15 September, 2009

The Time of Singing, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84744-097-6, 506 pages

Set in 1173–1199, The Time of Singing covers the later years of the reign of Henry II, all of the reign of Richard I (Lionheart) and the beginning of King John’s. It centres on Roger Bigod, heir to the earldom of Norfolk, and his wife Ida de Tosney. William Marshal (hero of the author’s earlier books The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion), is an important secondary character. All the main characters are historical figures.*

Roger Bigod, eldest son of the earl of Norfolk, has been at odds with his boorish father, his stepmother and his two younger half-brothers for years, and when his father rebels against Henry II Roger defies his father and joins the king. Victory in battle sees Roger’s father forfeit the earldom, and although Roger has won Henry’s cautious regard, Henry is afraid of the Bigod earls’ power and uses the inheritance dispute between Roger and his half-brothers as a convenient excuse to withhold the earldom from either. Now Roger has a protracted struggle ahead of him to regain his inheritance. When he encounters Ida de Tosney, Henry’s young ward and reluctant mistress, Roger is immediately attracted to her and is happy to accept her as his wife. But Ida has to pay the price of giving up her young son for Henry to rear at court, and Roger has his own insecurities to deal with. As Roger’s work in the King’s service takes him ever more from Ida’s side, the emotional scars they both bear threaten to destroy their marriage.

As with the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I’ve read, The Time of Singing is especially strong on human relationships. I felt it had a more domestic focus than the Marshal novels. Roger is embroiled in a protracted legal battle for his forfeited earldom and inheritance, there are some murky political shenanigans to negotiate while Richard I is away on crusade, and there are a couple of short battlefield action scenes, but the heart of the novel is in Roger and Ida’s relationship with each other and the people around them. Their marriage forms the centrepiece, but it is only the central one among the many other relationships that form the warp and weft of their lives. Ida’s relationship with her illegitimate son by Henry, who is taken from her to be raised at court when she marries Roger, is perhaps the most poignant. Roger’s family ties, including the difficult relationships with his thoroughly unpleasant father, his stepmother and his two contrasting half-brothers, and his growing friendship with William Marshal, shape his life choices and influence his relationship with Ida and their children. The novel illustrates how medieval society was held together by a complex web of kinship, lordship and friendship ties.

The main characters are well rounded and believable. Roger makes an attractive contrast to the charming and self-assured William Marshal. He is practical, patient, level-headed and reliable, but painfully shy around women and his self-containment can be all too easily mistaken for emotional coldness. Ida is sweet, caring, almost as innocent at the end of the novel as she is at the beginning, and traumatised by having to leave her eldest child behind at court. Left alone at Framlingham with her other children for increasingly long periods while Roger is engaged on legal and administrative duties, Ida’s loneliness and growing resentment are easy to understand. Roger is jealous of her previous affair with the king, and resentful of her pining for her missing son. The growing distance between them, and their struggles to find a compromise that will sustain their marriage (aided by some informal marriage guidance from William Marshal!) is convincingly drawn.

The novel shows an unglamorous side to Henry II, as something of a dirty old man not above exploiting a young girl placed in his care. The secondary character I found most intriguing was Ida’s illegitimate son by Henry, William (later known as Longespee, “Long Sword”). Brought up in the lap of luxury as the king’s son but insecure about his illegitimate status and anxious about his unknown mother’s identity, William develops an obsession with status and show that makes him behave like an arrogant snob as he reaches adolescence. It would be easy to dismiss him as a jerk, but Roger’s cool compassion is able to recognise the genuine worth underneath and build a wary acceptance between them.

Readers who enjoy the minutiae of life (at least among the aristocracy) in years gone by will love the details of domestic life, including Roger’s (fictional) love of extravagant hats and the detail of food, clothing and life in a great house (complete with aggressive geese in the bailey). As the novel covers over twenty years, the narrative often skips forward several years at one jump, and I had to remember to pay attention to the dates given in the chapter headings. A helpful Author’s Note summarises the history underlying the novel and the gaps filled in by fiction.

Warm-hearted exploration of romantic, family and social relationships in twelfth-century England.


*I should note that I’m familiar with Roger Bigod’s castle at Framlingham and the castle Henry II built at Orford to clip the Bigod earls’ wings, so it was particularly appealing for me to read about the men who built them.

12 comments:

Daphne said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Many thanks for the review Carla.
It was indeed intended to be more domestic than the Marshal novels and obviously you picked up on this :-)
It was also intended to show the importance of inter-connecting kinship ties in the medieval world, and this continues in To Defy a King.
With Henry II - I do think that he has a modern fictional gloss on him at times that hides aspects of his character. Your 'dirty old man' remark was fairly on target IMO. I also think it was about power. About taking because you could reach out your hand and do so, and who was to stop you?

Marg said...

I have learnt to always take note of the chapter headings when reading an EC book. The first time it threw me a little, but now I think I have it down!

I really enjoyed this book. In my opinion EC is just getting better and better! Can't wait for the next one.

Carla said...

Daphne - I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did! I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

Elizabeth - many thanks. It's good to hear that I didn't get the wrong end of the stick! Henry II reminds me in some ways of Henry VIII - as young men their charm and energy must have been very attractive, but as they get older the unattractive tyrant aspect comes more to the fore. Power corrupts, and all that. When your lightest word is law, there's only your own conscience (!) to stop you doing anything you want. It may even have been part of maintaining status; you do it because you can, and also to prove (to yourself and to would-be successors) that you can. Henry II perhaps also gets a comparatively good modern press because of the contrast with the Anarchy that came before him and the quarrelling sons who came after him - what do you think? I thought you did a good job showing a different, and less appealing, side to Henry.

Marg - so have I, but occasionally I get swept along with the story and miss one! I don't think there's too long to wait for the next book :-)

Alianore said...

This sounds like a really fascinating exploration of fascinating people! Interesting comments about Henry II too - I'd agree that he gets a pretty good press these days that perhaps, re the Ida situation in particular, hides some very unappealing character traits.

Carla said...

Alianore - to be fair to Henry, I don't think there is much detail known about his relationship with Ida. Elizabeth Chadwick would be able to give your the details. I gather that genealogical research has shown that Ida was Henry's mistress and the mother of William Longespee, and if it's known that she was Henry's ward at the time that doesn't put him in a terribly favourable light as a guardian (!), but as far as I know the emotional aspects of the relationship are up for imagination.

Rick said...

I imagine that modern perception of Henry II has been heavily shaped by The Lion in Winter. Most history geeks have seen it, and it vividly fills in a somewhat sketchy personal image.

The play and film don't spare the negatives - imprisoning Eleanor while canoodling with Alys, also entrusted to his care. But he still comes off rather well, sort of a better Henry VIII. (At least he hasn't beheaded Ellie!)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Meant to reply sooner but life got in the way - as usual!

Yes, genealogical research has confirmed that Ida de Tosney, later Countess of Norfolk was the mother of William Longespee - the telling document being a list of prisoners following the Battle of Bouvines where Ralph Bigod is listed as Longespee's brother.
Re Henry's reputation. I was talking about this with Sharon Kay Penman. From what I gather, although I haven't read his argument myself, historian Ralph Turner makes a plausible case for Henry having seduced Alais of France, Richard's intended. If this is true, I would say it shows a pattern of taking advantage young girls who were in his care. And how old was Rosamund Clifford when he first took up with her? (I don't know offhand). I do think popular history often leads us to certain ways of looking at historical characters that makes us emphasise certain traits and ignore others. (Poor Anne Boleyn for example). Someone said to me that Henry must have been a brilliant lover as evidences by the number of his children - but it could as easily be about power and dominance and dynastic needs as about love or wow factor between the sheets.

Carla said...

Rick - I think I'd rather not imagine a worse Henry VIII :-) It may be worth noting that the two wives Henry VIII beheaded were minor nobility (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), whereas Eleanor of Aquitaine was a great lady in her own right. Executing her might well have caused Henry II a deal of trouble, and he had quite enough of that as it was. Also, he may have been hoping to push her into taking the veil, which would have been an easy way out for him.

Elizabeth - many thanks for coming back to reply! I don't think Rosamund's age is known for sure, but the impression is always that she was much younger than Henry. I agree that one-sided pictures do tend to develop (in the case of Richard III, two mutually exclusive one-sided pictures!). Once an idea about a person or event has taken hold, there's a strong tendency to focus on evidence that supports it and disregard evidence that doesn't. Partly I guess because real people and motivations tend to be muddled and complex and contradictory, so it's much easier (albeit less interesting) to simplify down to one or two traits.
Indeed. Henry was evidently fertile and not short of opportunities to prove it, but that's about as far as it goes. As you say there are plenty of reasons why a woman would sleep with a rich and powerful man regardless of whether he was a hunk or a marvellous lover - assuming she had the choice, which is a bit of an assumption in itself. It's a brave woman who would say "No" to an all-powerful king.

Rick said...

We don't have to imagine a worse Henry VIII. The 17th century provided one, Sultan Ibrahim I, who supposedly had his entire harem sewn up in bags and thrown into the Bosphorus.

Surely Henry II's reputation is helped by his image as a successful king politically. Failure invites a pile on, e.g. poor Edward II.

Carla said...

Nice guy :-) What had they done, or did he just feel like it?

Henry II's political effectiveness surely does help his reputation, and deservedly so. In a comment a bit higher up the thread I mentioned the contrast between Henry II's reign and the chaos of the Anarchy before him and Richard's ruinously expensive ransom and John's political double-dealing after him.

Rick said...

He was called Ibrahim the Mad, so his motivation may have been ... obscure.