Sex, love, murder, revenge, betrayal, ambition and hidden secrets are key components of all good sagas about feuding families – and England’s Plantagenet Kings provide enough drama for an entire library of such books. So here’s a round-up of three, which I haven’t got round to writing about before now. All are set in the turbulent 14th century, with much of the action taking place during the reign of Edward III.
|King Edward II|
First up is The Wheel of Fortune, by Susan Howatch, in which she uses her trademark technique of taking historic characters and re-interpreting their story in a different time and place. In this case she recreates Edward III as Robert, the head of an upper-class family living on the Gower in Wales. She follows their fortunes as they scheme and quarrel, seeking control of Moonacre, the beautiful old family home (a representation of the English throne), until Hal (aka Bolingbroke) finally restores order. Howatch sets her story in the period between the end of the 19th century and the 1960s, with various sections written from the viewpoint of different people (another of her regular devices). The great figures of the day are all there, though it has to be said some are not easy to spot, because they are very different to the way I imagined them, and to their historical context.
Writers have always taken old stories and given them a new twist, but personally I didn’t find this particular tale very convincing, and while it is interesting to see the action from different perspectives, you are never with any one character for long enough to feel you know them, and they don’t develop to the point where you begin to understand the reasons for their actions. On several occasions I had to flick back through the pages to check who people were, and refresh my memory about their relationship with others. And I was puzzled as to why some historical characters kept their own, or very similar, names while others were renamed. I thought it was unnecessarily confusing.
|Geoffrey Chaucer pictured as a pilgrim|
in the Ellesmere Manuscript, an
early edition of Canterbury Tales.
(Huntington Library, California).
Emma Campion’s The King’s Mistress and Vanora Bennett’s The People’s Queen both focus on Alice Perrers, who was the mistress of Edward III towards the end of his life, and was blamed for many of the country’s ills. Traditionally, she is portrayed as a woman who was not particularly good-looking, but had an attractive voice and magnetic personality, and used her sexual powers to manipulate the aging king – she was even accused of using witchcraft to enslave him.
But recent research has uncovered new information, which both these authors have used to throw fresh light on her character, presenting a strong, intelligent, independent woman who secured a good life for herself at time when few options were available to women. According to them she amassed – and managed – a huge portfolio of property, some of which she kept after her fall from grace, and she did return to court eventually, and was on friendly terms with Edward’s successor, Richard II.
Central to Campion’s story is the theory that Edward II was not killed, but lived in exile. Sadly, however, it was one of those books where the idea is more intriguing than the end product. She is an experienced writer (having published other medieval novels as Candace Robb), and has written some fascinating pieces about her inspiration and research for this novel, but it remains stilted and never quite comes to life.
Bennett’s book was by far and away the best, and was very enjoyable. Her Alice seizes life with both hands and emerges as selfish, feisty, intelligent, brave, kindly, humorous – and surprisingly likable. The booked is packed with detail about medieval food, clothes, medicine and home décor: you can almost smell the wet wool and the sour wine. Bennett touches on the role of medieval women, corruption at court, financial scandal in the city and the political unrest of the day. I’m not sure I bought the friendship between Alice and Wat Tyler, but it was in keeping with character Bennett has created, and she was the only author who successfully placed her characters in a credible context for their time.
|John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster|
Campion and Bennett both have Geoffrey Chaucer as a friend of Alice – plausible, since they moved in the same circles. Many other characters appear in both these books (and some in all three) but the treatment varies from author to author. Curiously, however, the dominant figure in each novel, although he is never the central character, is John of Gaunt, a younger son of Edward III. In all three books he is charismatic, devious and shrewd, with a complicated personal life – two wives died before he eventually married his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford. He remains an enigma: the motives for his actions are never clear. But with each book it was he who remained in my memory long after I’d read the final page.