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!