Sunday, September 29, 2013

Devil's Brood

I love The Lion in Winter - brilliant dialog, double and triple crosses, and all performed by an amazing cast.  It's a manipulated snapshot, though, a single event which didn't actually happen but which distills the complicated relationships between Henry FitzEmpress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their squabbling sons.  Sharon Kay Penman takes a more historically accurate approach as the third book in her Plantagenet series sprawls through the final 17 years of Henry's reign.

Penman writes long, complicated novels with frequent shifts in location and point of view, and in Devil's Brood does so deftly.  It helps, of course, that one of her protagonists is the brilliant, proud, and stubborn Eleanor who saw herself as Duchess of Aquitaine above all other roles.  It was this pride which led Eleanor to back their sons in a revolt against her husband, a decision which led her to spend years as Henry's prisoner.  While she's a captive, her sons continue to rebel and repent, constantly shifting alliances among themselves, their father, and Phillipe of France (who, apparently, did not look like a young Timothy Dalton, more's the pity).

Interestingly, Penman leaves Richard as a supporting character, whom she portrays as a dashing soldier with little internal life.  Instead, she focuses on Henry the Young King and Geoffrey, who are less well known.  Henry comes across as a bit like Tom Bertram - a rich, handsome, rabble-rousing frat boy given more power than he can handle.  He's a lousy general and has little promise as a ruler, but he's already been named king so his father has little choice but to forgive him for his rebellions.  Ultimately he's a tragic figure who, like so many of his era, dies from dysentery, an uncrowned king.  Penman's characterization of Geoffrey owes a bit to Goldman's play.  He's a forgotten son, a scheming spare given Brittany through his marriage to Constance, the true heir.  Geoffrey is also the most intelligent and tactically-minded son, and his marriage to the equally clever Constance echoes his parents' marriage.

It's Eleanor, though, who ties the threads together.  She's a prisoner, but a high-status one who receives news and occasional visits from her rebellious children.  Eleanor also has, for the first time in her life, time to reflect.  She doesn't regret placing Aquitaine ahead of her marriage, but she accepts the truth and misses being both Henry's lover and advisor.  Their relationship is unsurprisingly strained, but never totally broken, with affection buried under the frustration, most obviously when Henry has the unenviable task of telling Eleanor of their grandson's death, and those of the Young King and of Geoffrey.  Jailer and prisoner, they're still grieving parents who have not completely forgotten their passionate relationship, and her release on his death is bittersweet because she's lost the one person who was truly her match.

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