02 December, 2010

The Forever Queen, by Helen Hollick. Book review

First published under the title A Hollow Crown, Arrow, 2005. Shortened and revised edition published by Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4022-4068-3, 614 pages.

Set in England, Normandy and Denmark in 1002-1042, The Forever Queen tells most of the life story of Emma of Normandy, who was Queen of England through her marriages to Aethelraed and Cnut. All the main characters are historical figures.

As a shy thirteen-year-old married into a foreign kingdom, Emma of Normandy quickly discovers that her new husband Aethelraed is a disaster both as a king and as a husband. While the inept Aethelraed and his avaricious favourite Eadric Streona progressively lose England to the capable Viking Svein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, Emma will have to rely on her own political skill and innate intelligence if she is to survive and to keep the crown that has become her most precious possession.

The Forever Queen covers a period of 40 years, from Emma’s arrival in England as a na├»ve young bride to the accession of her son Edward (later known as the Confessor) when Emma is a 53-year-old dowager. There was a lot going on in England and its neighbouring kingdoms during those four decades, and The Forever Queen covers most of it. It is thus a very long book – over 600 pages – and densely packed with detail, so some concentration is required to keep track of characters and events.

Emma seems to have had little happiness in her eventful life, and I would say The Forever Queen is the gloomiest of Helen Hollick’s historical novels. Part of this is due to the political situation; The Forever Queen gives the impression that almost everyone in a position of power in England in the first decade or two of the eleventh century was ineffectual or self-seeking or both. This may be entirely justified – Aethelraed Unraed (“Ill-Advised”) and Eadric Streona (“Greedy” or “Grasping”) no doubt did much to earn their derogatory nicknames, and the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is scathing about the incompetence of England’s leadership – but it doesn’t make for a cheerful read, especially for the first 300 pages.

Part is due to Emma’s personal circumstances, particularly during her disastrous marriage to Aethelraed, where her fortitude in enduring an abusive and sometimes sickeningly violent husband is well conveyed. Part is due to Emma’s character as developed in the novel. Coming from an unloved childhood, trapped for years in a miserable marriage, Emma has to be hard to survive. Clinging to her pride and her crown when they were all that gave meaning to her life, Emma develops a cold, calculating ruthlessness that shapes her whole life. She has little affection for her sons by Aethelraed, perhaps not surprising given the nature of her relationship with their father (and young Edward, as portrayed here, would have been a very difficult child to like!). Even when she finds some happiness in her marriage to Cnut, the demands of empire mean that Emma is often left alone for long periods while Cnut is away in one of his far-flung territories. Her son by Cnut, Harthicnut, is brought up largely in Denmark, and Emma sees little of him after early childhood. By the time her sons are grown, Emma seems to regard them in part as a means to retaining her status, and there seems little love lost even between her and Harthicnut, let alone between her and her sons by Aethelraed.

On a more cheerful note, Cnut is attractively drawn, maturing from an overgrown and somewhat blundering adolescent to an effective leader without losing his humanity along the way. Edmund Ironside, son of Aethelraed, takes his rightful place as a capable leader and a promising king. Had he not been mortally wounded in combat, Edmund might have made a worthy successor to his ancestor Alfred the Great, and English history might have followed a very different course. Edmund’s short reign is often treated as little more than a footnote between Aethelraed and Cnut, so it is very pleasing to see him fully developed as a character in his own right in The Forever Queen.

Useful maps at the beginning of the book help to locate the events, and a detailed Author’s Note is very helpful in setting out the historical basis for the novel.

Solid, detailed portrayal of the life and times of the formidable Queen Emma, wife to two kings and mother to two more in early eleventh-century England.


Rick said...

It would be pretty tough to get an upbeat book out of Emma's life story!

Of course I have to remark that even though Aethelraed 'the Unready' is a misreading, it seems wonderfully apropos, which is no doubt why it stuck.

The familiar (if often misunderstood) story of Cnut ordering back the tide certainly suggests a worldly, human perspective.

And you touch on the alt-hist speculation of what might have happened without a Norman Conquest.

My verification word, herist, is rather OE sounding.

Carla said...

Yes, it would :-) In this novel Emma is a formidable survivor, which must be pretty close to historical reality.

The scene with Cnut and the tide appears in the book, where Cnut uses it to prove to over-credulous onlookers that he is not superhuman.

There are a lot of what-ifs around the lead-up to the Norman Conquest - what if Edmund Ironside had survived longer and his sons had grown to adulthood or near-adulthood in England; what if Cnut's sons had survived longer, or even long enough to sire sons; what if Emma's son Alfred had survived; what if Edward the Exile hadn't died so soon; what if Edgar Atheling had been just a little older, and so on and so forth, and this is without getting into the what-ifs around 1066 itself.

Rick said...

Back in my Compuserve forum days I was friends with a gal (now, sadly, deceased) who was working on a novel about Emma, or as the author called her, Ymma. Her Ymma was a sympathetic but rather passive character, which was not very helpful to the book.

The fate of 11th century England also raises the old question of 'great men' versus 'historical forces.'

I once read (and swiped for my Lyonesse background) an interesting speculation that England would have drifted into the French cultural orbit even without a Conquest.

The Viking age is ending. Scandinavia no longer has a vast export surplus of tough, shrewd young men on the make. Even if the Cnutlings (?) kept the English throne, also keeping up a northern empire would be huge effort for small advantage. It is not a cohesive, self-supporting structure.

Meanwhile France and French culture are just hitting stride, and trade is rapidly growing especially with the Low Countries, for which Normandy and the Ile de France matter a lot, Denmark not much, Norway hardly at all.

The fact that William is in the picture at all testifies to the shifting focus. In order to be a power player the military technology of knights would have to be adopted, with a land tenure system to support them.

Flip side is that even as it was, English feudalism was from the outset very different from French feudalism, in ways that basically reflect the continued underlying strength of the West Saxon state.

Carla said...

Passive characters can still be interesting, it depends on the kind of story being told. Good for your friend for trying to tell Emma's story.

I have a feeling that history as it happens is something of an interaction between individuals and historical forces. Slow, large-scale social and economic trends, or new ideas, may build up pressure, which is then available to be focussed through, or harnessed by, charismatic individuals or groups. Some sort of conflict between monarch and parliament might have happened in the mid-ish 17th century, but would it have been the English Civil War without Charles I and Cromwell? Discuss.... Questions like this are inherently unanswerable because you can't do the control experiment, by definition. Hence, I guess, their enduring appeal, and the attraction of what-if alternate history.

Cnut's sister was married into Normandy, so Cnut may have shared your analysis. Northern parts of Britain (Scotland and the Isles) maintained close political ties with Norway well into the High Middle Ages. It was 1400-something before Orkney formally became part of Scotland rather than Norway. A dynasty of Cnutssons might have tended to look north by land as well as sea, and Scotland might have become more closely integrated with England at an earlier date. Trade with northern and north-western Europe might then have developed along something like the lines of the later Hanseatic League. Who's to say?