G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York, 2009, 337 pp.
Penman, Sharon Kay
G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York, 2008, 736 pp.
Dysfunctional families often make interesting, and sometimes horridly fascinating, subjects for writers. If they are spectacularly dysfunctional, and the writer knows what he or she is doing, these families can make for spectacularly interesting stories. And few families were(or are) more spectacularly dysfunctional than the family of Henry II of England, who reigned from1154 until 1189. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, something of a personality herself, and another subject that has caused novels of varying quality to be written. And they had a lot of children, including four sons: Henry, Geoffrey, Richard, and John. All of them had "issues" with him, in part because, at least according to Sharon Kay Penman, he wouldn't give them the kind of responsibility they needed and deserved. The youngest of the entire brood, John(who was later King John and was considered very bad, but probably wasn't quite as bad as some chroniclers painted him), got almost nothing, at least not until adulthood. Richard was "the Lionhearted", and spent more of his time crusading than ruling England. But Penman's story doesn't begin with Richard's crusading adventures,and neither does Franklin's.
If you like to read books -- any books -- about medieval times, both of these are very good, and very well written. But they are quite different. Grave Goods is a mystery, set around Glastonbury Abbey,where the supposed remains of King Arthur were discovered by monks there, in this period. And the book is written around this discovery. I should note to anyone interested, that it was at this time, when King Arthur's supposed remains were discovered by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, that the "Arthurian cycle" really took off,and was apparently popular and well-known among all classes of people. Needless to say, the "Arthurian cycle" has wielded tremendous influence among many in the English speaking world, from that day to this. Ms. Franklin has taken these known facts, and woven a very satisfying mystery around it,involving an abbot and his mysterious and troubled past, a crazy woman innkeeper, a possibly drunken monk, and a rather nasty woman who is trying to hang onto a manor she owns, rather than allow it to descend to the widow of her son, and their child. It is also part of an ongoing -- and in my opinion, very interesting series about an outsider -- Adelia, who isn't English, and has, furthermore, had a very odd, at least by medieval standards, upbringing. She also has a very "nonstandard" relationship with a bishop, and they are frequently separated. The backstory is, that Henry II supposedly has her "on loan" from the king of Sicily,and she is always being sent out to try to find the truth of some event. She is supposed to be good at this, because she is basically a forensic detective, in medieval terms, a "mistress of the art of death"(needless to say, an extremely odd occupation for a medieval English woman). Her interactions with Henry II don't dominate the book; they form a sort of background that drives the action.
Finally, Ms. Franklin -- refreshingly, I think -- has her characters speak in what I call "modern standard" English. In the afterward, where she explains some of the historical background to her ongoing series, she has this to say:
I am occasionally criticized for letting my characters speak in modern language, but in twelfth-century England, the common spoke a form of English even less comprehensible than Chaucer's in the fourteenth; the nobility spoke Norman French, and the clergy spoke Latin. Since people then sounded contemporary to one another, and since I hate the use of what I call "gadzooks" in historical novels to denote a past age,I insist on making those people sound modern to the reader.
Which brings me to Sharon Kay Penman's Devil's Brood. But more on the "language issue", later. To begin with, there are large differences between the two books, though there appears to be plenty of "crossover". People who like historical novels often like historical mysteries as well, particularly if they are set in roughly the same time period. Second, Devil's Brood at 736 pages, is somewhat over twice as long. But then, Ms. Penman has a lot of ground to cover. Basically, she is telling the story -- a continuation of the story of Henry II and his family started in earlier volumes -- of the "dysfunctional" aspect of his, and Eleanor's fractious brood. The oldest son, also Henry, sometimes called The Young King, since he was crowned king in his father's lifetime, is written as something of a lightweight. The elder Henry apparently gave him a title, but little in the way of real responsibility. The second son, Geoffrey, marries the daughter of the Count of Brittany, and more or less inherits that title. He does have responsibilities -- at least in Brittany, but is unsatisfied with those, so he leans toward the king of France and away from his father. Then he rebels. As does younger brother Richard, eventually, partly because he thinks he should be ruler of Aquitaine(Mama Eleanor is all for that idea), and partly because his father ignores him, too. The only one Papa Henry doesn't ignore is John, who starts out as a ten year old. Unfortunately, when Henry does give John some responsibility -- to lead a campaign against the Irish, he makes a hash of it. Meanwhile, Eleanor takes the side of the older sons, and is essentially put under house arrest for nineteen years, at various of Henry's castles, because she understands her sons' needs better than Henry does. She is portrayed very sympathetically, which is another difference between Ms. Penman's and Ms. Franklin's books: in all of the 'Adelia" series, she is a somewhat less sympathetic figure, but the author does suggest reasons for this.
On the other hand, it's quite obvious Ms. Penman has "done her homework. She is writing what is essentially fictional biography, and like many who write in this subgenre, she is careful of her facts to an almost "anal retentive" degree. In many ways, this is good, because the reader can rely on a reasonable amount of veracity in what she writes. I certainly got a very clear picture of what was going on,and yes, I ended up feeling kind of sorry for everybody involved. The family was spectacularly dysfunctional, in a "larger than life" way. And she writes very well; Penman's books are always easy, and to me, relatively enjoyable to read.
I say "relatively" enjoyable, because I do have some issues with the way Penman goes about constructing her books. Before I go any further, let me state for the record, that I know she has legions of loyal fans, who like her style and like the fact that she is so careful in her research. I, too appreciate the fact that Penman has researched carefully and written her research into her books in an engaging way. However, like many writers of biographical fiction, she seems excessively cautious about ''deviating", even for minor characters, from anything she sees as"historical". Thus, she says in her Afterward, that she tries to use actual characters that she comes across, even if they are minor, or "walk-ons". To me, it doesn't make much difference if you stick in an invented character in a novel like this, if it's a minor one, but then, she has(at least in her previous books) a relatively major "made up" character named Ranulf. I have a feeling she didn't really know what to do with him after the first book in which she appeared, which was When Christ and His Saints Slept, a novel about the so-called Anarchy which immediately preceded the reign of Henry II. A second problem is that, while Eleanor is portrayed with relative sympathy, there are other times when it appears Ms. Penman has distanced herself from everyone else. On some level, she seems to dislike both the oldest son, Henry, and Richard,the future "Lionhearted". She does show some empathy, if that's the right word, with Geoffrey, the middle son. Unfortunately, in history, the two older sons died, Henry of an apparent wound, and, it's claimed, Geoffrey died as a result of an injury incurred in a tournament(and tournaments were technically illegal at the time, because of the high rate of injury), so she has a "sort of" alternative explanation for what he was doing at the time. This rather annoyed me at times, but I didn't stop reading; Penman is a strong enough writer to hold a reader's interest.
The other issue goes back to what Ariana Franklin calls "gadzooks" language. Some people refer to this as "writing forsoothly". I call it "fake poetic". It's a kind of artificial "archaic" that is supposed to suggest an "olde-tymey" type of speech. Ms. Penman spreads this on quite thick, and seems to be quite in love with usages like "upon"(rather than just plain "on"), "ere", "nay", "mayhap", and some others. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of language that a lot of writers of historical romance use when they think they are conveying "olde-tymey" speech patters. There are several problems with this kind of writing, especially in the context of truly medieval England. First of all, the style is actually closer to that of the time of Shakespeare, than it is to the kind of English spoken at the time. Second, it's also a type of usage that was picked up by some historical fiction writers in Victorian times, when this kind of language was thought to be a realistic reflection of whatever period the Victorian novelist was writing about. And this "tradition" has never, unfortunately in my opinion, entirely died out. On the other hand,I've spoken with readers of historical fiction who really like this kind of fake "archaism", thinking, I suppose, that it lends an air of authenticity to the book. I suppose this is the attitude of most of Penman's loyal fans. All I can say is, there's no accounting for tastes.
A somewhat more minor issue is Penman's use of "Britishisms". Which I think is odd, considering she's actually an American writer, living in New Jersey. By "Britishism", I mean spellings of certain words, like "whilst" or "amongst", rather than "while" or "among", as is more usual with people on this side of the Pond. For the record, I have no objection to these "Britishisms" as long as the writers actually are living in the United Kingdom. On that side of the Pond, such usages(plus some other differences in spelling over which British and Americans will probably never agree). When American writers do this, I always wonder, why? Interestingly, an increasing number of British historical writers, of whom Ariana Franklin is one, seem to be writing in a style that a few years ago would have been considered more "American", while still using "whilst", "amongst", and so on.
But these quibbles will probably not be noticed by most of Penman's readership, and perhaps, even for me, they are more matters of taste than anything else. Both books are very fine reads, and for anyone who, like me, enjoys reading(and for me,writing), about some of the "larger than life" personalities of the Middle Ages, are two books well worth looking for, even if, as I had to do with the Penman book, you have to get it out of your local library.