Saturday, June 09, 2007
Duchess of Acquitaine
Our book today is Margaret Ball's historical novel "Duchess of Acquitaine," with its charmingly chummy subtitle, 'A Novel of Eleanor' (brave, foolhardy Ball, trusting that none of her prospective readers will read the book's title, then read the subtitle and say 'who's this Eleanor chick?').
The book's heroine is, of course, Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of those figures from history about whom it can be said with certainty that if she'd never existed, historical novelists would have had to invent her. By all accounts shapely, beautiful, forceful, and intelligent, she was also immensely rich, which allowed her to live her life on a scale and with an intensity undreamt of by all but a handful of women anywhere in the world of the 12th century.
She owned and ruled large territories; she composed poetry and patronized love poets; she traveled to exotic locales such as Jerusalem and Constantinople; she grew into a consummate political strategist, but she also felt and often acted on strong passions. She was the daughter and neice of great lords. She was the wife of two kings. She was the mother of four kings. No wonder writers have been drawn to her like vultures to blooded meat.
A long line of historical novelists have tried their hands at Eleanor, with varying degrees of success. To Norah Lofts she was pliant and yearning. To Jean Plaidy she was flinty and shrill. To Sharon Penman she was wise and compassionate.
And of course one dramatist was drawn to her - James Goldman created an immortal portrait in his play "The Lion in Winter," in which Eleanor's unique upbringing and vast intelligence have combined to make her a sardonic force of nature, easily the equal of the men around her:
"I even made poor Louis [her hapless royal French husband] take me on crusade. How's that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as amazons and rode bare-breasted half way to Damascus. Louis had a seizure, and I damn near died of windburn but the troops were dazzled."
Ball couldn't possibly match the pitch-perfect sophistication of this, and she doesn't try to. Her Eleanor is above all things young - "Duchess of Acquitaine" is accurately titled: our heroine is a young woman throughout its length. The formidable, world-weary queen of the novelists is still a decade away when Ball's novel ends. As far as we recall, nobody's ever written a novel about this Eleanor before.
The book is light and elegant but not lightweight and certainly not precious. Ball's extensive research is nowhere on display - rather, it's visible only in the tone accurately portrayed, the essential little detail got right every single time. The reader is not belabored with great chunks of undigested exposition. Instead, the narrative moves deftly along, full of dialogue and the play of personalities.
Indeed, one of the nicest touches Ball brings to her story is the consistent, buzzing, quarrelling humanity of her characters, most certainly including Eleanor herself. Maids, stableboys, grooms, dukes, prelates - all at some point or other scratch themselves, or eat something disagreeable, or smell of horse sweat. The overall effect is of making her characters vividly, even redolently, real in a way seldom done by other writers perhaps more enamored of glamor.
Still, Ball's approach is daring enough. This is, after all, an Eleanor story unfamiliar to readers who'll come to the book looking for civil wars and a tempestuous marriage. This is the story of a young woman, smarter than virtually everyone around her but still feeling her way in the realms of politics and intrigue (and, only embryonically, war).
Readers will naturally be curious about Henry. That's young Count Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England, the great love, great foil, and great nemesis of the adult Eleanor's life. Even across eight centuries, the chemistry between these two shines - it informs every novel, every history, and of course it's the heart and soul of Goldman's play (he came to Paris with 'a mind like Aristotle's and a form like mortal sin,' Eleanor says. 'We shattered the commandments on the spot').
The measure of Ball's courage is that this Henry is hardly on her stage at all; she simply refuses to tell that story, having faith instead in her own. This faith is well-founded: she carries off her task with aplomb, without the slightest trace of the anxiety she must certainly have been feeling.
Her book is the better for it, since Eleanor's young life makes for fascinating reading even in the dry historical documents that register it. In the hands of a skilled novelist with an ear for dialogue, it becomes a goldmine.
So: virtually no Henry, but we do get (in an oddly oedipal eventuality) an absolutely vibrant, utterly living portrait of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry's indominable father. He stalks across these pages alternating between serpentine calibration and blood-curdling rage - he's easily Ball's most memorable male character. He's the type of ferally smart, instinctively bloodthirsty figure who makes you wonder how on Earth the generations continued. He's not a monster like his son was, a monster with a higher purpose - he's just a monster, with a hard army and some cold cash at his back.
Still, Henry is here, a little grubby, a little desperate, but present nonetheless, as testimony to Ball's awareness that she's only telling part of an entirely remarkable story.
She concludes her story with her young Eleanor in the passionate embrace of this vulpine young man, and those readers familiar with their history will feel exactly the heart-pang Ball intends, as her young Eleanor senses that this is the beginning of everything good in her life.
"Shadowy figures passed before her eyes," Ball writes, "not the army of skeletons that had tortured her dreams before Outremer but tall, proud men whose features mingled the Plantagenet fairness with the height and dignity of Aquitaine. Sons. I will have sons, and they will live."
Well, yes. But we all know (at least, we hope) the horrible realities that followed from those dreams: the dead young king, the sundered country, the civil wars, the fretful reconciliations, the terrible deals with all posterities. Ball knows them as well as we do, and yet she tells her more innocent tale in the full sunshine of its own merits.
Still, the fact that she ends this novel at such a moment tempts the reader to think she might move on to write of stormier times for her heroine. That would be bad news for Eleanor, but good news for us.