In the first 20 pages of Alison Weir’s new novel, her readers learn all about Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sexual dissatisfaction with her husband, Louis VII of France; the pleasure she’s taken with other lovers; the pleasure she takes with herself; and her first encounter with Henry II, her future husband. The first chapter of The Captive Queen reads like a bad bodice ripper, with all the attendant clichés. Eleanor is depicted as having a one-track mind, and I’m not particularly interested in staying on that single track for close to 500 pages.
Although I like to give books 50 pages before I decide to abandon them, I sometimes read the first chapter of a book before deciding whether to read it at all—that first chapter is just an audition, not a plan to read the book. The Captive Queen would not have passed the audition were it not for two things: (1) I received this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and thus feel obligated to give it at least a fair try of 50 pages, and (2) I’ve liked (but not loved) Alison Weir’s other novels and knew she could do better than this first chapter. She does do better, but not well enough to win me over in the end.
The Captive Queen tells the story of Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II, who is crowned King of England just a couple of years after their marriage. The book tells of their tumultuous relationship, covering Henry’s friendship with Thomas Becket, Henry’s adultery, Eleanor’s imprisonment, and the power struggles between Henry and their sons. Oh, and the many, many, many sexy times in between, not to mention all the times Eleanor longed to feel Henry inside her, which is most of the time. Weir’s Eleanor is a woman who, when she realizes she may be imprisoned for the rest of her life, almost immediately regrets that she will never bed another man. And when she learns that she’ll have to share her bed with a serving woman, she regrets that she won’t be able to fantasize and …
Weir does, I think, make some interesting uses of Eleanor’s obsession. Because she’s in thrall to Henry, she doesn’t resist as when as she might when he seizes power from her. (Not that there’s much she could have done, but her complaints ultimately seem weak.) Early on, she thinks about how she gains power over men with her body, but the reality is that she loses power through her body. But Weir doesn’t quite follow through on this theme. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Another missed opportunity appears in Weir’s treatment of Thomas Becket. Eleanor believes that Thomas is in love with Henry, and although she never believes that it is reciprocated, she does believe it explains his early devotion to Henry. To me, this felt too much like pushing modern concerns into the Medieval world, especially since Weir acknowledges in her Author’s Note that there’s no evidence of a homosexual relationship between Henry and Thomas. To be fair to Weir, some have read a gay subtext into the film Becket, so she’s not the first to consider this idea, but that means it’s not even original. I didn’t want to read a novelization of that film, or of The Lion in Winter, both of which Weir credits as inspiration for this book.
But… but it’s almost possible that Eleanor’s perception of Thomas’s feelings about Henry is colored by her own inability to resist his sexual charms. In her mind, is it possible for a strong, intense relationship to be anything but sexual? Could Thomas’s longing for Henry be all in Eleanor’s head? It almost works. Most of the narration is from a third-person limited point of view, focusing on Eleanor’s own thoughts, but there are a few odd passages where Weir moves into other characters’ heads, and she narrates Thomas’s thoughts at one point, providing enough language of longing for us to see that Eleanor isn’t imagining things.
The use of religion is equally vexing. Eleanor cannot believe that Thomas’s religious devotion is honest. For her, the hair shirts, the flagellation, and the fasting are all for publicity; and standing up to Henry is for power. (Oddly enough, I don’t she believe she ever considers guilt for forbidden desires as a reason for Thomas’s ascetic ways.) Even after his martyrdom, she mulls over what great publicity stunt such a death was and how this was the perfect way for Thomas to avenge himself on Henry.
I didn’t really have a problem with Eleanor’s cynicism. It seemed consistent with her character. But later in the book, when Eleanor herself suddenly becomes prayerful, there’s no reflection on her past feelings toward Thomas or even her past seeming disinterest in religion. It’s as if the narrative wants us to believe she was always devout when she previously showed nothing but scorn for the men of the church and little interest in private devotion or convent life (which was offered to her as an alternative to imprisonment).
It’s possible that Weir was trying to be subtle with her exploration of these themes (I admit I did a fair bit of skimming in the last half of the book), but she’s so unsubtle everywhere else that I can’t quite believe she’d let such a significant change of heart go unexplained. She does, after all, have Eleanor think again and again in the early years of her marriage about how she feels imprisoned (foreshadowing!), about possible interpretation of Merlin’s prophesy about the eagle of the broken covenant being happy in her third nesting (historical destiny!), about the rules of courtly love (cultural education!), and about her fierce loyalty to her children (more foreshadowing!).
This tendency to repetitiveness and overexplaining was what led me to skim much of the last half of the book. I only persevered to the end because this is a story I don’t know much about, and I wanted to see how the power struggles played out in the end. But I think I would have been better off with Sharon Kay Penman whose trilogy about Eleanor and Henry has been widely praised and has been on my list for years. Someday…