Chal­lenge of where to draw the lions

The Young Lion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Eleanor Lim­precht Eleanor Lim­precht’s

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.

Blanche d’Alpuget

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