Historical novelist Norah Lofts here portrays an extraordinary woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the context of her marriages - first to Louis VII of France, then to Henry II, who claims the throne of England. Henry spends his life fighting to keep peace in his extensive holdings of England, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine. While Aquitaine belongs to Eleanor, the wily Henry never ceases to use his wife’s lands as a wedge, his children pawns in Henry’s games of power, a ruler who cannot release the reins of governance to others.
It is ultimately Henry’s refusal to share his power with his sons that leads them to rebel, leaving Eleanor caught between her sons and their father. After years of wrangling on their behalf, Eleanor turns as well against her husband, their love tuned to bitter ashes: “With the birth of her son, a woman comes of age.” In this portrayal, Eleanor is a godly woman with no foul tales to spoil her reputation or poison her marriage to the son of the Count of Anjou, who captures her eye when he appears at Louis’s court in France. Lofts treats their first meeting as a romantic moment, not the grand passion that leads Eleanor once more to place her future into the hands of a man, helpless to challenge his will.
Eleanor was most likely a passionate woman with a healthy appetite for pleasure. Yet in this novel, Eleanor is a kindly queen, even to the point of comforting Rosamond Clifford, Henry’s mistress and the cause of an irreparable break in the romantic union between Henry and Eleanor. Other than her favoritism for her son, Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor’s great love for Henry determines the course of her life, but we learn little of the details of that relationship in this book, Henry fading in and out of the novel and Eleanor accepting the loss of his affection with equanimity. The result is a rather bland retelling of the legend of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose courtiers introduced the concept of courtly love.
While the novel is historically accurate, I finished the book without any sense of a woman bold enough to challenge Henry II, a wife he imprisoned for her acts of treason when Eleanor wrote to Louis on behalf of her sons’ interests. A mother who saw nine of her eleven children buried, including her beloved Richard, Eleanor was married at fifteen and wed to eighteen-year-old Henry at thirty, a bold queen intimate with governance in spite of the men who attempted to stifle her voice. Short shrift is given to Thomas Becket in this novel, or Alys of France, Richard’s betrothed and Henry’s paramour. Nevertheless, this novel does capture the essence of a long, fruitful life, queen of France and England and beloved of Aquitaine.