As today is Mother’s Day, I couldn’t resist posting about Joan of Acre, mother of the heroine of The Traitor’s Wife, Eleanor de Clare. Joan’s taken some hard knocks at the hands of novelists lately, and this is a Mother’s Day plea on the poor lady’s behalf.
The most detailed account of Joan’s life that I’ve seen is by Mary Anne Everett Green in her invaluable Lives of the Princesses of England. Green used primary sources in her research, and her book is still of great use today, although some of her statements of fact (such as her assertion that Piers Gaveston was divorced from Joan’s daughter Margaret de Clare) are plain incorrect and some of her judgments are heavily clouded by her own fixed notions of proper behavior. She certainly didn’t care much for Joan of Acre, who is perhaps best known for her secret marriage to Ralph de Monthermer, a squire in her husband’s household. Joan is scolded roundly by Green for leaving her young children “only to the guardianship of servants,” though it was hardly unusual for noble children to be left in the care of others while their parents traveled about. When Edward I calls Joan of Acre’s son Gilbert to court–a natural summons for a boy who was the king’s grandson and the heir to the vast Clare fortune to receive–Green somehow interprets this as a sign that Edward I was “aware that the boy’s mother either could not, or would not, take sufficient care of him.”
Joan of Acre is sketched nicely by Eve Trevaskis in The Lord of Misrule, where she’s described as a “female edition of the awe-inspiring Longshanks,” with an aristocratic bearing that makes even Piers Gaveston nervous, and she also makes a spirited cameo appearance in Chris Hunt’s Gaveston, where she coolly breaks to her fathre the news of her marriage. Lately, though, things have gone downhill for poor Joan. In one excerpt that I read online, from a novel which shall go nameless until I have the book itself with which to compare, Joan is wandering around by herself somewhere and takes refuge in a hut during a storm. Inside said hut is none other than William Wallace, whose erotic effect on the soaked Joan is so overpowering that before you can say, “Will, can you put your great big log on the fire, please?” the two of them are going at it like rabbits.
Well–you really can’t blame poor Joan for this one. After all, William Wallace had the same effect on Princess Isabella in Braveheart. Must be the kilt.
But poor Joan’s reputation falls to a new low in Virginia Henley’s forthcoming historical romance, Infamous, which opens with Joan, on the eve of her wedding to Gilbert de Clare, coming fresh from the bed of a nobleman with whom Joan has slept as an act of rebellion against her father for marrying her to the middle-aged Gilbert. Asked by the heroine, Jory, about the nobleman’s identity, Joan tells her she can’t remember because there were too many noblemen gathering for the wedding to keep their names straight. In any case, Joan informs Jory, she had already lost her virginity two years before (“go all the way” is the phrase the hip and trendy Joan uses).
Joan dutifully marries Gilbert de Clare, whom she happily describes as a “far better lover than any young noble I’ve lain with,” but her wedding-eve high jinks puts the paternity of her daughter into question, though Gilbert, a good-natured sort, either doesn’t notice or doesn’t mention his daughter’s remarkable resemblance to Humphrey de Bohun. Joan’s roving eye, however, soon lights upon the “rippling muscles” of Ralph de Monthermer, though Ralph, she complains, “is too damned noble to even acknowledge the invitation in my eyes.” Gilbert, however, obligingly dies two pages later, leaving Joan and rippling-muscled Ralph free to marry. (Strangely, Joan, who has been cavorting under her father’s nose since age sixteen, has to be talked by Jory into daring a secret marriage to Ralph, an episode that somehow leads to Jory’s hopping into bed with none other than Robert the Bruce. Must have been the kilt again.)
For all the bed-hopping Henley has Joan engage in, she’s remarkably subfertile. Though the real-life Joan had eight children, four by Gilbert and four by Ralph, Joan here manages only one child, a daughter named Margaret Eleanor. Whether little Margaret Eleanor is supposed to be Eleanor de Clare or Margaret de Clare has baffled my poor mind all weekend, but she does have one of the better lines in the book, “My doggie pissed on the carpet.”
So does my doggie on occasion, Margaret Eleanor. But only when someone’s forgotten to take him out for his walk.
But really, you novelists out there. Isn’t it time to give poor Joan of Acre a break? Her secret marriage to Ralph de Monthermer hardly indicates that the woman slept with half the nobility of England, after all. If you must have a woman carry on like a medieval version of the gals in “Sex in the City”–and I suppose with a steamy historical romance, one must–at least make her entirely fictional, unless history indicates that the lady was indeed a tramp.
Please. Do it for your dear sainted mother’s sake.