Thursday, October 9, 2008
The long-awaited sequel to Sharon Kay Penman's acclaimed novel When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance recounts the tempestuous marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in a magnificent story of love, power, ambition-and betrayal.
He was nineteen when they married, she eleven years his senior, newly divorced from the King of France. She was beautiful, headstrong, intelligent, and rich. It was said he was Fortune's favorite, but he said a man makes his own luck. Within two years, Henry had made his, winning the throne of England and exercising extraordinary statecraft skills to control his unruly barons, expand his own powers, and restore peace to a land long torn by banditry and bloodshed. Only in one instance did Henry err: Elevating his good friend and confidant Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury, he thought to gain control over the Church itself. But the once worldly Becket suddenly discovered God, and their alliance withered in the heat of his newfound zeal. What Becket saw as a holy mission-to protect the Church against State encroachments-Henry saw as arrant betrayal, and they were launched inevitably on the road to murder.
Rich in character and color, true to the historical details, sensitive to the complex emotions of these men and women, Time and Chance recreates their story with all the drama, pain, and passion of the moment. It is Penman at her best.
I loved this book.
Penman is one of my favorite authors - one of the best historical writers of fiction out there. I was completely caught up in the world of Henry and Eleanor. I seem to have a penchant for medieval storylines and this is one of the best - and true to boot! Let me read about trenchers and chain mail and castles and the rainy season in Wales and I'm happy! I savored the book and took it slowly which is the way to read her books. They are chock full of detail and politics you can't speed read your way through it, you really have to soak it up and understand it all.
As the summary says above, this book centers on the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Both are larger than life. I truly admire Eleanor, I think she must have been an amazing person. They make a great couple and she gives birth to a slew of children, yet still retains her figure and beauty well into her late 40's (where the book leaves off.) I must admit, I identified with her and hated Henry for succumbing to a lasting affair with Rosamund Clifford. I felt I was there with Eleanor when she travels to England in the winter, heavy in pregnancy to confront Rosamund and see for herself - "Is it true? Is Henry besotted with some young little blonde bubble of a thing?" Poor Rosamund, she really did seem to have a good heart, and genuinely loved Henry - yet I kept hoping Eleanor would have her poisoned! I also am surprised that during all the years that Rosamund was with Henry he never got her pregnant, yet Eleanor was amazingly fertile with Henry! Their life was passionate and I liked the idea that their marriage bed was too. I really felt for her the betrayal she endured of knowing Henry had a concubine, and not just some little nothing - a lasting one that he took pains to see and bring to him, the book even ends with her with him en route to Ireland - aargh! Still, I must admit, I have kind of crush on Harry - it's hard not to! He's handsome and charismatic - and a king! Who can blame Rosamund for loving him as well as Eleanor!
The other storyline was the one between Thomas Becket and Henry. Great friends, Henry makes the mistake of installing Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. As soon as Becket takes on this mantle he changes radically and fights Henry continually over matters of how priests who are murderers are tried. Can the church only try them or can the crown as well? Henry wants these criminal priests to be punished and tried by the Crown, but Becket opposes it and thinks the Church should try priests and if found guilty, they'd be stripped of their vestments. Henry then wants to be able to try them again as layman, but Becket won't have it, and it's this huge drawn out feud between them for years! It's trying for both since they'd both been so close at one point, but Thomas changed so radically, and Henry couldn't believe it and Becket was going around ex-communicating bishops and chancellors and finally went to France in exile. As you all know, Henry ultimately though unwittingly is responsible for the terrible murder of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. I must admit, while reading the book, I tended to side with Henry and got awfully sick of Becket and how he just seemed to cross Henry every chance he got. But there at the end, when his murder is described, I did get teary eyed and felt terrible for him, and then to learn how he had mortified himself and wore a hair shirt and everything - well, it's no wonder he became a saint. What really happened to him when he became Archbishop? It seems he did undergo some kind of amazing and spiritual transformation. I felt badly for Henry too upon realization of Thomas' murder and what he must have thought when he found out the truth of what Becket had worn under his vestments. It really does make you wonder.
A third storyline which I loved since it reminded me of Penman's Welsh Trilogy was the story of Ranulf in Wales. He is Henry II's beloved uncle who is a bastard of Henry I and half Welsh. We are introduced to Ranulf in the previous book of this series, When Christ and His Saints Slept. Ranulf is torn, he loves his life in Wales, married to Rhiannon, his blind wife, raising his children and being a part of the Welsh life. But, he's also half English, the king's uncle and he must decide what to do and who to side with when England goes to war with Wales - as it so often does! Ranulf is the concience in this book - he shows us what fighting and leaving one's family to go to war and the consequences can mean. Another character I really enjoyed reading about was Hylwel, King Owain's son who was friends with Ranulf and a poet.
This is a sprawling story with lots of characters, many hard to keep track of. But, I notice that Penman often does you the favor of refreshing your memory in a gentle way of who was who: Roger, Bishop of Worcester, the king's first cousins, Rainald, Ranulf's gossip loving brother, Maud, Henry's mother, Ranulf's sister, Eleanor's sister Petronilla, Maud, the Countess of Chester who's husband had been nearly a maniac, there were just dozens and dozens of characters that are interesting in of themselves. This was a great follow up to When Christ and His Saints Slept which wasn't bad, but I found a bit dry. This book had life and passion and love in it. I highly recommend it if this is your thing.