Eleanor of Aquitaine is a 12th century icon who has fascinated readers for 800 years. But the real Eleanor remains elusive.
Overflowing with scandal, passion, triumph and tragedy, Eleanor’s legendary story begins when her beloved father dies in the summer of 1137, and she is made to marry the young prince Louis of France. A week after the marriage she becomes a queen and her life will change beyond recognition.
Trapped in a loveless marriage with only the birth of a daughter to show for it, Alienor decides she’s had enough of Louis and appeals to the pope for an annulment.
Before the ink on the annulment is even dry, Alienor realises she is in an extremely vulnerable position as she has become the target for those who wish to trap her into marriage.
The Summer Queen is the first Elizabeth Chadwick novel I’ve read and I was impressed enough to want to read her other works. I haven’t read any other fictional accounts of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life so was in the fortunate position of not having to compare other books to Chadwick’s version of events. Chadwick does a great job of bringing her characters to life and I liked how she portrays them with honesty, making them sympathetic even when they are at their worst. It would’ve been easy to make Louis a villain but he is portrayed as a man torn between his duty as a king and his duty to his God. Louis is a weak and ineffectual king who relies too much on the poor advice of others and it is rather unfortunate he did not listen more to his wife.
One thing did bother me though, Louis is portrayed as having a very close relationship with the Templar knight, Pierre de la Chatre, who seemed to have undue influence over the king. On more than one occasion, Chadwick states Pierre is sharing a bed with Louis on their journey to the Holy Land however I was never certain whether she was inferring there was something sexual in the nature of their relationship. If so, wouldn’t that be as abhorrent to the pious Louis as sleeping with his wife?
Alienor is also portrayed convincingly as a beautiful and confident young woman often caught up in circumstances beyond her control. During her marriage to Louis, she has initial hopes of being treated as his equal but it soon becomes clear Louis is unable to make a decision without the input of his closest advisors who resent Alienor’s meddling. Alienor’s primary duty as queen is to produce heirs and her repeated failure to do so diminishes her status at court. Much of the first section of the novel is preoccupied by Alienor’s efforts to entice her reluctant husband into her bed so she can conceive but it starts to become tedious after awhile. Alienor has little control over her destiny at this point and there is little sign of the influential woman she is supposed to become, however she is still very young.
After a slow start, the book finally started to come alive for me when Louis and Alienor set off on their crusade to the Holy Land with Alienor beginning to show a feistier side of her nature. Tired of Louis’ mistreatment of her, Alienor requests an annulment from the pope on the grounds of consanguinity, a popular excuse for dissolving an unwanted marriage in those days, but fate conspires against her and it takes another three years before it is granted. Although Alienor is a far more confident woman towards the end of this novel, she is still essentially trapped by her gender and must make another powerful marriage if she is to secure her future. Determined not to make the same mistakes as before, Alienor insists she be treated as Henry’s equal but it is obvious that young Henry is adept at telling people want they want to hear and not necessarily carrying it out.
The politics of the time are not explored in any real depth but this is not necessarily a bad thing as the issues are brought to light when necessary and then allowed to fall into the background again. The narrative is mainly told from Alienor’s point of view and since she is more often than not left at home, we are not privy to many of the great battles of the time and other events such as her trip to Antioch are over within a short space of time. There is a lot of history to be explored and the first book spans the space of nearly twenty years so it would be impossible to include it all.
The biggest problem I had with the narration though was how Chadwick stuck with Alienor’s point of view for the majority of the time but then would suddenly change it to another character out of the blue. An example of this is with Alienor’s sister, Petranella, who is largely ignored until she begins a scandalous affair with Raoul de Vermandois, and her thoughts suddenly become prominent. Presumably Chadwick chose to do so because Alienor is oblivious to the affair at this stage and couldn’t possibly account for it until the facts came to light but I found it particularly intrusive. To make matters worse, when Petranella and Raoul are finally married, their relationship becomes superfluous to the plot and the characters are allowed to fade away once more. There are other examples of this throughout the book which only serve to make the narrative uneven.
Regardless, the book is an easy read, mainly because Chadwick keeps the political elements light, and the characters are genuinely interesting. Henry, Duke of Normandy, doesn’t appear until very near the end but his presence provides a much needed injection of energy as Louis’ influence begins to wane. The virile young man is instantly likeable but he is his own man and it will be interesting to see how his relationship with Alienor develops in The Winter Crown.