Monday, October 3, 2011

To Be Queen

Crystal vase given by Eleanor of Aquitaine to first husband Louis VII.
 He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen....~ The Lion in Winter (1968)
To Be Queen by Christy English is a fictional account of the youth of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), focusing on her unhappy, scandal-ridden years as Queen of France, before Henry II whisked her away to be Queen of England. In the Louvre is a crystal vase which Eleanor gave to Louis VII as a wedding present, which Louis then donated to his mentor Abbot Suger. In the novel, Eleanor is hurt and furious that Louis would give away one of her family heirlooms, one which she had wanted to pass on to their children. It was one of the many small frustrations which, when heaped together, made her situation untenable; she sought relief from it in danger and passion. While To Be Queen is an imaginative work we must remember that when dealing with Eleanor, the more far-fetched the story is, the more likely it is to be true.

As we journey with Eleanor we see the world she lived in through her eyes. I am pleased to say that the author avoids any feminist anachronisms. Perhaps part of the contemporary fascination with Eleanor is that she is often seen as being a medieval feminist. I doubt that Eleanor saw her actions in terms of being a liberated woman, asserting herself on behalf of the freedom and dignity of women everywhere. Eleanor's motives were usually part of a larger political maneuver which as a queen, a mother and a duchess she found necessary for retaining her power and influence. For a lady of rank, especially rank as exalted as Eleanor's, the loss of power and influence could mean imprisonment or death. Scheming was a matter of expediency; there is no question that she played the game well.

I noticed in some reviews of To Be Queen many people praised Eleanor for being a liberated woman ahead of her time. Although she was unique in many ways, she was not the only medieval woman to have power and rights. According to historian Women in the Days of the Cathedral

Unfortunately, Eleanor's husband Louis uses religion as an excuse to gravely neglect his marital duties, which Eleanor, quite naturally, takes as rejection. His constant attitude of disapproval is a signal to the court to be critical of their Queen, who finds herself more and more alienated, surrounded by gossip and blame, censured for her barrenness. As often happens in a case where a person is unjustly accused of certain sins, the person becomes more and more likely to fall; that is what happens to Eleanor in To Be Queen. Love eludes her, however. Her intense, pseudo-mystical relationship with her Uncle Raymond in Antioch almost destroys her. It is only by the grace of the God she does not believe in, and her will to live, that she survives the tempests.

I immensely enjoyed the descriptions of Eleanor and Louis' crusade to the Holy Land and the wonderful places they visited en route and on the journey home. It is easy to forget that what we now call the Middle East was once a region of advancements in medicine, science, mathematics and hygiene. I, like Eleanor, felt enthralled with Constantinople and Antioch. I did not want to leave and I did not want her to leave. Nevertheless, going back to real life was the only way Eleanor could obtain her freedom from an impossible situation. In spite of Eleanor's difficulties with Louis, he is a nuanced character in the novel; it is difficult to hate him because he can be so kindly when he chooses. Eleanor does have an overwhelming personality and Louis is, unfortunately, easily overwhelmed.

Another aspect of the book which especially struck me was how Eleanor's father, Duke William of Aquitaine, went out of his way to train Eleanor how to be a ruler. There were lessons she learned, such as how to maintain a passive expression in tense moments, which would help her in future situations. Whatever else can be said about her, Eleanor was a just and able administrator of her lands, and she had the confidence which comes from being carefully taught. In her life a loving parent was indeed the first and best teacher.

At the end of her life, Eleanor the Queen entered a monastery; before death she took the vows of a nun. Among her great-grandchildren were St. Louis IX of France and St. Ferdinand of Castile. All the royal families of England and most of the great dynasties of Europe were and are descended from her. It seems that all of Louis' prayers paid off in the end.

Here is an interview of Christy English about Eleanor of Aquitaine by Catherine Delors.

Here is my post on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the film The Lion in Winter.

Information on troubadours, whom Eleanor encouraged.

(*NOTE: To Be Queen was sent to me by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.)



May said...

I see in one of the links that you named your daughter after Eleanor! Delightful!

Was the Queen really an agnostic? I knew she was tempestuous but I had never heard that before (not that I've studied her much).

Julygirl said...

Great review about the story of one of history's most fascinating women.

elena maria vidal said...

I don't know, M. I don't think she was when she was older, but she may have been as a young person. There's really no way to know for certain. Her daughters by Henry were all devout women, from what I have read, anyway, and the youngest, Joanna, also took the vows of a nun before she died.

Thank you so much, Julygirl!

Gio said...

Great review. Eleanor was such a formidable and fascinating woman. I'll have to add this book to my to-read list.