Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #17: A Captive Queen by Alison Weir
In her late twenties, Queen Eleanor of France yearns for sons, for passion with her husband Louis (or without him on occasion), for respect and power at court, and for the warmth and softness of her native Aquitaine. A headstrong but intelligent woman, she managed to achieve all of these these in her lifetime, becoming, as Weir says, wife of two kings and mother of two, but rarely managed to hold all simultaneously.
The facts of Eleanor’s life are more or less known. She was born in 1122 or 1124, and died in 1204. She had an eye for handsome gentlemen, gained a divorce from King Louis VII of France and regained her lands in the south but lost her two daughters in the process. She married Henry II of England, 11 years younger than herself, who ruled an empire that stretched from Scotland to Spain, and had many children, and spent a lot of time in captivity. To say more about this might spoil the book for people not so familiar with her (I certainly knew of this remarkable woman in the vaguest sense only, and had quite mixed up William Marshal and Warwick the Kingmaker).
Weir seems to be very sympathetic towards Eleanor, although we are given the point of view of Henry and various other characters as well. She does not succeed in making Eleanor an entirely sympathetic character, and this is partly because the novel treads over the same ground repeatedly in the same way – Eleanor and Henry fight and have passionate sex (of the romantic rather than erotic variety), for example, over and over again in scenes that differ from each other only in terms of the insults hurled and the word for sexual organs used, which gets quite boring. Eleanor thus comes across as desperate and needy rather than spirited and lusty, which I think the author intended. The descriptions of the aging Eleanor are also repeated – we are told about five times that between the ages of forty and sixty she develops little more than fine wrinkles and silver threads in her luxuriant coppery hair but her exquisite bone structure continues to make her desirable, which is very important to her. (I’m paraphrasing only slightly – Weir tends to use such clichés). The power struggles of the time, both between nations and within the family, remain a bit fuzzy, and Weir seems to assign contemporary motivations to characters quite a bit (the language is contemporary as well) which is jarring. She also attributes the saying “to err is human, to forgive divine” to Christ when in fact, as far as I have been able to ascertain, it was first said by Alexander Pope.
My main problems with this book were the repetitions and the fact that it veered between family drama and tame bodice-ripper rather than combining the two compellingly. It did give some sense of the problems of being a woman, even a royal woman, in the early Middle Ages, and the bits about the triangle of Henry-Eleanor-Thomas Becket are interesting (no idea to what extent that was real), and the descriptions of the foods and costumes and customs of the time were interesting. I haven’t read any of Weir’s non-fiction, but it would be interesting to see how it compares. I know I’ve said interesting three times there after complaining about repetition, but I’m not interested in the book enough enough to say fascinating or whatever or look up any synonyms.
“But she had won the first round in the contest, and at least she knew her enemy, whose smile was rather more forced when they next came face to face; and she was resolved to fight him with all the subtle weapons at her disposal. She’d known it would be a secret struggle, no doubt of it, because Henry did not understand subtlety, and she would be fighting Becket on his own terms. It had not been long, however, before she realised, to her dismay, that she was losing the battle.” (136)
Weir, Alison. The Captive Queen. London: Arrow Books, 2011.