Tag Archives: sharon kay penman

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: “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