Friday, July 23, 2010
The long-awaited and highly anticipated final volume in Penman's trilogy of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine- a tumultuous conclusion to this timeless story of love, power, ambition, and betrayal.
Where the second novel in the trilogy, Time And Chance, dealt with the extraordinary politics of the twelfth century, climaxing with the murder of Thomas Becket and Henry's confrontation with the Church and self-imposed exile to Ireland, Devil's Brood centers on the implosion of a family. And because it is a royal family whose domains span the English Channel and whose alliances encompass the Christian world, that collapse will have dire consequences. This is a story of betrayal as Henry's three eldest sons and his wife enter into a rebellion against him, aligning themselves with his bitterest enemy, King Louis of France. But it is also the story of a great king whose brilliance forged an empire but whose personal blind spots led him into the most serious mistake of his life.
Sharon Kay Penman has created a novel of tremendous power, as two strong-willed, passionate people clash, a family divides, and a marriage ends in all but name. Curiously, it is a novel without villains - only flawed human beings caught up in misperceptions and bad judgment calls. Most devastating to Henry was not his sons' rebellion but his wife's betrayal in joining them. How could it happen that two people whose love for each other was all consuming end up as bitter adversaries? That is the heart of Penman's tale in Devil's Brood.
Yes, this was a much anticipated book, and I delayed reading it for a long time because I didn't want the story of Henry and Eleanor to end. The last of the trilogy, I already knew what was in store for me. Having recently read The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick which tells the same story from William Marshal's point of view, I was prepared for the outcome, but I did not expect Devil's Brood to be so sad. I must have been in denial or didn't want to think about it. I loved Time and Chance, Penman's last book on Henry and Eleanor, which followed the early glory days of their marriage. Devil's Brood was not nearly as enjoyable a read, primarily because it was exceedingly depressing with so many deaths and disappointments. I struggled with the storyline as if this entire book had a dark thundercloud hanging over it. Well written and absorbing, I still had to trudge through it, shaking my head over and over again in response to the many follies Henry, Eleanor and their sons made repeatedly. Because of this, it took me a long time to finish, nearly a month. The book is dense to say the least. Loads of historical facts in regard to Henry's reign and it takes a lot of concentration to focus on the many characters, events and locations.
As the book begins, Henry and Eleanor's marriage is already strained due to Henry's clueless disregard when it comes to certain things - such as the feelings of his wife and sons. He has no idea how much Eleanor resents his mistress, the young and naive Rosamund Clifford. I can't help identifying with Eleanor and putting my own sense of betrayal in her head. Eleanor is getting older, she's in her late forties, her beauty is fading and Henry is flaunting the dewy Rosamund as his mistress. It's obvious Rosamund is not just a passing fancy for she remains Henry's mistress for a long time. By the time she goes to a convent to die, I actually felt sorry for her. I never thought I'd feel that way, for at the end of Time and Chance I wanted to scratch her eyes out! It's galling for Eleanor, though she'd never admit it. She's the beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, a duchess in her own right. What is the little Clifford to her? Yet, Eleanor is the supreme political animal, powerful and proud, she's not happy playing second fiddle, paticularly when her marriage had once been so satisfying. How dare Henry? Later, as her sons grow older and begin to rebel against their father's tight hold over them, she uses the opportunity to get back at Henry, whether subconsciously or not. Was if because of Rosamund or did Eleanor just like wielding her power and wanted in on the game? She sides with her sons over Henry, a gross betrayal, creating a schism in their marriage forever after and leading to her incarceration for sixteen years. Henry cannot forgive her. Their marriage is irrevocably damaged, never will they regain the intimacy and fulfilling partnership of their earlier years together.
Henry's downfall, among other things, is his constant struggle with his sons, Hal, Richard and Geoffrey. He promises them lands and riches, yet he holds back over and over until "they're old enough" to manage them. Hal and Richard are fed up with his empty promises, often rebelling against their father - siding and cuddling up with the King of France, who'd like nothing more than to cause a rift in the Royal Family. Then after the repeated rebellions are quelled (as they usually are), Henry forgives his sons, yet he still will not give them what they want: independence. Henry insists he cannot "trust" them. It's a catch 22. Add Eleanor to the mix, a mother tiger defending her cubs and the situation escalates. It no longer becomes just a matter of independence. The sons, primarily Richard, are angry with their father over his treatment of Eleanor who he keeps locked up in various castles over the years. It's as if Eleanor is a bird whose wings have been clipped. Henry knows what she is capable of and he knows best how to deal with her and keep her out of action. Eventually, years later, he relents and releases her, but the damage has already been done. They have some moments together, mourning as parents or grandparents, but these are few and far between over the course of sixteen years.
As well done as the book was with it's research and background, I found it choppy jumping from event to event, place to place, almost as if this is a thesis in which the goal is to prove unequivocably that Henry II was responsible for his family's unhappiness due to his repeated wrong decisions. Over and over again we see how Henry erred in judgment over this or that, and how it ultimately backfires. Their family is the ultimate dysfunctional family. His sons despise him, he and his wife are estranged, even his youngest son, John, who he believed was the only son who loved him, betrayed him at the end. It became painful to read, particularly the ultimate irony of Hal's death and Henry refusal to visit him in his last hours, not believing that he was really dying. I couldn't help thinking of the story of Peter and the Wolf, poor Hal, poor Henry, poor everybody! And then of course, the final tragedy of Henry's death, alone, stripped clean of his regal trappings, it was all incredibly sad!
Although the majority of the novel centered on Henry, Eleanor and their sons and daughters, we do see glimpses of old friends, like Ranulf and his blind Welsh wife, Rhiannon, their children as well as numerous other characters like Henry's cousin Maud. There are many others whose names escape me, many are familiar faces that we have seen grow old in this amazing trilogy. I highly recommend Penman's books for I consider them the gold standard of historical fiction, but be prepared for a great deal of sadness and trouble in Devil's Brood. I've always had a soft spot for Henry, I've loved him since he was the young man we first meet in When Christ and His Saints Slept and it is crushing to see how disappointing his life as a father and husband ended. There is a particularly poignant moment near the end of the book, the last conversation between Eleanor and Henry,
"Do you think I wanted it this way? I loved my father dearly, never imagined that my sons would not love me."
Poor Harry, I grieve for the way his life ended. A great king, but full of so many flaws and misguided when it came to his sons. Looking back on his life all one can say is "if only, if only, if only."