The Secret Eleanor
by Cecelia Holland
Eleanor of Aquitaine was an amazing queen who reigned over two kingdoms, first France and later England. She lived to a grand old age, dying in her early eighties. Most of the previous books based on her life try to capture the entirety of it, and decades’ worth of events fill the pages. Cecelia Holland takes a different approach in her latest novel, The Secret Eleanor, narrowing her focus to one of the pivotal years in Eleanor’s life. In the opening pages, Eleanor meets Henry, son of the Count of Anjou, and instantly falls in love (or is it her great lust for his power?) with him. They meet secretly, and plan to marry as soon as Eleanor can get out of her current marriage to the King of France. One of their assignations lands Eleanor in an uncomfortable situation, and she must use all of her cunning and the aid of her sister, Petronilla, to hide the secret from her enemies.
For the most part, the book focuses on the two sisters, Eleanor and Petronilla. There is such a sharp contrast between them. Petronilla, crushed by her husband’s rejection of her, begins shy and demure, but events force her out of her shell and remind her that a failed marriage doesn’t mean she’s useless. Meanwhile, Eleanor is the picture of confidence and seductive power. She’s used to getting what she wants, when she wants it. People bend over backwards to please her. When necessity forces Eleanor out of the limelight for a time, she’s shocked to realize that she could easily be replaced by another woman. The jolt to Eleanor’s confidence shatters her ability to trust even those closest to her.
We also see a bit of what life is like for those on the fringe of the royal court in the lives of a troubadour and his wife. They may sing for the nobility, but they are not of that class, and it’s fun to see how this changes their outlook and actions.
I enjoyed this microscopic look at a brief period of Eleanor’s life. Holland captured the power and allure of the legendary Queen while still capturing the flaws in her character. She also skillfully brings many of the minor characters in Eleanor’s circle to life, creating lively individuals from figures who are little more than footnotes to history.
4 out of 5 stars