05 March, 2014

A Place Beyond Courage, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7515-3901-1. 518 pages.

Set in England and Normandy between 1130 and 1153, A Place Beyond Courage tells the story of John FitzGilbert or John Marshal, his first wife Aline Pipard and his second wife Sybilla of Salisbury. Empress Matilda, King Stephen, Henry FitzEmpress (the future Henry II) and various members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy appear as important secondary characters. And John and Sybilla’s son William Marshal, whose story was told in the author’s previous novels The Greatest Knight (reviewed here earlier) and The Scarlet Lion, makes a memorable appearance as a young child.

John FitzGilbert holds the important official post of Marshal at the court of King Henry I, responsible for the complex logistics of supply and transport required to keep the court functioning and to move it from place to place on its frequent travels. John obtained the post partly through inheritance from his father, partly through martial prowess (he and his father once fought a duel to retain it against a challenger), and partly through his own formidable competence. A minor lord, he has no great lands of his own, and his power and wealth depend largely on his role as the royal Marshal. When Henry I dies suddenly, leaving a daughter and a nephew as rivals for the throne of England, the aristocracy divides into factions and England descends into a brutal civil war. This was a cruel period of English history, ‘when Christ and his saints slept’ according to a contemporary chronicler, when arbitrary violence ruled and there was little to check the excesses of local tyrants. For the ambitious and able John Marshal, the chaos presents both opportunity and danger.  If he judges every situation accurately, he stands not only to survive but to gain lands and influence.  But a single wrong step could cost him – and his family – everything.

In common with the other novels by Elizabeth Chadwick that I’ve read, such as The Time of Singing, The Greatest Knight and To Defy a King, A Place Beyond Courage concentrates on the characters and the relationships between them. The political and military events of the day form a context that shapes the relationships and a background against which they develop. So the conflict between Stephen and Matilda provides an opportunity for John Marshal’s ambition, military skill, ruthlessness and calculating brinkmanship to come to the fore. It also puts an intolerable strain on the meek and timid Aline Pipard, who is utterly unsuited to life in high politics and on the front line of a war. John’s opportunism brings him into conflict with his powerful neighbour Patrick of Salisbury, and this conflict in turn provides the context for his second marriage to Patrick’s sister Sybilla. And the ongoing war, combined with John’s ambition and refusal to back down, puts not only John and Sybilla at risk but also their young son William.

The novel focuses mainly on John Marshal, Aline and Sybilla – although five-year-old William Marshal comes close to stealing the show when he makes his appearance.  John Marshal is the central figure, shaping events in war and politics as well as in his personal and domestic life. Able, charismatic, resourceful and pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, he is a hard man living in hard times. To survive, he has to be able to assess any situation and face it without flinching, from his desperate last stand at Wherwell Abbey and subsequent escape by walking miles across hostile country with a terrible face wound, to calling King Stephen’s bluff at the siege of Newbury.

Sybilla is the more obviously appealing of the two lead female characters. Forthright and confident, she is described as having a natural warmth that charms many of the other characters – even including the stern Empress Matilda – and will probably charm most readers as well. She makes good company for her share of the novel. Aline is less obviously attractive, although I have a good deal of sympathy for her. Having lived a sheltered life with her widowed mother in a quiet backwater, it should be no surprise to find that she is completely unprepared when marriage to John pitches her into politics and war.  I can see why the decisive and fearless John Marshal is irritated by Aline’s timidity and passivity – she is the kind of woman who would have been called a ‘drip’ when I was at school – but his disappointment is largely his own fault, since he married Aline for her lands on the grounds that she was the best bargain available to him at the time (I told you he was pragmatic). Poor Aline had no choice in the matter.

The secondary characters are also boldly drawn, even if they make only a brief appearance, from King Stephen as a tired man finding that the crown he grabbed so eagerly is rather more than he can handle, to the thuggish mercenary with a vulgar predilection for purple silk underpants (!), to the kindly Flemish washerwoman and her soldier husband. Pride of place among the secondary characters goes to young William Marshal, who runs away with the novel towards the end. The famous ‘hammers and anvils’ scene at King Stephen’s siege camp at Newbury* is recounted mainly from William’s point of view, and is beautifully done.

An Author’s Note at the end of the book outlines the historical background and there is a list of further reading for those who want to explore further. Maps at the front are useful for following the campaigns for readers who may be unfamiliar with the geography of Wiltshire and Berkshire, where much of the action occurs.

Colourful portrayal of the ambitious and resourceful John Marshal, and his rise to power during the wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in turbulent twelfth-century England.

*If you found your way here, you probably know all about that, but if not I won’t spoil the suspense of the novel by describing what happens.


Marg said...

I think that sentimentally speaking this is my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick book. After reading the William Marshal books I wasn't expecting to love John Marshall's story, but I did!

Carla said...

Marg - Hello and welcome back! The Marshal novels are my favourites of all the Elizabeth Chadwick novels I've read. I can never decide which is my favourite between them.

Constance Brewer said...

Not my time period but it sounds interesting all the same. :)

Carla said...

Constance - Not really my time period either, but the three Marshal novels are my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick novels. Definitely worth a read. I think they are published by Sourcebooks in the US.