10 July, 2011

Lady of the English, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2011. ISBN 978-1-84744-237-6. 521 pages. Edition reviewed: advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Lady of the English is set mainly in England, Normandy and Anjou between 1125 and 1149, spanning the years in which Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I of England) was first heir and then contender for the throne of England. All the main characters are historical figures, including Empress Matilda, her father Henry I, her second husband Geoffrey of Anjou, her eldest son Henry FitzEmpress (later King Henry II of England), her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain and her supporter Brian FitzCount.

Empress Matilda is the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I after the death of her brother in a shipwreck. When her husband the Emperor of Germany dies, leaving her a childless widow, Henry I summons Matilda to England and makes his barons swear an oath to her as his heir, as his second marriage to Adeliza of Louvain is childless and looks likely to remain so. But then Henry forces Matilda to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, a boy barely into adolescence, a marriage that is as unpopular with some of Henry’s barons as it is with Matilda herself. When Henry I dies unexpectedly, Matilda’s cousin Stephen and his unscrupulous brother the Bishop of Winchester conspire to seize the throne. Matilda is determined to fight for her rights and those of her young son Henry – but the conflict will exact a terrible price.

As with the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I’ve read, Lady of the English concentrates on the personal and emotional lives of the historical characters and the relationships and conflicts between them. Not just romantic relationships – indeed, the novel is refreshingly free of invented adulterous love affairs, a big plus point for me – although readers who like a strong romantic storyline will find one in the love story between Adeliza of Louvain and her second husband Will d’Albini. Adeliza is as much a central character in the novel as Matilda, and her longing for a child and then her second marriage and family life with Will d’Albini give the novel a strong domestic focus. Apart from a few vivid vignettes, such as the Battle of Lincoln and Matilda’s dramatic escape from Oxford, most of the action takes place off-stage. So does much of the political manoeuvring; there’s an intriguing hint of foul play around the death of Henry I that I would have liked to know more about, and I would also have liked to see more of Matilda’s dealings with the influential men who joined her cause and left it again. For the most part, war and politics are seen through their effects on the personal lives of the characters and the conflicts they cause.

As well as the conflicts due to the war, and personal conflicts between the characters, there is also an interesting look at conflicts arising from social conventions. Matilda is the most striking example; a ruler is expected to be stern, a woman is supposed to be soft and pliant, a contradiction in terms that causes difficulties for Matilda at every turn. Adeliza’s agonised yearning for a child during her barren marriage to Henry I is in part due to the pressure on a woman to fulfil her social duty of providing her husband with heirs, and part of her joy in the family she raises with her second husband Will d’Albini comes from being able to fulfil the expected role of mother as well as wife. Social expectations can weigh just as heavily on a man, as shown by Brian FitzCount who (as portrayed here) is a warrior by expectation and a scholar by temperament, and pays a heavy emotional price for that conflict (among others).

Brian FitzCount was one of the most memorable characters for me, a honourable man trying to do his best in a marriage and a social role neither of which was of his choosing. Young Geoffrey of Anjou was another memorable character, a childish bully who thinks the way to make himself look big is make someone else look small and whose attitude to his marriage to Matilda is to think that he will “have an Empress at his beck and call”. Henry FitzEmpress was also convincingly drawn, no mean feat as he develops from a baby through a precocious child to the threshold of adulthood during the novel. I also liked Brian FitzCount’s wife Maude of Wallingford, doggedly getting on with the unglamorous but vital business of managing the logistics of a household under siege and reflecting that she feels “like a donkey staggering along under a heavy burden of firewood, while Brian ignored her to look at the fancy glossy horses prancing past with bells tinkling on their harness”.

As well as the main characters, readers of Elizabeth Chadwick’s other novels may enjoy spotting appearances by secondary characters from other novels, such as John FitzGilbert the Marshal (from A Place Beyond Courage) and Hugh Bigod (who appears briefly at the start of The Time of Singing*, review here).

A helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and sketches out some of the reasoning behind elements in the narrative, and a family tree at the front of the book may be useful to keep the family relationships straight for readers who are not familiar with the period. The plethora of Matildas in the period is neatly dealt with by using variant forms of the name – Matilda, Maheut, Maude – to differentiate between different individuals. The advance review copy only has placeholders for the maps, which will no doubt be included in the final edition and which should help interested readers follow the action and the characters’ journeys from place to place.

Colourful portrayal of Empress Matilda and Adeliza of Louvain, against the background of the Anarchy in twelfth-century England.

*For The King's Favor in the US

6 comments:

Marg said...

This was another fabulous read from Elizabeth Chadwick wasn't it! Can't wait for the next one.

STAG said...

Link to the medieval festival I did yesterday http://www.megapixeltravel.com/2011/07/mediaeval-fair-at-osgoode-ontario-9th-july-2011/

Prettiest bride I ever gave away!

Rick said...

Nifty coincidence, since Matilda came up in a recent thread. From what you say the book is more concerned with her personal life, but does it have an implicit view of her political difficulties?

Carla said...

Marg - I enjoyed it. The next one is Eleanor of Aquitaine, have I got that right?

STAG - a pretty bride indeed!

Rick - Sort of. There's a mention of her 'obstinacy', a scene when she is dealing with the slimy Bishop of Winchester in which she gets straight to the point in a way that might well make wheeler-dealer types uncomfortable, and someone makes the telling observation that she is tall, beautiful and glamorous "like a mistress" and notes that men are perfectly ready to abandon mistresses when it suits them. There are also references to men disregarding her purely because she is a woman (remember that unlike Elizabeth I, Matilda couldn't use the stylised rituals of courtship to play off factions against one another - regardless of her political skill or otherwise, she was married and that tactic was closed to her. I've often wondered if she could have had more success if she had been able to play that card). I'd have liked to see more of Matilda's political dealings and how they went wrong, but that's me.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, I always want to see the battle stuff, but that's me. ;)

Makes you wonder what had happened if Emperor Henry V had lived longer and Mathilda remained Empress instead of having to deal with that boy Geoffrey.

Carla said...

Indeed, or if she and Emperor Henry had had a son.