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September 1151. The Loire Valley. The future Henry II and his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, are heading back north after a visit to the French court and decide to strip off for a swim on the way.
Laughing, they splashed each other vigorously, then wrestled in the rippling water.
Reading this, I wasn’t comfortable with where the scene was going.
Henry was surprised to find his father’s muscles iron-hard – not bad for an old man of thirty-eight, he thought. He had glimpsed too Geoffrey’s impressive manhood.
Now I really don’t like where this is going. Glance nervously at the next page to read:
Their horseplay abandoned
THANK GOD.

What made me suspect that an innocent swim might turn into something a little less innocent?

The previous 21 pages.

The Captive Queen begins in August 1151 in Paris as Eleanor and Louis are preparing to receive Geoffrey of Anjou. Something I remembered from When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman. The book opens with Eleanor’s POV in a very sub-Jean Plaidy style:

Thus ran the Queen’s tumultuous thoughts as she sat with the King on their high thrones, waiting for Geoffrey and his son Henry to arrive, so that Louis could exchange with them the kiss of peace and receive Henry’s formal homage. The war was thus to be neatly concluded – except that there could be no neat conclusion to Eleanor’s inner turmoil.
which makes it all the more surprising when the next sentence is:
For this was to be the first time she had set eyes on Geoffrey since that blissful, sinful autumn in Poitou, five years before.
Definitely don’t remember this from Sharon Kay Penman.
It had not been love, and it had not lasted. But she had never been able to erase from her mind the erotic memory of herself and Geoffrey coupling gloriously between silken sheets, the candlelight a golden glow on their entwined bodies. Their coming together had been a revelation after the fumbling embarrassment of the marriage bed and the crude awakening afforded her by Marcabru;
Hold that thought. More about Marcabru coming up (so to speak) very soon.
she had never dreamed that a man could give her such prolonged pleasure. It had surged again and again until she had cried out with the joy of it, and it had made her aware, as never before, of what was lacking in her union with Louis.
Right, so now she’s going to see Geoffrey again and she’s scared she’ll give herself away. But ONE PAGE LATER she loses interest in Geoffrey entirely when:
Eleanor took one look at Henry – and saw Geoffrey no more…Lust knifed through her. She could barely control herself. Never had she reacted so violently to any man.
After Bernard of Clairvaux has interrupted to tell Eleanor the legend of Melusine, which she would already know and he would know she knew, Eleanor and Henry get talking and don’t beat around the bush. So to speak.
‘Madame the Queen, I see that the many reports of your beauty do not lie,’ Henry addressed her, sketching a quick bow. Eleanor felt the lust rising again in her. God, he was beddable! What wouldn’t she give for one night between the sheets with him!
Fortunately Henry feels the same:
‘You need a real man in your bed,’ Henry told her bluntly, his eyes never leaving hers, his lips curling in a suggestive smile.
Henry knows better than to expect a slap in the face – after all, he’s heard all about Eleanor:
‘I have heard one or two things that made me sit up and take notice,’ he grinned. ‘Or stand up and take notice, if you want the bare truth! But I have been no angel myself. We are two of a kind, my queen.’
Later that night, Eleanor gazes at her naked self imagining Henry’s reaction once he cops an eyeful:
The very thought of that steely, knowing gaze upon her nudity made her melt with need, and her fingers crept greedily down to that secret place between her legs, the place that people like Bernard regarded as forbidden to the devout: the place where, five years before, she had learned to feel rushes and crescendos of unutterable pleasure
(Only it was utterable, because we’ve already been told she ‘cried out with the joy of it.’) Anyway. Remember Marcabru?
It was Marcabru the troubadour who had shown her how, the incomparable Marcabru, whom she herself had invited from her native Aquitaine to the court of Paris – where his talents, such as they were, had not been appreciated.
This seems rather surprising when we learn that he has
done what Louis never had to bring her to a climax, one glorious July day in a secluded arbour in the palace gardens.
With Marcabru banished and her interlude with Geoffrey over, Eleanor was flung back on her own resources:
Since then, she had learned to pleasure herself, and she did so now, hungrily, her body alive in anticipation of the joys she would share with Henry of Anjou when they could be together. And, gasping as the shudders of her release convulsed her, she promised herself that it would be soon.

All this by page 14.

In other words, so far this book read almost exactly like an erotic novel. Not as good as say, Portia da Costa, but a fair enough effort at a Plantagenet sex romp. The trouble is, I wasn’t expecting to read a Plantagenet sex romp. I was expecting to read a serious novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The not-particularly-well-written sex was only part of the problem. Eleanor was portrayed as someone who thought with her panties, who only considered Henry as a potential husband after jumping into bed with him. She had the sexual appetite of Judith Krantz’s Billy Ikehorn, but not the ambition. At this point, I really didn’t feel as if I wanted to spend over 450 pages with her. If this was my idea of Eleanor, I’d read Alan Savage.

I decided to look at one of the non-sex scenes (when I could find one) and see what I thought of that before giving up and returning the book to the library. I flipped 15 years ahead to 1166. Eleanor is heavily pregnant with her last child, John, and heading for Oxford when she is diverted to Woodstock by bad weather:

It was cold in the wilds of Oxfordshire, and there was a promise of snow in the leaden air. The sky was lowering, the skeletal trees bending before the icy wind.
So far so good.
Eleanor sat huddled in her litter, her swollen body swathed in furs, aware that she should find some place of shelter soon, for it could not be long now before this babe was ready to greet the world.
I thought this made her sound like a cat who’s planning to give birth in someone’s sock drawer.

At Woodstock, Eleanor notices a new tower has been built…and there’s a light at the top of it.  At the top of the tower she finds:

a pretty domestic scene. The room was warm, heated by the coals in a glowing brazier. An exquisitely beautiful young girl was sitting before a basin of chased silver, humming as she washed herself with a fine holland cloth, by the dancing light of many wax candles. She wore only a white chemise, draped around her waist, exposing her upper body. In the instant before the startled nymph gasped and covered herself, Eleanor’s shrewd eyes took in the small, pink-tipped breasts, the long, straw-coloured tresses, the firm, slender arms and the damp, rose-petal skin.
In this book, I’m not comfortable with Eleanor noticing anybody’s nipples.
This is, of course, Henry’s mistress Rosamund de Clifford. Eleanor has no idea who Rosamund is. Rosamund has no idea who she is. After a round of introductions, Eleanor gets to the point:
‘I will not beat about the bush,’ the Queen said. ‘Tell me the truth. Are you his mistress?’
As Rosamund stutters and begs for mercy, Eleanor feels ‘sick to her stomach’, ‘betrayed.’ She asks if Rosamund realises that she, Eleanor, is pregnant with Henry’s child.

I can see that given the way Eleanor is portrayed in this book, she might feel the paternity of her child requires some clarification. Anyway. While Rosamund weeps, Eleanor threatens her:

‘Do you know what I could do to you?’ Her eyes narrowed as she moved – menacingly, she hoped – closer towards the snivelling creature kneeling before her. She was filled with hatred. She wanted this girl to suffer, as she herself was suffering. ‘I could have you whipped! If I had a mind to, I could call for a dagger and stab you, or have your food poisoned. Yes, Rosamund de Clifford, it would give me great pleasure to think of you, every time they bring you those choice dainties that my husband has no doubt ordered for you, wondering if your next mouthful might be your last!’
Rosamund decides to stand up for herself.
‘My Lady will know that one does not refuse the King,’ Rosamund said in a low, shaking voice. ‘But…’ and now Eleanor could detect a faint note of defiance – ‘I did love him, and what I gave I gave willingly.’
Her words were like knives twisting in the older woman’s heart.
After Rosamund goes on to tell Eleanor that Henry stayed at Woodstock with her ‘all last autumn, winter and spring’, built her the tower and the labyrinth and commanded her to wait there for his return, Eleanor is devastated:
Like an animal with a mortal hurt, she wanted to retreat to a dark place and die…
‘Never let me set eyes on you again!’ she hissed at Rosamund, then turned her back on the girl, glided from the room with as much dignity as she could muster
and announces to her entourage that the place is:
‘…wholly unfit for habitation. Like it or not, we must make for Oxford.’ She knew had to get away from Woodstock as quickly as possible. She could not endure to share a roof with Rosamund de Clifford, or even breathe the same air. She must go somewhere she could lick her wounds in peace.
Fast forward to Oxford where, after her encounter with Rosamund, Eleanor has ‘no heart for this labour’ and ‘turned her face away’ when the child is born. However, she pulls herself together sufficiently to decide on a name for the baby:
‘…I mind me that the Feast of St John the Apostle and St John the Evangelist is in three days’ time. I shall call him John.’
Now we get some heavy foreshadowing as Eleanor’s sister Petronilla thinks that:
what should have been a happy occasion was, for some reason beyond her comprehension, a very sad one.
And sure enough, two years later:
Try as she might, Eleanor still could not bring herself to love him, this child conceived in sorrow and born in betrayal. His existence conjured up too many memories of that terrible Christmas-tide, when she had gone to Woodstock and come face-to-face with catastrophe and ruin, and then endured that bloody, agonising travail at Oxford. No, John was the fruit of a marriage in its death throes, and sometimes she could not bear to look upon him. His nurses had the care of him.

Which is obviously why he turned out as badly as he did. The implication is that if Eleanor hadn’t stopped at Woodstock on that snowy night, Magna Carta might never have happened

Andrew C. Wheeler, ‘The Birth and Childhood of King John: Some Revisions’ (from Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons, 2002**), discussing the placement of Henry and Eleanor’s young children at the abbey of Fontevrault, makes several points. Firstly, ‘there seems no reason to doubt that it was Henry’ who made the decision to send the children to Fontevrault. Secondly, ‘Nothing suggests that [Eleanor’s daughter, also called Eleanor] ever lived at Fontevraud.’ Thirdly, sending John and his sister Joan there would make them more accessible to their parents, not less: ‘the central location of Fontevraud would make it accessible to both Henry and Eleanor, he from Normandy or Anjou, she from Poitou, for such parental functions as they chose to fulfil.’

Weir, however, has Eleanor racked with guilt at her decision to consign her children (including Eleanor) to Fontevrault, despite the fact that John and his sister Joan are so young at this point (1168) they couldn’t possibly travel with the court anyway. Weir’s biography of Eleanor came out before Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady was published, so she couldn’t have taken it into consideration when writing her biography, but, considering the lack of evidence about Eleanor, wouldn’t it have made sense to catch up on recent research before writing her novel? Instead, Weir has chosen to fill the gaps with all the old cliches about Eleanor, many of them based on either medieval misogyny or Victorian ideals of womanhood. Her admirers will perhaps argue that this makes for better fiction. In this case, I found that it didn’t.
***
I borrowed this book from the library.

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