Part one of some comments on two recent novels set in Edward II's reign: Virginia Henley's Notorious (published May 2007) is a romance novel, the sequel to Infamous, which I reviewed here. Edith Felber's Queen of Shadows (published November 2006) is a straight historical, subtitled A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II.
**WARNING: post contains plot spoilers!**
Notorious tells the story of the romance between the fictional Brianna de Beauchamp, daughter of the real Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and the fictional Wolf Mortimer, son of the real Roger Mortimer.
Roughly half of Queen of Shadows is told from the viewpoint of Queen Isabella, the rest from that of her fictional Welsh handmaiden Gwenith de Percy. The novels have some similarities: both take place in the 1320s, and both feature a young woman heavily involved in Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower in 1323. Both have very abrupt endings. And both contain zillions of historical errors.
In contrast with some of Henley's other medieval romances, in Notorious the cast of made-up, main characters is huge: Brianna and Rickard de Beauchamp, Jory, Jane and Lincoln Robert de Warenne, Lynx de Warenne (Earl of Surrey), Wolf Mortimer, Blanche Fitzalan...
They intermingle uneasily with the historical characters, such as Edward II and Isabella, Roger Mortimer, Hugh Despenser, Robert the Bruce, Thomas of Lancaster, Roger Damory, etc. In addition, many of the details of the historical characters are wrong: Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, is still alive in the 1320s, though historically he died in August 1315. We see a 'James Audley', son of Hugh Audley and Margaret de Clare - who didn't exist - and the first names of the Earls of Hereford and Arundel are also wrong: Henley calls them Henry and Richard respectively, instead of Humphrey and Edmund. Whether this is a mistake on Henley's part, or whether they're also fictional characters, I don't know. Guy Beauchamp's son Thomas is renamed 'Guy Thomas' here. Henley likes giving her characters two first names: Guy Thomas, Lincoln Robert, Margaret Eleanor (Infamous) and Margaret Katherine Plantagenet (The Dragon and The Jewel). I wish someone would tell her middle names didn't exist back then - and that the name Plantagenet wasn't used till the fifteenth century.
The huge number of made-up characters and the countless historical errors gave me the feeling that I was reading a novel set in a parallel universe that bears some vague resemblance to early fourteenth-century England. But only a very vague resemblance.
Likewise, the fictional Gwenith in Shadows plays a huge role in the novel and drives some of the action, such as introducing Isabella and Roger Mortimer (because of course they'd never have met before). Gwenith is an OK character, reasonably sympathetic, but Shadows is subtitled A Novel of Isabella, and that's what I thought I was getting - not a novel partly about Isabella and partly about a made-up Welsh 'handmaiden' and her silly attempts to kill her "mortal enemy, the despised Edward" because of the atrocities his father committed against the Welsh, and some that Edward II himself is supposedly responsible for. (Number of atrocities Edward II actually committed in Wales: none.)
On the other hand, Gwenith switches immediately from hating Roger Mortimer and calling him a "beast" - in the first scene of the novel, his uncle Mortimer of Chirk triumphantly bears the head of her relative Prince Dafydd to Edward I - to liking him and helping him escape from the Tower, apparently for no other reason than it serves the plot.
Both novels contained some Americanisms that jolted me right out of them - like Brianna saying to Isabella "it's good that you got mad" (she's insane?) and Isabella complaining to Edward in Shadows that he'd patted Hugh's "ass". (Hugh has a donkey?!) And Henley's purple prose rears its ugly head again - in Infamous, we got "honeyed sheath", and here she goes one better and uses "sugared sheath". Bad. Mental. Images.
Virginia Henley, as usual, writes very melodramatic, over-the-top and clichéd dialogue and monologue (e.g., "Beneath her fiery temperament, she has a heart of gold" and "Don't try crawling back to me...I wouldn't lower myself to spit on you!") as well as a fair bit of 'As you know, Bob' dialogue - which is, however, not as bad as in Infamous.
Edith Felber chooses to do most of her exposition through dialogue, which leads to some amusing 'As you know, Bob' moments of her own, such as Edward II taking an entire paragraph to explain Hugh Despenser's piracy to Hugh himself ("...You lay in wait in the channel, near our shores. Two loaded merchant ships and their cargo, one after the other, snatched up by you.") and Isabella saying to Margaret de Clare "Why not ask your sister Eleanor, who is wed to Hugh Despenser? She sits right next to you."
Later in the novel, this expository dialogue has the unfortunate and presumably unintended effect of making Roger Mortimer look a bit thick, as Isabella has to keep explaining things to him, e.g., "There are no kings in Holland...William, Count of Holland and Hainault, is as powerful and rich as any king."
On the plus side, there are some cracking lines of dialogue in Shadows: Isabella says to her husband's lover Hugh Despenser "I don't get down on my knees to do anything but pray to my God. Now that is a sight more than can be said for you." That's probably my favourite bit of the whole novel, and there are some great conversations too, usually when Isabella and Hugh Despenser are bantering. But too much of Felber's dialogue is rather awkward, such as "I know, too well, that you pray for my ouster" and a couple of pages later, "I do seek Hugh Despenser's ouster". I get what she means, but it reads very awkwardly. The dialogue is often stilted and repetitive, and sometimes the meaning is hard to grasp - such as Hugh Despenser saying to Isabella "A man on the side is no better or holier than one on either side of you. At least not in the eyes of the church." I don't know how to interpret that statement. Something to do with the medieval church condoning threesomes?
Isabella constantly, and I mean constantly, reminds everyone that she's queen, just in case they've forgotten in the last five pages. Much of her dialogue consists of "How dare you say that to me? I am queen!" with seemingly endless variations. She's said to be a strong woman, but mostly just wanders around complaining about her husband and men in general.
It's the numerous historical inaccuracies that really put me off both novels, however. Both authors have a reasonable grasp of the events of the 1320s; Henley describes the Despenser War and Marcher campaign of 1321/22 with at least some degree of accuracy, and Felber covers many of the later events of Edward II's reign, though many of the dates are wrong: e.g., Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower took place in August 1323, not 1324; Isabella left England for France in March 1325, not June; her son joined her in September 1325, not August 1326; Edward II's funeral took place in December 1327, not October. [Small points, maybe, but to get so many dates wrong gives an impression of sloppiness.]
There are so many historical errors in Notorious that it would take me an entire post to detail them. I felt like applauding on the rare occasions when Henley actually gets something right - such as realising that the woman in charge of Edward II's daughters from 1324 was the Younger Despenser's sister. And surprisingly in Shadows, Felber is aware of Edward's illegitimate son, Adam.
However, Felber makes most of the usual historical errors. A small sample: Edward II arranged the marriage of Eleanor de Clare and Hugh Despenser after Hugh had become his favourite, which led to a deep groan on my part and a book-wall interface; Roger Mortimer is misidentified as the 'Earl of Wigmore'; Isabella's brother Philip V is older than their brother Louis X, when it should be the other way round; the description of Hugh Despenser the Elder's execution of Llywelyn Bren in 1318 is obviously confused with his son's seizure of Tonbridge Castle in 1315, and in fact it was the Younger Despenser who had Bren executed; Edward and Isabella married at Boulogne, not Vincennes as stated; and Edward II was born in April 1284, not August. There are many others.
Oddly, the Kings are always called 'King Edward Second', 'King Philip Sixth', and Henry of Lancaster is called 'Henry Plantagenet, Third Earl Lancaster'. Probably the best mistake in either novel is Felber's statement that Edward II's niece Elizabeth de Clare founded the religious order of the Poor Clares - who were in fact founded in 1212 by St Clare (Chiara) of Assisi. Bit of a difference.
Both authors' grasp of fourteenth-century politics is shaky, to say the least. Felber uses the bizarre plot device that Parliament has ordered Edward II to "share his throne" with the Despensers. That's as nonsensical as the House of Commons nowadays ordering the Prime Mininster to share his premiership with another person of their choosing. Utterly ridiculous.
Henley states that Hugh Despenser the Elder used his influence with Edward II to make his son royal Chamberlain. I bet Despenser wished he had that kind of power, but it was Parliament who elected Hugh the Younger as Chamberlain, in 1318.
The theme of Scotland brings up some major inaccuracies. Henley's foreword to Notorious states that Edward II "loses Scotland to Robert Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn". He didn't 'lose' Scotland, because Scotland had never been won, and certainly not "conquered and subdued" by Edward I, as Henley states. [And if anyone in this period can be said to have 'lost' Scotland, it's Isabella and Roger Mortimer, who signed the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 recognising Scottish independence and Bruce's right to be King.]
I can't reconcile the criticism Edward gets in the novel for 'losing' Scotland with the boasts of his nobles that they refused to fight for him there - and especially with the way some of the English characters bang on about how wonderful and beloved Robert Bruce is. Near the end of Notorious, Bruce makes an alliance with Isabella, promising that after Edward's deposition, he won't invade England. Shame that he did then, within months of Edward's deposition in 1327. Long-term peace between England and Scotland is hinted at, with Isabella the prime instigator, naturally, because she's a woman and women love peace, you know? Edward III definitely did not "approve wholeheartedly" of his sister Joan's marriage to Bruce's son David II - he refused to attend the wedding - and emphatically did not desire a "lasting peace" between England and Scotland; he repudiated the Treaty of Northampton as soon as he was able to do so.
Scotland plays a very puzzling role in Shadows. Felber frequently drops coy hints that Isabella took a lover while in Scotland in 1312, abandoned by Edward, and that her lover fathered Edward III. As I've pointed out, this is complete nonsense, and it doesn't work as fiction either, as we never learn the identity of Isabella's lover and he plays no role in the novel. It seems utterly pointless. Is Felber perhaps planning a prequel? Why tell half the novel from Isabella's point of view but never reveal who her lover is?
Felber's placing Isabella in Scotland in 1312 so she can have another man father Edward III is just strange. Isabella's and Edward II's itineraries are well-known, and they definitely weren't in Scotland in 1312. Felber must have done a lot of research for her novel, and I assume she must know that.
However, perhaps my biggest problem with the novels, Notorious in particular, lies in the attitudes displayed by the characters. The people in Notorious are not medieval. They're modern people, dropped into a medieval setting, in fancy dress and on horseback. Shadows is rather better in that respect, but even so, Isabella's rants owe a great deal to modern feminism and notions of sexual equality. In both novels, the amount of freedom the women possess is ridiculous. Brianna in Notorious spends much of the novel gallivanting around the country by herself - she just rides her horse off wherever and whenever she feels like it. For an Earl's daughter in the fourteenth century to go anywhere without her ladies and an escort was unthinkable, and so ludicrous I found myself laughing out loud.
Other modernisms: Brianna's parents insist that she is not to be married until she's at least eighteen. She's stunned when her fiancé Lincoln Robert tells her that noble titles and a good marriage alliance are more important to him than love. Why would a fourteenth-century noblewoman believe any different? Lincoln asks Brianna to marry him without consulting their parents - possibly the most ludicrous thing in the novel. [And anyway, first cousins didn't marry in the English nobility at this time.] Brianna manages to have pre-marital sex, with a man who isn't her fiancé. And when her fiancé Lincoln makes a young serving girl pregnant, his parents are furious because of the "dishonour" to Brianna. Why would they consider that their teenaged nobleman son having sex with a servant, betrothal or not, is a "dishonour"?
In Shadows, Isabella is so enlightened that she secretly consults a Jewish physician, although her father-in-law Edward I had expelled all Jewish people from England in 1290 (her father Philip IV did the same thing in France in 1306). Felber gets in a nice bit of ahistorical criticism of Edward II by stating that he 'murders' any Jewish people found in England. In fact, there were several occasions when he gave Jewish traders safe-conducts to visit England, and - astonishingly! - not a single recorded occasion when he had one murdered. Poor Edward II - as though he doesn't get enough criticism, without inventing slurs to throw at him.
In both novels, Isabella manages to have sex with Roger Mortimer while he's imprisoned in the Tower, without anyone noticing, although she had a household of close to 200 people and spent every minute of every day surrounded by servants, guards, ladies-in-waiting, courtiers...As I wrote in a previous post, she must have become invisible.
I realise that fourteenth-century restrictions on women's lives place limitations on the plots you can use, especially if you want to write about female adultery, but that being the case, why write historical fiction in the first place? Why give your characters such anachronistic attitudes? Either accept the limitations placed on women in your chosen time period and write around them, or write contemporary fiction. Or at the very least, show that the women are aware of breaking the rules and the harsh penalties imposed - for Isabella, the punishment for adultery would possibly have been execution, as it was treason, or at the very least, life-long imprisonment (as happened to her sisters-in-law in 1314). For Brianna, her behaviour would have meant disgrace, shame, and possibly being sent to a convent for the rest of her days. Certainly, it would have drastically limited her ability to make a good marriage. Of course, Queen Isabella did commit adultery, but the circumstances were exceptional - her marriage had irretrievably broken down, and she was in Paris and beyond Edward's reach. The notion that she could have had sex with Mortimer in the Tower in total privacy - well, I keep using the words 'ludicrous' and 'ridiculous', but that's what it is.
To depict women casually breaking the rules without a second thought, barely even acknowledging that there were strict rules, makes a mockery of the reality of women's lives, as though breaking your society's norms of behaviour was easy and consequence-free. This excellent article by Anne Scott MacLeod makes these points far more eloquently than I ever could, especially in the last few paragraphs.
[I'll post the second part of this tomorrow.]