Desert Isle Keeper
The Autumn Throne
Eleanor of Aquitaine happens to be one of my favorite historical figures. Bold as lightning, smart as copper penny and tough as rawhide, the legends about her sprawl numerously through European history. Elizabeth Chadwick has written three popular novels about Eleanor’s life, and this autumn sees the release of the last chapter, The Autumn Throne.
Alienor (the author uses the original Latin spelling throughout) has been languishing away for two years in Sarum Castle when the novel opens, placed there by Henry II after supporting the 1173/74 revolt against him by his sons. After receiving a visit from her eldest son Henry (Harry), she is taken to the king’s residence for Easter, where she once more sees her beloved sister-in-law Isabel and is reacquainted with the remaining –and now teenage – brood of her children left in the king’s care. But as always, it seems that Henry has an ulterior motive for wanting to see her. He wishes to annul their marriage, for Alienor to become an Abbess, and to disappear so he might marry his favorite mistress, Rosamund Clifford, who is with child. Alienor sees the clear threat to her own children, and she repels all attempts at having their various claims to the throne erased.
But soon Rosamund is dead, and the world around the deposed queen begins to swirl with developments and tensions. Henry’s bitterness at his inability to marry Rosamund slowly seeps into his relationships with his children; Harry, bitter that his father refuses to give him proper responsibilities and haunted by the cradle death of his firstborn son soon becomes enamored of tourneys and paper-thin folly, to a deadly end; Richard, Alienor’s favorite and her hope for the future, grows gallant and determined; Jeoffrey plays a game of obedience and flattery while maintaining a poker face as to his true motives; and John, taking his father’s advice to maintain a cold heart, becomes a sociopath who seduces his cousin Belle in a stable. These four young men will soon attempt to rule half the civilized world, and their lusts, quirks and problems – and their love or disdain of their mother –will color their actions and change thousands of lives. Throughout it all remains Alienor, loving, loved and scorned, no pawn on the royal chessboard, moving through births, deaths, the collapse of kingdoms and a hundred international incidents with strength and wit.
Readers who are familiar with Alienor’s story won’t find much new here; Chadwick only takes three major leaps into the fanciful to stray from the known record. Thankfully, the author does not lack for juicy material, and though the book contains a few dry stretches it the majority of the tome is beautifully constructed.
Chadwick gets Alienor just right – her love for her sons, for freedom, for her friends glows boldly in the prose; she is richly alive. For such a big, sprawling piece, most of the characters manage to breathe, and the setting and period generally feel historically accurate.
There are three blemishes on the story. The biggest is the way the book quickly sheds Rosamund Clifford, the only true rival Alienor ever had for Henry’s affections. For the woman who is supposed to be Henry II’s great love, Rosamund is quickly disposed of within a few quick chapterlets, barely given a second thought. This is, perhaps, understandable, since the majority of the novel focuses on Alienor, but quite a few other supporting characters are given a little more time and more with Rosamund might have been warranted to round the picture. It also embellishes a death by childbed. At least the book doesn’t regurgitate that old chestnut about the queen killing her saintly rival at knifepoint.
The second is the author’s choice to invent a relationship between John and his cousin Belle DeWarrne. Not only is there no evidence that such a relationship existed, it also posits that she gave birth to his bastard. He did indeed have noble mistresses but there is no proof that he produced a child with one. The author stays in the ‘John was a bastard’ camp, so those who take a revisionist view of his life might want to stay away.
Then there’s Alienor’s death scene, which takes the book from historically accurate to oddly fanciful. It’s a sweet conclusion to her travails, but a bit much.
But all in all, the prose enchants and the story, while well-worn is well worth revisiting. Chadwick manages to make an old tale lively again, and for that she earns high praise.