There is an old saying; “Behind every great man stands a great woman”.
This is especially true among the royal houses of Europe before the 20th century. Even if a woman was capable of ruling on her own, she often had to secede or share power with her husband, her underage son, or another male heir, if she was unable to produce sons.
Among the women and the queens of Medieval Europe, Eleanor Of Aquitaine was an unusual woman. As a child, she became Duchess Of Aquitaine. Before her 20th birthday, she married King Louis VII of France. In her early 30’s she married her second husband, Henry, Duke of Normandy, the future King Henry II of England. In a time when many women and children were lost to childbirth, Eleanor had 9 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. She was intelligent, capable woman who understood her world and how to survive its treacherous and often unseen pitfalls.
Pamela Kaufman’s 2002 book, The Book Of Eleanor: A Novel Of Eleanor Of Aquitaine starts with Eleanor’s teenager years and her impending marriage to Louie VII and ends decades later. Recognizing that her husband is unable to rule, Eleanor, with her son’s have just led a rebellion to remove him from the throne. After the death of King Henry, her surviving son, John is crowned King Of England.
Born in 1122, Eleanor was given the title of Duchess of Aquitaine when she was still a young girl. Like many teenage royals of the period, she married young. Her fiance was to become King Louis VII of France. Raised by monks and religious clerics, Louis had a love/hate relationship with women, especially his wife. Their marriage was a rocky one, producing two daughters. Finally reaching her breaking point after 15 years of marriage, she was able to convince the pope to allow her to annul her marriage to Louis.
Not long after divorcing Louis, Eleanor was forced into another marriage. Her new husband was Henry, Duke Of Normandy. But Henry was not content to remain a Duke; his goal was to become King Of England. While Henry’s political aspirations matched her own, Eleanor was turned off by his brutality. Her one wish in life was to marry her childhood sweetheart, Baron Rancon, but politics and the class system forced them into keeping their life long romance a secret.
I can confidently say that I enjoyed this book. It could have been a very dry biography, simply stating the facts of Eleanor’s life in a college text book or documentary style of story telling. What Ms. Kaufman does very well is that while telling Eleanor’s story, she also bring the world of Medieval Europe to life. It is very apparent that Ms. Kaufman did her homework on the period and her subject. Writing a historical drama based on the life of someone who actually lived is not easy. The writer must tell the story in a way that is engaging while integrating the everyday details of that person’s life into the text.
One of the elements that struck me about this book was that Eleanor must have felt extremely stifled. She was an intelligent, educated and capable woman in an era when those qualities were considered inappropriate and un-lady like, even for a queen. If she was living today, I believe she would have easily thrived as a CEO of a major corporation or as a member of Congress. But because she lived in the 12th century, she was forced hide her brilliance to survive.
Another quality that I liked in the characterization of Eleanor was how complicated she was and how simple her husbands were. I though her first husband was a religious hypocrite; her second husband was brutal and self interested. Only Baron Rancon, the love of her life was complicated. He understood his place in society, but he was always loyal to Eleanor and the life long love they shared. Eleanor understood her duties as a wife, queen and mother, but she was also a realist who knew that to thrive and survive in her world, decisions had to be made. Some of these decisions were potentially dangerous and could threaten her life and the lives of those around her.
There is often a fairy tale like mystique about royalty, especially royalty from centuries ago. We think of their lives to be charmed and without difficulties. But the reality is quite different. Eleanor’s life was not easy, despite being born into great wealth and privilege. She was forced to make decisions that might have had dangerous and life threatening consequences. But at the end of it all, she was a survivor. At the end of her life, she accomplished her goal; John, her youngest son was crowned King Of England. After everything she had experienced, she survived and spent her last days as she wished to.
I recommend this book.