Eleanor of Aquitaine blows my mind. So, this lovely lady lived in the 1100’s, when women were property, but somehow, she managed to become one of the most powerful people of her time. Granted, she was born into a privileged position, was one of the largest landholders in France, and, by all accounts, was absolutely gorgeous. I’m sure that helped. But, imagine the social and political acumen she had to possess to make it all work. This historical fiction is written as a first person memoir of the time period after her marriage to the King of France was annulled and she was forced into marriage with Henry, the soon to be, King of England and the narrative continues until her death.
I understand that the first person point-of-view doesn’t work for everyone, but I loved it. Then again, there are few historical fictions that I don’t enjoy, so take my review with a grain of salt. Historical fiction is literary candy for me. When I need to escape reality, I jump into the past, usually with royalty because, let’s face it, the life of a peasant was probably nothing to write home about.
The manner in which Henry acquired the most eligible woman in Europe for his bride was rather questionable. In essence, he kidnapped her, raped her, and then insisted on the match. She forgave him because, frankly, she could have made worse matches and wasn’t really in a position to bargain. Here are her thoughts about the man: “… the aspect of Henry which most strikes one is his energy. It was such as almost to make one believe the tales of a devilish ancestor. From the moment my new husband rose in the morning until the moment he collapsed exhausted in bed at night, he never rested either his body or his brain for a moment.” loc 81, ebook. Henry was known for his energy and fiery temper. I didn’t mark the passage, but Eleanor relates how, when the King became angry, he would throw himself to the floor and eat the rushes. For modern folks who may not know what rushes are- these are essentially plants that were used to keep the floor clean, sort of like throw away rugs. Remember, floors were pretty disgusting back then as transportation was done mainly by horse and certain things were tracked in on people’s boots. The King of England would get so mad that he ate poop covered rushes! In the modern age, that would so not fly. I can just see the covers of the tabloid mags.
I completely forgot that it was Eleanor’s husband who had the infamous disagreement with Thomas Becket. “The quarrel thus commenced dragged on for some time. It was fairly well known, and i do not propose to go into details about it- during this period I had a fair number of problems of my own, and while I felt sorry for Thomas, placed in such a dilemma as having to choose between King and Church, I am bound to admit that he made life unnecessarily difficult for himself.” loc 880, ebook. That seemed to be Eleanor’s way- go with the flow of what happens, but don’t forget what happened and strike back when you’re in a place of power.
In this passage, Eleanor is fretting over turning 40, which, had she only known it, wasn’t even halfway through her life: “I should point out that in the summer of 1162 I reached my fortieth birthday. This is a most depressing milestone, for anyone, but more I think for a woman than a man, and most of all for a woman once accounted the most beautiful of her time. At forty there could be no disguising the fact that I was growing old, and that even my beauty was fading. In addition, forty brings with it the approach of the dreaded end of fertility, and what has a woman got left?” pg 915. She had ten kids, how many more does a woman need? And, although much of her power was based in her beauty and fertility, she was still a formidable spirit. I mean, the lady was locked up by her husband for over a decade and yet, she manages to come back from it! Talk about aging gracefully…
Here, Eleanor is holding her own after being defeated in battle with the King of England, her husband. (She went to war against him for her sons- how hardcore is that!): “I would say that it is fairly well established that you have recently been in arms against your king.” “I acted as Duchess of Aquitaine,” I pointed out. “As we are now in Aquitaine, you are an invader, and I am a prisoner-of-war.” “I am the ruler of Aquitaine,” he argued. “In my name,” I riposted. “I have now withdrawn that privilege from you.” “Madame, your effrontery is startling.” “I am Eleanor of Aquitaine.” loc 1988. Boom.
If you like historical fiction about strong women, The Queen of Love may be something that you really enjoy. Some other suggestions: Margaret the First, Isabella: Braveheart of France, The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand, or Pope Joan.
Thank you to NetGalley and Endeavour Press for a free digital copy of this book! And, thank you for reading.