A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
July, 1137. In the baking sunshine of Bordeaux, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, eagerly awaits her first meeting with the prince who will become her husband. Poor Louis Capet is no fit match for educated, independent Eleanor. When he inherits the throne of France, it becomes clear that his monastic ways and indecisive rule could cost him his country – and his marriage. Determined to rule her own lands, Eleanor leads the men of Aquitaine on Crusade. The march to Outremer will make her the most scandalous woman in all of Christendom. And one chance meeting between Eleanor and Henry Plantagenet will change the fate of England – forever …
This book promised a great deal but delivered very little. Actually, part of me wants to stop there because the thought of revisiting it for the purposes of this review is making my teeth squeak. But I appreciate that would probably be unfair, though to whom I’m not sure.
I was looking forward to reading it as the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine is an exciting one, which has been written about and filmed more than once. It’s therefore something of a surprise to find an author who can turn such glamour and thrills into a basically dull, irritating and badly-written novel.
I’m certainly surprised at MIRA Books. First off, our heroine tells us everything about herself and how wonderful she is from the very beginning and never stops. She is also rather too melodramatic and uses exclamation marks to such an extent that I wanted to gather them all together and beat her senseless with them. In one page we have her thoughts expressed thusly:
He does not look at it because he cannot take his eyes from your own face!
Oh! So soon! My days in Aquitaine were fewer than I had supposed.
It all seems very clunky and needed a firm editor to trim it by at least a third so Eleanor might at least have become vaguely likeable.
Neither does the narrative voice flow smoothly. At key points, we leap hither and thither about the timeframe like crazed kangaroos as Eleanor has to pause to explain to the reader the reasons for what is happening: Have I said it was all done in a hurry? she breathes before rushing into the logic for why the action has suddenly jumped to her wedding. Then: Have I not mentioned Damascus? she cries to us when trying to explain Louis’s mood. Finally, much later on, we’re well into a scene when she finally tells us she has her child with her, which is the first we’ve heard of it. One can almost see the deliberate striving for dramatic effect, which simply detracts from the story …
Indeed, it wasn’t long before I found the only way to read this book without groaning and weeping was to treat it as a comedy, if an unintentional one. For instance, here Eleanor is reflecting on her sister’s happiness in love (as compared to her own miserable marriage) and her husband Louis’ unexpected coupling with her:
Ah, but the repercussions! Perhaps I should not have been so blinded by my sister’s happiness and Louis’s magnificent erection.
Well, my dears. There’s really something terribly dodgy about that line. Though, that said, when, still chortling, I showed it to my husband, he stared at me deadpan and said: well, every woman is impressed when a man builds a shed, aren’t they?… Which, of course, only made it worse.
Do not despair, however, as there are some glimmers of light in the literary darkness. I did enjoy Eleanor’s relationship with young Henry Plantagenet when they first meet, as it’s utterly delightful. I think this was partly as Henry was just far more vibrant as a character than Eleanor could ever be, and I was beyond eager for him to stay on the page.
Unfortunately a great deal of the book (about 80% I’d say) focuses on Eleanor’s desperate and long-winded attempts to end her marriage. My sympathies were far more with the monkish Louis, but neither character had charm, so it was very hard to be in their company for so long. It was a huge relief when they finally got divorced and Eleanor could eventually marry Henry who – at last! (you see – exclamation marks are catching!…) – reappears in the book. He’s the best thing about it, even though the writer, sadly, is still inclined to succumb to that melodramatic touch once Henry has moved up from being a minor character. Sigh.
Thinking about it, I think O’Brien would have been far better off cutting the whole Eleanor/Louis situation and actually starting off with Henry and Eleanor. That would have made a far more interesting and gripping novel than this.
So my ending thoughts are these: the cover of my version tells me that The Bookseller rates Anne O’Brien as “better than Philippa Gregory.” What utter rot. Ms Gregory has no need to fear as, with her hands tied together and one leg in shackles, she could still outwrite O’Brien. I’d also seriously question whether the Devil would have found the wretched Eleanor as portrayed here worth the bother. He’d have a far more exciting life with another consort entirely, believe me.
Devil’s Consort, MIRA Books, 2011. ISBN: 978 0 7783 0427 2
Also available (God preserve us) as an eBook
[Anne has made a vow that she will have nothing more to do with badly-written historical novels, but does wonder if this is in fact becoming a specialist genre in itself …]