Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book 5: When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

During a somewhat recent BN trip (it was last year), I noticed Sharon Kay Penman's novel Lionheart on display, and while I had no desire to read about King Richard, it reminded me that I had meant to check this author out based on a previous recommendation. When I saw that this novel concerned Maude (or Mathilda) and Stephen of Blois, I was of course drawn to it.  My guess is that most readers who are familiar with this time period are probably so due to Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth.  Certainly, that was my first introduction to this war of succession fought in 12th century England (and Normandy).  I also read the nonfiction book She-Wolves about two years ago, and Mathilda was one of the women highlighted in the book.  As a result, I certainly looked forward to reading another piece about her.  Additionally, this novel is the first of the Henry and Eleanor trilogy.  I may be under the mistaken impression here, but it seems like Henry II has either been ignored in recent history or gained a bit of a bad rap.  Certainly, he had an eventful reign, and his interactions with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, appear to have overshadowed much else.  My first introductions to Henry II weren't positive since the first time I heard of him was in The Pillars of the Earth which involves a scene featuring Becket's death (and since Philip is a monk, the reader sees his perspective which is that a king's involvement in church affairs is bad), and my second interaction with him was in the German historical fiction novel Die Lowin von Aquitanien (The Lioness of Aquitaine) which naturally focused on Eleanor and how she was wronged.  Certainly, I understand and share the current fascination with Eleanor, a strong woman in a time when women were expected to be silent, but it seems that it has left her husband on the sidelines.  It wasn't until I started reading Ariana Franklin's series of medieval murders, starting with Mistress of the Art of Death, that I started to reevaluate my opinion of Henry II.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any recent nonfiction biographies on him, and even today, a search on Amazon links to books that are out of print or would cost about $40 to purchase (and yet there is a new book on Thomas Becket out - I may eventually check it out just for the Henry II references but I am not sure if I really want to read about a church figure).  However, even Eleanor's biographers, such as Alison Weir, are actually rather generous towards Henry II, and emphasize some of his foresight and strengths as a ruler.  It is completely fascinating to me that in general people seem to think good things when they hear Richard the Lionheart, and while he was certainly a great warrior, he was not nearly the man or the administrator that his father was (who was also a great battle commander).  In fact, he and his brothers all rebelled against their father at one point or another because they wanted to rule.  I guess it helps when you get a good nickname, though, and when you are still a better option than the brother that succeeds you.
At seven hundred pages, this novel is certainly a commitment, and it's not just due to its length.  It's not a light, breezy read - Penman is very detailed and while her narrative is engaging, it is not for the faint of heart.  The novel spans over fifty years, beginning with intro chapters when Stephen of Blois is only 5, skipping ahead to the events of the White Ship, when Henry I's only legitimate male heir dies, leading to his decision to make Mathilda his heir, and going through the years leading up to Henry I's death until the eventful decision of Stephen's to claim the throne as his own rather than let his female cousin have her inheritance.  The novel follows the years of war, the endless allegiances and changes in fortune, finally ending with Henry II claiming his throne upon Stephen's death.  Given that this is historical fiction about famous events that actually happened I hope that I do not have to worry about spoiler alerts - obviously, it is known historical fact that Henry II becomes king of England.
While Penman mostly focuses on the leaders and the famous men and women, she throws in occasional vignettes from random people to add different perspectives, so there are quite a few characters that appear for a few pages never to be seen again.  Many of the key historical players share names, but Penman does a good job of distinguishing them by using variations of names, so that Stephen's wife Mathilda is referred to by the Latinized version of the name, while the empress is referred to as Maude, the vernacular version of it, and her niece is Maud (obviously this distinction wouldn't be of much help in an audio book version).  While it has always been easy for me to side with Maude since clearly the throne was hers to inherit, Penman did not portray Stephen as a villain even if he did usurp his cousin's inheritance.  He was a product of his time, afraid of what a woman ruler might do, convinced by others to do the wrong thing.  The problem is that while Stephen appears to really be a kind, good and honorable man, he does not have what it takes to be a strong and good ruler, too forgiving, too easily swayed and unwilling to make the tough decisions, leading to lords that have no respect or fear of their king, leaving them to do as they please.  Maude, on the other hand, makes her share of mistakes as well, though clearly, she would have been judged differently if she had been a man making the same mistakes.  However, Maude is uncompromising and keeps using her father as an example of how a king should act, not factoring in that men will react differently to a woman doing these things than to a man doing them.  Her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou is a disaster because neither is able to compromise or willing to make even the smallest concessions.  Stephen and Maude are both frustrating - in some ways, Maude was more frustrating because I kept thinking if she had only just been a bit more pliant, more willing to listen, maybe things could have been different.  Later in the novel, she softens or at least gains a certain amount of self awareness that helps her character even if it is too late for her bid for the throne.  Stephen, on the other hand, was incredibly likeable but he just didn't have the right mettle.  On their own, they may have been decent rulers, but as two rulers fighting for the crown they were disastrous, as their blunders kept prolonging the war, giving the lords and earls time to switch sides over and over again for small grievances and real or imagined slights.  As Maude eventually notes, one thing that she and Stephen have in common is that their worst wounds are self inflicted.  Unlike Stephen, Maude was blessed with incredibly supportive brothers, especially Robert, and a few other very loyal supporters while Stephen is mostly surrounded by opportunist.
Penman does a great job of building a variety of characters, showing how they grow and change over the years.  She peppers her novel with a variety of strong and supportive women and wives which was nice to see given how easily this novel could have simply focused on men and war with Maude (and Eleanor) as the exception.  While Henry II doesn't start to take center stage until more than halfway to two thirds through the novel, she makes sure to show the boy's development, demonstrating his early intelligence and precociousness.  When I was less than halfway through the novel, I figured I would finish the trilogy but would probably need a bit of a break before picking up the next in the series.  However, at some point, the narrative really started to flow for me, and I am now quite looking forward to continuing on with Eleanor and Henry's story, even though I know it ends unhappily.  I don't plan on reading the sequel right away, but it will certainly be sooner rather than later.

(Of course one thing that is truly amazing is that after this 19 year civil war, the almost exact same thing happens again about three hundred years later with the Wars of the Roses, another ravaging series of battles with ever changing allegiances.  And there are even more wars in the years between these two huge succession oriented ones.)


JaneGS said...

Having just read my first Penman (thanks for visiting my blog, btw!), now I want to read the first Penman, so I just ordered this book. Thrilled to find out who it's about as I fell in love with Elinor and Henry II when I watched Lion in Winter eons ago. A few years ago I listened to a Great Courses lecture on Medieval Heroines, and the best section was on Elinor, truly a remarkable personage.

Loved your reivew--looking forward to reading more.

Leander said...

I started reading this series after discovering Penman through The Sunne in Splendour (highly recommended, by the way) and I adored it - but it was all some time ago, so before reading Lionheart I'd quite like to go back and remind myself of the background. You do a very good job of explaining the rather dense plot - and I do hope you'll carry on and read some of the sequels. Eleanor and Henry are great characters (as Jane GS says, most of us first encountered them through The Lion in Winter) and Penman does a super job of bringing them back to life. Enjoy!

Jen K said...

Thank you so much for the nice comment! I definitely plan on continuing on in the series - in fact, I think I might be heading to the bookstore tomorrow, and I know exactly what my first purchase will be.