Eleanor the Queen
by Norah Lofts
Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most interesting and powerful women in medieval Europe. She was the heiress of the lands of Aquitaine, married a king of France and a king of England – and outlived them both – and bore ten children. Educated, wealthy and beautiful, Eleanor’s life is a popular subject for biographers and historical fiction. In addition to Eleanor the Queen, re-issued in April fifty-five years after it first appeared on bookshelves, authors Alison Weir, Christy English, Hana Samek Norton, and Cecelia Holland will also release books featuring her this year.
Norah Loft’s version of Eleanor’s life begins in 1137, a few weeks after the death of her father. Knowing she must marry the King of France, she bids her childhood sweetheart farewell…only to see him murdered before her very eyes by her guardian. This inauspicious event is only the beginning of Eleanor’s troubles with King Louis. Eleanor’s appetite for life clashes sharply with the monk-like habits of her new husband, and her desire to join in the leadership of their dominions make her a threat to the king’s advisors. Even the adventure of a Crusade cannot save the troubled marriage, and at thirty Eleanor finds herself a free woman once more after the marriage is annulled. Her second marriage to King Henry of England works well for many years, producing many children, but their relationship becomes strained when Henry’s heirs begin to chafe under his strict control. The King decides that it’s Eleanor’s bad influence that causes his sons’ rebellion, and he imprisons her for years. Abandoned by husband and children, Eleanor feels that she is fading away…but her greatest triumph is still yet to come.
Back in February, I reviewed another of Loft’s books, The Lute Player, and Eleanor the Queen works well as a prequel to Loft’s story of Richard the Lion-Hearted. The Lute Player was written in 1951, four years before Eleanor the Queen, so I wonder if it was originally intended to be read as a series. At any rate, the books fit together very well, with a few scenes even overlapping.
The characters are a little wooden. The first half of the book reads almost like a biography. The characters are very stiff and the author is so intent on telling readers all the interesting things that happen that she doesn’t show much of anything. It’s not until Eleanor starts interacting with her adult children Richard and John that we really see some of the personality and wit that made her such a powerful woman. I do think that with given more pages, Eleanor would have been fleshed out, but at only 300 pages this slim book can only skim the surface of the Queen’s extraordinary life. As a stand-alone book, it's OK, but it's really good when combined with the longer story of King Richard in The Lute Player.
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