One of the best authors that I have discovered in the area of historical fiction set in the medieval period is Elizabeth Chadwick. Every year I look forward to late spring, when it is fairly certain that she is going to be releasing a new novel filled with historical characters and events, and giving me an entirely new spin on what really happened. This year wasn't any different, and I spent several days happily reading.
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This year's new title is Lady of the English, a poignant, strong tale of two women. The story starts in Germany, where a royal young widow is preparing to go home to England. Her husband, Heinrich, Holy Roman Emperor has died, and without a child to carry on his lineage, his widow, Matilda, does not see any reason to remain in a foreign country. Too, there is an important reason for Matilda to return -- her father's only legitimate male heir has drowned in the sinking of the White Ship, and while King Henry has fathered quite a few illegitimate children, Matilda is the only child who can claim the throne by right.
Once she is in England, Matilda meets her stepmother for the first time. Adeliza of Louvain is young, just about Matilda's age, and very lovely and pale, a contrast to Matilda's dark looks. Despite being married to King Henry, a man with extreme fertility shall we say, Adeliza suffers from the heartache of not being able to bear a child. The two women discover that they may have different temperaments, but their lives are very similar in many ways, and the bond of friendship that they form is a strong one.
Before King Henry dies, he decides that it will be his daughter that will succeed him, despite the fact that a woman has never held the English throne, nor that his barons and knights are less than eager to have a woman rule over them. Many would prefer that the king choose a nephew, Stephen of Blois to rule next, but King Henry, be not a man who would hear 'no' from anyone, forces an oath from his noblemen that they will obey his wish that Matilda be queen. As for Matilda, Henry marries her off to Geoffrey of Anjou -- a boy that's years younger than she is, and a swaggering, boastful fourteen year old at that. Geoffrey's not too keen to marry her either, but the promise of the wealth and power that she will bring is enough to make him say yes.
As they say, the best laid plans often go awry, and the chaos that descends on England and Normandy when King Henry dines a bit too freely on eels one night is troublesome indeed. Some of the barons support Matilda, others follow Stephen and civil war erupts. And Matilda, fighting for her own survival and especially that of her beloved eldest son, Henry, isn't about to give up...
Most novels and histories centered around the story of the Empress Matilda paint her as a shrewish harridan of a woman, heedless of making enemies, and indeed, it was this reputation that would haunt further generations and it would take until the time of Elizabeth I to disprove that a woman could rule competently and well. For Matilda, being regarded as the weaker, less dependable sex is a constant burden, especially when she has to face the wavering alliances and double-crossing that is a hard fact of life in twelfth century England. One of her staunchest supporters is Brian FitzCount, with whom she develops a strong relationship, and who in turn is a haunted soul, especially when the full horror of warfare is unleashed on him. There is also William D'Albini, a young man who is idealistic, and honourable to a fault, but also finds that loyalty tested again and again.
But one of my favourite characters was young Henry, Matilda and Geoffrey's son, who is precocious, and intelligent, and who wants to have power in his own two hands. From the scenes that he appears in, it's quite clear that the author knows children and how they behave, and is able to make them believable to boot -- Henry has his tantrums, childish charm and winning ways, but never is he the too-perfect specimen of miniature adulthood that most historical authors use.
One of the most fun parts of reading this novel was picking out other characters from previous Chadwick novels that appear now and then. I had quite a few chuckles as I spotted them throughout the text, and it helped to form a greater view of the wider world that was out there. Along with that, there are all the little details of medieval life, from medieval contraception, daily routines, food, drink and dress to the more thrilling battle scenes and a very effective sequence involving an escape from a besieged castle in winter. It's the ability of these little touches that make me come back again and again to Ms. Chadwick's novels and have earned them a permanent spot on my bookshelves.
Along with the narrative, there are two maps, and an author's note, along with a select bibliography. The edition of the book that I have is the version released in the United Kingdom, and a US trade paperback edition is scheduled for September 2011; most of Ms. Chadwick's novels are now available in e-book formats, and they are novels that I can happily recommend for anyone who craves good historical literature that is based in fact, smartly written and appealing to nearly everyone.
Five stars overall, and greatly recommended.
Many thanks to the Books CL, http://www1.epinions.com/user-Dramastef who was able to add this title to the database for me, and has been a real gem in putting up with my requests this month!
Novels by Elizabeth Chadwick:
The Wild Hunt
The Running Vixen
The Leopard Unleashed
Daughters of the Grail
Shields of Pride
The Love Knot
The Marsh King's Daughter
Lords of the White Castle
The Winter Mantle
The Falcons of Montabard
Shadows and Strongholds
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
A Place Beyond Courage
The Time of Singing/For the King's Favor
To Defy a King
The Lady of the English -- you are here
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Autumn Crown -- forthcoming
The Winter Throne -- forthcoming
Lady of the English
2011; Sphere, Little Brown and Company, Ltd.