07 April, 2010

Within the Hollow Crown, by Margaret Campbell Barnes. Book review

First published 1948. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402239212, 333 pages, uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in 1381 to 1400, Within the Hollow Crown tells the story of Richard II from the Peasants’ Revolt to the end of his reign. All the main characters are historical figures, including Richard II, his beloved queen Anne of Bohemia, his mother Joan “the Fair Maid of Kent”, his uncles, advisors and counsellors, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), his favourite Robert de Vere and the writer Geoffrey Chaucer.

Richard II came to the throne at the age of about ten, owing to the untimely death of his father Edward “The Black Prince”, and real power is in the hands of his uncles and counsellors. When the unprecedented Peasants’ Revolt brings England to the brink of revolution, the fourteen-year-old Richard gets his first taste of responsibility and success. Later, buoyed by the perfect love he finds with his wife Anne of Bohemia, Richard defies his council and takes power into his own hands, developing one of the most glittering and cultured courts in Europe. But in the wake of a devastating loss, Richard allows the shadows of old hatreds to grow in his heart, as much a threat to his crown as any of his enemies.

Like his later namesake Richard III, Richard II has had a bad press. He has a reputation for tyranny and for ratting on the promises he made to defuse the Peasants’ Revolt. Within the Hollow Crown appears to be aiming to redress the balance by giving a pro-Richard portrayal. Handsome, glamorous, intelligent, imaginative, courteous, sensitive and cultured, the Richard II in these pages is an attractive character. Not entirely without flaws, although the reader has to be alert to pick up small clues. Most of the novel is told from Richard’s viewpoint and his enemies, not unnaturally, tend to get an unsympathetic portrayal.

For example, Richard seems to be almost as unlucky in his choice of favourites as his great-grandfather Edward II (whose grisly fate is used in the novel to terrify the sensitive adolescent Richard), but as the reader only sees his tinselly favourite Robert de Vere through Richard’s eyes, there’s little to suggest that other people might have good reason to dislike the relationship until Richard himself is forced to recognise reality. Similarly, Richard regards his opulent, cultured court as the way things should be and those who complain about his extravagance as penny-pinching boors. Only one brief line from a wise advisor hints that Richard’s expenditure might actually give just cause for disquiet. Richard’s emotional vulnerability appeals to the reader’s sympathy, and even when he is callously contemplating murder he justifies it to himself and, by extension, to the reader. Only when Richard recognises himelf momentarily in a verse from one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems does the reader get an inkling that Richard’s dictatorial rule may not be quite as benevolent as he thinks it is and that his opponents may have genuine grievances.

I found this focus on Richard’s personal life had both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, it’s a challenge to pick up the tiny hints of trouble ahead, and the reader gets almost the same shock as Richard when situations start to unravel. On the other, Richard’s political opponents appear as crude, obstructive, destructive and/or thick, and I doubt that the situation was quite as one-sided as that. I would have liked to see more of the other side of the story.

Richard dominates the novel so completely that everyone else fades into obscurity by comparison. Of the other characters, the charming lightweight Robert de Vere, the gruff pirate knight Edward Dalyngrygge, his sultry wife Lizbeth, and Richard’s old nurse, the enigmatic Mundina Danos, were the most strongly drawn. I admit I don’t quite see the significance of the subplot involving Lizbeth’s attempts to get Richard into bed. Mundina, on the other hand, is at the centre of a subplot that hinges on the medieval beliefs in damnation and redemption after death. I have no idea whether the events in the subplot are historically accurate, but the motivation is firmly rooted in the time and place, something I always admire in historical fiction.

Richard is sensitive to beauty in all its forms, and this is reflected in the graceful prose, especially the descriptive passages. The idyllic romance between Richard and his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia is a lyrical description of perfect love. Perhaps a little too perfect for realism, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty on the page.

A useful family tree at the beginning of the novel helps in keeping track of Richard’s various uncles and cousins and the relative strength of their claims to the throne. The very brief Author’s Note acknowledges that Richard II is a controversial figure and provides a bibliography of books consulted by the author. (How this relates to modern scholarship on Richard II, 60 years after the novel’s original publication, I have no idea).

Intelligently written, sympathetic account of Richard II and his reign.

12 comments:

Kathryn said...

Great review, Carla. I read this when I was about 16 and still have my old copy somewhere, and must read it again sometime soon. I'm really glad it's being re-issued.

Kate said...

Its amazing how all of the best historical fiction is character driven, no matter what the period is. If you ever get the chance I heartly recommend Bedlam South by Mark Grisham. It has very real characters, a rare work of great American historial fiction that is not all about the point of a gun.

Carla said...

Kathryn - I don't remember reading this, and I'm sure I would have done so I must have missed it first time round. I've liked some of Margaret Campbell Barnes's other novels. Do you know the significance of the Lizbeth subplot? The best I've come up with is that it's to demonstrate Richard's devotion to Anne, but it seems rather heavy-handed for that, and anyway Richard and Anne's scenes together demonstrate their love without need of any other device. I'm sure I'm missing something.

Kate - Hello and welcome. I think character is probably the basis for most fiction, not just historical.

Daphne said...

I read this a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it and Barnes portrayal of Richard.

Kate said...

Carla.

I wish it was. You have to see some of the stuff my fiancee reads. All explosions and bad faux army dialogue.

Carla said...

Daphne - it's difficult not to like this version of Richard II, isn't it? It's an attractive portrayal. Though if "he knew he had been behaving outrageously" enough to alarm Geoffrey Chaucer, I can't help thinking his enemies might have had a point as well. I expect this was written well before the theory that Richard had some sort of personality disorder, so it's interesting that Richard's emotional extremes make an appearance.

Kate - Well, each to his/her own :-) It would be a dull world if we all liked the same books.

Gabriele C. said...

Hey, there's nothing wrong with a few explosions. :)

The book sounds a bit like the counterpoint to a Richard portrayal that has been around for a long time. While it's a good idea to question a too negative (or positive) image, I've seen the danger of falling off the other side in several novels. So I'm not sure about that one, esp. since the setting is later than the times I know a lot about.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Richard II isn't presented as a saint who could do nothing wrong, so that's a start :-) My feeling is that it's partisan as an inherent result of the story structure. Although it's told in third person it's almost entirely from Richard's viewpoint, so naturally it gives Richard's side of the story. I daresay most people think they're right and their opponents are wrong :-) I'd say it's worth a read, especially if you can get it from a library or inexpensively secondhand. Be wary of the Sourcebooks ARC though, as it's full of typos. They look like OCR errors, so I expect they will be fixed for the retail edition.

Kathryn said...

Carla, sorry, thought I'd already answered your question and have just noticed I didn't! Unfortunately I don't know the signficance of Lizbeth, and I'm pretty sure she's an invented character. I'd actually forgotten about her till I read your review, but remember finding her irritating when I read the novel!

MCB's novel about Isabella of France is pretty good, by the way - not entirely historically accurate, but a complex portrayal of Isabella and Edward, which I appreciated.

Rick said...

I don't know current historical thinking on Richard II, but in general history shows very little mercy to rulers who get overthrown.

Perhaps one subtle point of the novel is that Richard was clueless to how his political position was collapsing.

Carla said...

Kathryn - Many thanks for the recommendation. I've liked other novels by Margaret Campbell Barnes but I don't think I've come across the one on Isabella. I'm not sure whether Lizbeth was invented or real, but even if she's a real figure I'm not entirely sure of her relevance to the story :-)

Rick - Yes and no; sometimes you get wild swings in fashion, as with Richard III, who got overthrown, was evil incarnate for a while and is now well on the way to becoming a saint in some revisionist portrayals. Richard II doesn't seem to have acquired quite the same extremes (yet). Richard's emotional life seems to be the main focus of the novel, and he is certainly shown as someone who could be overwhelmed by his feelings. In the novel he can be a shrewd political operator at times, and yet seems to have completely failed to recognise when he was losing support. Actually, he reminded me at times of Mary Queen of Scots - attractive, given to drama, highly emotional, a quick thinker in a crisis, but distinctly short on the steady day-by-day application and attention to detail required to keep on top of all the politics. With the predictably disastrous consequences.

Rick said...

Richard III strikes me as a special case, because the argument over him is so much over specific facts of a murder mystery.

Usually when historical figures or whole milieux are re-evaluated it is not because of new facts, but new perspectives on well established facts.