Maybe Katharine Hepburn Would Have Helped?

Being in that King John kind of mood, I’ve been reading Myself as Witness, a 1979 historical novel by James Goldman, best known as the author of the play The Lion in Winter. When you’ve written a play full of zingers like “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” it’s sort of hard to repeat one’s success, so that should be borne in mind here.

I left this novel with mixed feelings. It’s told by Giraldus Cambrensis, an aged man who’s hauled out of his retirement in Lincoln to serve as John’s chronicler, and it covers the last four years of John’s reign. Goldman notes that in his earlier works, he followed convention and treated John as violent, unstable, and unprincipled; here, he says, he took a more balanced view.

Unfortunately, were it not for the author’s note, I would have had a hard time deciding exactly what view Goldman took of John. This, I think, is the main problem with this book–that the character of John remains curiously unfocused, opaque. We see John’s temper, his flashes of insight, his bitter wit, his intelligence, but it’s never quite clear what motivates his actions or how he sees himself. I would say that this is because of the limitations of the form here, a first-person narrative by Giraldus told in diary style, except for the fact that other characters are very sharply etched for us. Isabelle of Angouleme, for instance, is depicted vividly not as the usual sex kitten but as an intelligent, frustrated woman. Giraldus himself, though mostly cast in the role of observer and occasional confidant, is a memorable character. William Marshal is done well here, in the thankless role as a voice of reason (“I’ve had enough of you Plantagenets,” he says toward the end.)

Aside from my frustration over the somewhat hazy picture of John (and who knows, maybe this is what the reader is supposed to feel, that one can never really truly know another person), this book has many merits, and it’s certainly worth reading. It’s very well written, with some vivid scenes and sharp turns of phrase, and the last few pages, covering John’s last days, are particularly well done–it’s the part of the novel, in fact, where I at last began to feel I was getting a clear sense of John’s character. And given that John so often comes across in historical novels as a stage villain, doing everything but twirling a moustache and crying “Aha!” every two pages, I give Goldman high marks for avoiding caricature. I just wish he had delved a little deeper here.

As I speak, Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir is making its way over the Atlantic toward me, so soon I’ll be doing a rare blog for me: a review of a 2006 novel!

6 thoughts on “Maybe Katharine Hepburn Would Have Helped?”

  1. I can sympathise with William Marshal there! Not for nothing were they known as the Devil’s Brood. It reminds me of a line given to Philip of Spain in the 70s TV series Elizabeth R, when Mary Tudor is dying and his advisors are urging him to marry Elizabeth – Philip reacts with a look of horror and exclaims “One of that family is enough for any man!”

    John seems to be quite a complex character in several novels I’ve read. I wonder how much is fashion – authors deliberately reacting against the Robin Hood caricature – and how much is rooted in evidence. Do you know?

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Will do, Marg!

    Carla, I really don’t know much about John other than what I’ve read on the Oxford DBB online by John Gillingham. Gillingham writes that there has been a tendency to “rehabilitate” John, but that recently “judgements on John’s record as king are increasingly returning to contemporary opinion as voiced in both English and non-English narrative sources,” that opinion being negative. Perhaps Goldman’s 1979 book represents the fashion at the time.

    I think Sharon Penman did a good job with John in Here Be Dragons–unflattering but not one-sided. On the other hand, I couldn’t finish Jean Plaidy’s book about John because he was such a nasty character, and not an engagingly nasty one like Shakespeare’s Richard III.

  3. “One of that family”? Ha, given that Mary was his first cousin once removed – takes one to know one, I would have said! Although Philip wasn’t related to Elizabeth quite so closely.

    I recall most of the characters in Plaidy’s novel (was that The Battle of the Queens?) were on the nasty side.

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Sarah, the Plaidy novel I was thinking of is Prince of Darkness (not to be confused with books by Sharon Penman, Paul Doherty, and what looks like several others by the same name). I’ve got Battle of the Queens but put it down for something else and didn’t get back to it.

  5. Oh yes, that’s the one. Forgot there was one about John himself and not just the royal women of the time.

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