Challenge of where to draw the lions
The Young Lion
By Blanche d’Alpuget HarperCollins, 490pp, $29.95
SEPARATING the image of Blanche d’Alpuget that saturates the media from Blanche d’Alpuget the writer is like peeling the shell from a just-boiled egg. They cling together, chunks of story sticking to the fragile casing of public persona.
D’Alpuget’s first novel in 20 years is not about Bob Hawke or about their love affair. It is the first book in a quartet that tells the story of the founding of the House of Plantagenet, focusing on Henry II and his union with Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was queen of France and became queen of England. It is a book about sex, power, jealousy and ego. Is it obvious why the task of unpeeling becomes such a fraught one?
As The Young Lion opens, the time is the 12th century, the place is France and King Louis VII is returning from the Crusades with his wife, Queen Eleanor. They are riding through the gloom to spend the night in a monastery when the queen complains of the cold. A rider is sent to fetch her cloak, but another comes forward to offer his own. The queen accepts. The rider is the duke of Normandy, Geoffrey Foulques. He will become her lover, causing a rift between her and Louis. Eventually the royal marriage will be annulled (for the queen has failed to provide Louis with any sons) and Eleanor will become betrothed to Geoffrey’s son, Henry II, who will become the king of England.
Henry is a young, foolhardy boy at the beginning of this book, one who embarrasses himself asking King Stephen of England for money to pay his mercenaries. Henry’s mother, Matilda, is the daughter of Henry I and Stephen’s cousin. As the only surviving legitimate child of King Henry, she and her family believe that the throne ought to have gone to her when King Henry died. Henry II is redhaired, headstrong, visionary and passionate. He falls in love with Eleanor’s maid, the clever, dark-haired Xena whose secret past only endears her to him. But when his father dies and Eleanor splits with Louis, Henry is ambitious enough to realise how powerful marriage to Eleanor could be. He wastes little time: eight weeks after Eleanor’s marriage is annulled she marries Henry.
The Young Lion is essentially a bildungsroman about Henry II, but there is more going on here as well. It is a story of two nations finding their feet and a dynasty being born.
D’Alpuget has chosen a fascinating, complex period of history to tackle, and there is a great deal of material within the House of Plantagenet to feed this quartet. The landscape of The Young Lion is evocative and Henry, his half-brother and his father are red-blooded warriors who leap on and off their horses, unsheathe their swords and cause maidens to succumb to their masculine charms with great regularity. Despite this, d’Alpuget avoids relying on the overt cliche. The period is well researched and she has no qualms about showing violence and the seedier side of sex, power and politics.
But there is too much told and too little shown. Perhaps this comes from trying to fit a great deal in, but moments or small details that would have made interesting scenes are often relayed in retrospect rather than described. Henry slicing in two his mother’s darling pet monkey, the vile and violent Aelbad poisoning residents of a lepers’ home: these are mentioned only in passing.
Then there are the two central women in the novel: Queen Eleanor and her maid, Xena, who becomes Henry’s beloved. Xena is fictional; Henry had many lovers but none with her qualities. Each is trapped in some way within conventions of the time but, by making them both hopelessly in love with Henry II, d’Alpuget saddles them with another sort of powerlessness. Xena even tells him, when he informs her that he is planning to wed Eleanor, ‘‘ I believe no woman in history has ever won an argument with a man.’’
And she’s meant to be clever! As for Eleanor, who was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages, her greatest expression of sorrow in the novel comes not when her lover dies or when his son pushes her away but when she spies some wrinkles forming around her eyes. Certainly her beauty gave her added power, but as the duchess of Aquitaine she had a vast amount of wealth and influence, regardless of how she looked.
Perhaps the next instalment of the quartet will give more depth to Queen Eleanor, so that her extraordinary story does not end up eclipsed by that of a young lion.