a rape, though she ultimately realizes that she has much to gain by insinuating herself with David, and much to lose if she turns against him.  Such is the painful lesson learned by Shaul’s tragic daughter Michal, whose passionate love for David ultimately turns sour and bitter, as she is first ignored and married to another man, and then forced into a marriage with David.  Similar, though less tragic, narratives emerge around the other women in David’s life, for they all realize that their political and personal well-being, as well as that of their children, relies upon their proximity to the king and their ability to stay in his good graces.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s that it seems a bit too short.  There are some characters who ultimately fade into the background, never to be seen again (most notably Michal).  However, the brevity of the novel also gives it an narrative urgency that keeps the reader arrested and invested until the very end.

Once again, Brooks prove herself to be a virtuoso with the written word, her words as haunting and evocative as many of the passages of the Old Testament upon which it is based.  There are some books that are simply an aesthetic pleasure to read, and this happens to be one of them.  This novel is a must for those seeking a truly beautiful novel that brings the world of the ancient Hebrews to piercing and brilliant life.

Score:  10/10

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.

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

Reading History: “Medicis Daughter” (by Sophie Perinot)

Warning:  Some spoilers for the plot follow.

Thanks to the great folks over at NetGalley, I recently had the chance to read Sophie Perinot’s newest historical novel, Medicis Daughter, which chronicles the life and loves of Marguerite of Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medicis who, through an advantageous marriage, would ultimately become (for a time) Queen of France.  The novel, however, focuses mainly on the time before her fateful marriage to Henri, the King of Navarre, a noted Protestant and thus key to her family’s plans for holding France together.

At the time of the novel’s opening, Marguerite’s family has been beset again and again by tragedy, first by the untimely death of her father and then her eldest brother Francois, and her brother Charles now occupies the throne.  As a young daughter of marriageable age, Margot (her nickname) is a valuable pawn in her family’s hands, and she is soon courted by kings and princes alike, including the King of Spain (the widower of Margot’s sister) and the young King of Portugal, until she is finally married to her cousin Henri.

Marguerite is not always the easiest character to like.  While the entire novel is told from her perspective, there are times when you just want to slap her for the silly (and sometimes politically disastrous) choices that she makes, including her passionate affair with Henri, the Duc de Guise.  And yet, one can also not really blame her for some of the things she does.  Confronted with the reality that she cannot but do as she is commanded, that her life choices are constantly circumscribed by the men and women around her (particularly her brother and her mother), and even by the events that threaten to plunge all of France into continued religious chaos, she strikes out in whatever ways she can devise.

Thus, where the novel most succeeds is in showing the ways in which Marguerite resists (sometimes more effectively than at others) the whims of the people around her:  her often weak, vacillating, and vengeful brother Charles, her ardent and incestuous brother Anjou, and her terrifying mother Catherine.  Through ways both large and small, she attempts to make her own way, even when that means bringing down the wrath of her various family members upon her head.  For example, her brother Henri, overcome with his carnal desire for her, successfully turns her own mother against her.  Truly, this is a nest of serpents, and it is all Margot can do to survive.

While Marguerite is indeed the novel’s center, I would suggest that Catherine emerges as just as compelling a character as her daughter, though the novel does not paint her in a very flattering light.  And yet, if one looks beyond the surface, one can see the ways in which the novel also wants us to, indirectly at least, understand the world that could produce a woman like her.  Having scratched and clawed her way into power despite all of the obstacles in her path, it is even easy to understand why Catherine would deny her daughter those same qualities.  She more than anyone else realizes the political necessities of the world they live in, and these realities have hardened her until she sees no other way to be other than political.  Denied love and any semblance of political power by her husband, is it any wonder that she will do anything to maintain it once he is dead and her weak sons successively occupy the throne?

While the novel focuses mainly on the young Valois princess’s experiences, it does make clear the pivotal role that she played as the daughter of one of the great houses of Europe.  It is important to remember that the French Wars of Religion were some of the most tumultuous and deadly in European history, as almost everyone, from the highest monarch to the lowest peasant, had to choose which way to salvation they would take.  Marguerite thus becomes another pawn in the great games of power being waged around her, a fate that she attempts to resist even as she recognizes the limits of her own agency.

All in all, Perinot has managed to bring another historically underappreciated woman into the modern world, allowing us a glimpse into the way that her mind might have worked and how she might have encountered the world she lived in and experienced on a day to day basis.  Perinot, like other great historical novelists currently working today, allows us to see, and at least partially understood, this extraordinary Renaissance woman, and we can but hope that she will continue to chronicle the rest of Margot’s eventul life in French politics.

Score:  9/10

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.

Reading History: “When Christ and His Saints Slept” (by Sharon Kay Penman)

I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, and Sharon Kay Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of those gems, a novel that manages to combine the vast epic sweep of a Walter Scott with the more intricate and personal details that allow us an intimate glimpse into the medieval world which it chronicles.  Set during the period known as the Anarchy, the novel follows two rival claimants to the English throne:  Stephen (nephew of the previous king Henry I) and Henry’s fiery, independent-spirited daughter Maude (widow of the Holy Roman Emperor).  As everyone in their orbit is drawn into the conflict, loyalties are tested and everyone must decide which side they will take and who they would like to see on England’s throne.  Told from a multitude of viewpoints, it offers a fascinating glimpse into one of England’s most turbulent periods.

Given the extraordinary nature of the women who occupied this world, it should come as no surprise that they emerge as the stars of Penman’s novel.  Maude chafes at the fact that her society cannot comprehend that a woman night not only be able to rule, but might be able to do so even better than her male counterparts.  This is not to say that the novel is unambiguously in Maude’s favour; she is not the perfect ruler, and she is stubborn to the point of folly.  Indeed, it is only after she ultimately loses her chance at the throne that she recognizes that sometimes, just sometimes, it is necessary for a ruler to follow the advice of her counselors.

Though she is not the primary focus of the novel, Eleanor of Aquitaine also emerges as a woman who knows precisely what she wants and does what it takes to achieve that goal.  Like Maude’s son Henry (who eventually succeeds Stephen as Henry II), hers is a personality that burns bright and powerful, so much so that she cannot be so easily contained by a society and a culture that systematically denies women the ability (and often the opportunity) to engage meaningfully in their political world.  Indeed, Eleanor even challenges the might of the French king Louis by marrying Henry a mere couple of months after her divorce to him becomes finalized.

Yet Stephen also emerges as a surprisingly compelling and even sympathetic character.  The novel takes great pains to show him as a genuinely good and chivalrous man, though one always able to be led by the most powerful person in his vicinity.  He also emerges as a man plagued by tragedy, as he struggles to retain the crown that he believes is his by right and ultimately loses both his wife Matilda and his unruly and dangerously unbalanced son Eustace.  Stephen is, in the end, a man far too kind, gentle, and chivalrous for the medieval world in which he lives, and far too lenient to ever be the effective king that England needs in order to survive. and thrive as a stable kingdom.  Though this makes him much more understandable to us as modern subjects, it eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

While it is all too common for novels of this type to focus strictly on the doings of the powerful and the royal, large sequences of the novel also relate the experiences of those who occupied the subaltern position within the medieval world:  the whores, the soldiers, the servants.  Although their perspectives do not typically occupy large parts of the narrative, they are nevertheless crucial for showing us the ways in which the civil war (which lasted almost two decades) took a terrible toll on the common people of the kingdom.

Most notable, perhaps, are two sets of individuals whose fates intersect with Ranulf (Maude’s fictional half-brother):  a pair of Jewish brothers who tend to him after a nearly-fatal bandit attack, and a pair of Saxon youths he rescues from certain rape and death.  Both groups represent the subaltern stratum of medieval English society, and it is actually rather shocking to realize the ways in which their plights were customarily ignored (or worse, justified) by the dominant mores of the time.  The fact that Ranulf finds himself feeling so intensely for their plight makes him one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters.

I’ve always thought that a good historical novel should give us moderns a taste–however diluted–of the strangeness of the past.  While many aspects of When Christ and His Saints Slept do give us a window into the workings of the mind of its characters that renders them at least somewhat modern in outlook, the world that Penman brings to life is one quite alien to our own.  As the above examples demonstrate, the novel never lets us forget that medieval England was a hard world, full of numerous social divisions that were seen as not only normal, but expected and immutable.  It’s a humbling reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

Score:  10/10