23 February, 2011

To Defy a King, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

US: Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-5089-7, 508 pages.
UK: Sphere 2010, ISBN 978-1847442369, 550 pages.
Uncorrected advance review copy of the US edition kindly supplied by publisher, UK edition sourced independently.

Set in England in 1204-1218 during the turbulent reign of King John, To Defy a King tells the story of Mahelt Marshal, daughter of William Marshal, and her marriage to Hugh Bigod, heir to the Earl of Norfolk. All the main characters are historical figures.

Ten-year-old Mahelt Marshal is the beloved eldest daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and the greatest knight in England. Used to doing as she pleases and getting what she wants, Mahelt expects the same when she goes to live with the Bigod family, Earls of Norfolk, as the betrothed bride of eldest son Hugh Bigod. But the Bigods are less indulgent, and Mahelt finds herself having to navigate the tricky transition to adulthood at the same time as adapting to a different set of family values and loyalties. When the tyrannical King John turns against her father, Mahelt’s sense of security is severely undermined, and not even the growing love between her and Hugh can make her forget her fears for the Marshal family. As John becomes ever more cruel and unpredictable, the Bigods find their own loyalty tested to breaking point – and as England lurches towards civil war, Mahelt’s marriage and future happiness may be among the casualties.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s Marshal and Bigod novels are beginning to take on some of the character of a multi-generational family saga. John Marshal’s story was told in A Place Beyond Courage, and his son William Marshal’s in The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. The Time of Singing (US title: For the King’s Favor) told the story of William Marshal’s colleague Roger Bigod and his wife Ida de Tosney, previously mistress to King Henry II. Now To Defy a King moves to the next generation, and brings the Marshal and Bigod storylines together with the marriage between Mahelt Marshal, daughter of William Marshal, and Hugh Bigod, son of Roger Bigod. Like the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I have read, the heart of To Defy a King is in the relationships between the characters. Hugh and Mahelt’s romantic relationship forms the core of the story, shaped and influenced by a complex web of familial and other ties. The family relationships between Hugh and his father, between Mahelt and her father and brothers, between Mahelt and her family by marriage and between Hugh and his illegitimate royal half-brother William Longespee (son of Ida de Tosney by Henry II) interact to create a vivid, complex picture of the workings of medieval high society.

Readers with fond memories of Roger Bigod and Ida in the hopeful days of their marriage from The Time of Singing may be saddened to see them in To Defy a King. Gentle Ida has been worn down by constant loneliness and strain and now retreats into the background with her sewing. Mahelt, as vigorous and strong-willed as her great father – but, it has to be said, sadly lacking in his tact – is determined not to fade away as Ida has, but she will face a hard struggle to learn to assert herself without alienating her husband and her new family.

Although the novel covers the events that culminated in the signing of Magna Carta and the eventual French-allied rebellion against King John, most of the political and military events take place off-stage. Like The Time of Singing, To Defy a King focuses on the domestic lives of the characters, particularly Mahelt. Political upheavals in the wider world are experienced mainly through their personal effects, introducing tensions in the characters’ feelings, fortunes and relationships.

King John has long had a reputation as a Bad King, and in To Defy a King he thoroughly deserves it. Here he is not just a tyrant but almost a psychopath, obsessively inflicting hurt and humiliation just because he can, apparently regardless of the destructive consequences, and he is a disgusting sexual predator into the bargain. If this King John has a redeeming quality I missed it; even gentle Ida has difficulty finding excuses for his behaviour.

John’s half-brother William Longespee, the illegitimate son of Ida de Tosney by King Henry II before she married Roger Bigod, is a particularly interesting and complex secondary character. He has an uneasy relationship with his Bigod half-brothers, developing into an outright feud with Hugh at one stage, perhaps rooted in the same sense of insecurity as his love of fine clothes and his obsession with seeking glory on the battlefield. Longespee has it all – and never misses an opportunity to flaunt it – but only on John’s sufferance, and he knows it only too well.

A set of family trees at the front of the book will help readers new to the Marshals and Bigods keep track of the characters and the complex family relationships between them. At the back, an extensive Author’s Note explains the history underlying the novel and the (sometimes scant) historical sources, and there is an interesting interview with the author.

Third generation of Elizabeth Chadwick’s Marshal-Bigod family saga, exploring family and social relationships in medieval England through the marriage between Mahelt Marshal (daughter of William Marshal) and Hugh Bigod (son of Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk).


Daphne said...

I would love to see a book on Longespee - he seems like he could have been quite the character!!

Carla said...

Daphne - Yes, he does, doesn't he? I don't think I've come across a novel with him as the central character. He appears as a secondary character in Sharon Penman's Here Be Dragons - I am guessing you've met him there?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I haven't spoken to you in ages, or visited the blog - pressures of time - but I'm doing a moment's trawling before bed-time now and would like to say thanks for the really thoughtful review.
When I was writing, I did find it interesting how Roger and Ida's relationship changed, and readers have commented on it, but I think that people do change in real life as the years go by and character traits become more set and perhaps polarised.
Longespee would make a good subject as one of the 'historical adventure' novels that seem so popular at the moment.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - thanks for dropping by, and I'm glad you liked the review. I understand about pressures on time! Circumstances change over time as well, and that influences relationships - if the pressures of time in busy jobs (like running an earldom and its household, both of which would probably be something resembling CEO of a sizeable company in modern terms) mean that a couple see less and less of each other, then that will tend to have an effect on their relationship and may amplify subtle changes in character.
Yes, Longespee would make a good swashbuckling hero :-)