Having read the reviews of this novel about this year’s “It” girl in historical fiction, Eleanor of Aquitaine, I fully expected to hate this book. Instead, I found myself rather liking it.
The Captive Queen follows Eleanor from her marriage to Henry II to his death, with an epilogue that breezes through Eleanor’s last years. As the title implies, much of the novel takes place after Eleanor, having helped her sons to rebel against their father, is imprisoned by a furious Henry.
There are some things I didn’t care for about this novel. I could have done without Eleanor’s flings with her uncle Raymond, Geoffrey of Anjou, and a troubadour, although as Weir notes, these affairs have been the subject of historical conjecture. The flings, however, are past history by the time the novel opens, and they aren’t presented in such a way that they make Eleanor appear to be wildly promiscuous; rather, her infidelity is the outgrowth of loneliness, sexual frustration, and even immaturity. Louis, Eleanor’s first husband, appears only briefly in the novel in person, but Weir gives him a certain dignity; he’s not the butt of contempt he often is in historical fiction.
On the same note, a number of readers have complained about the sex in this novel. This is largely a matter of individual taste, of course. I’m of the “less is more” school, yet I can’t say I found the sex here excessive or overly graphic as compared to that in other mainstream historical novels; I certainly never got the impression I was reading a romance novel in disguise. I did find the novel’s opening scenes, where Eleanor and Henry jump into bed, then decide to marry, after having barely become acquainted, to be rather improbable, but the novel was far from the bonkfest I’d expected.
There was some awkward expository dialogue here, especially the scene where a nurse is made to tell Eleanor, solely for the reader’s benefit, that one of Eleanor’s sons is three years old. An equally groan-inducing scene comes when an abbess tells Eleanor, “King Stephen still lives.” (How dim do these people think poor Eleanor is?) Fortunately, this type of dialogue becomes less frequent as the book progresses.
Eleanor is the main viewpoint character here, though we sometimes see the action from Henry’s point of view as well. This can be rather frustrating, since we’re left to guess at what characters like Thomas Becket and Eleanor’s sons might be thinking. Those who want a novel on the scale of those of Sharon Penman’s, in which we see the action through the eyes of many characters, won’t find such a book here.
So why did I like this novel nonetheless? Mainly because Weir succeeded in making me like Eleanor. I’m no expert on the historical Eleanor, but I seldom find myself liking her in historical novels, chiefly, I think, because authors–even good authors–turn her into a feminist icon, the Strong Woman to end all Strong Women. They’re so in awe of her, they forget to make her human, and I usually find myself itching to see her taken down a peg. I didn’t have that problem here. Eleanor makes mistakes, gets the worse of arguments, says and does things she regrets. For once, I found myself on her side, and I ended the novel wishing I could spend some more time in her company.
FCC guys: I got an ARC from another reviewer. Husband: I bought the hardback anyway. You knew what you were in for when you first saw those bookshelves in my apartment.