THE SUMMER QUEEN
(Eleanor of Aquitane #1)
Sourcebooks Landmark; July 1, 2014
Hardbacj, paperback, and ebook, 478 pages
Genre: Historical fiction, Middle Ages
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
A RICHLY DRAWN, FINELY WRITTEN, METICULOUSLY RESEARCHED, FICTIONALIZED ACCOUNT OF ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE -- Elizabeth Chadwick's fleshed-out characterization of this controversial and often misunderstood historical figure is loaded with vivid descriptions and a sumptuous scenography that brings the medieval setting to full life at every turn of the page. Glorious in every compartment (character development, scene setting, world building, dialogues), The Summer Queen spans over a period of time of about fifteen years. The protagonist's life was such an eventful and dramatic ride that, in that window of time alone, she was twice married, twice a queen, and mother of a future king: an incredible pool of inspiration for a fictional treatment of real historical events.
One of the most powerful women in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, Eleanor was famed for her beauty and strong personality. Daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, she became Duchess of the richest territory of Southern France at a very young age. She was only 13, in fact, when her sick father died in Spain during a pilgrimage of penance: Eleanor ('Alienor' in the novel) instantly became one of the most eligible heiresses in the continent. In order to protect her from unscrupulous vassals and the duchy from political turmoil, before his death William arranged Alienor's marriage to Louis, son of Louis VI and heir to the throne of France. The young duchess' life radically changed during the summer of 1137: raised as a free-thinker and uncommonly beautiful, she won the heart of her 17 year old bridegroom, but her unconventional conduct made her an unpopular queen among Church elders and some powerful people at court. Victim of schemes and intrigues, she eventually clashed even with her husband's rigid ecclesiastic background. After taking an active part in the Holy Crusade at her husband's side, Alienor requested and obtained a dissolution of her marriage based on her inability to produce a male heir.
The kidnapping of wealthy heiresses and forced marriages as a way to obtain title and lands were a common practice during the Dark Ages, so while she was on her way back to her duchy, Alienor almost fell victim of two kidnappers. She was the sole ruler of the Aquitaine when barely two months after the annulment of her first marriage, she willingly entered a new high-profile 'alliance' -- this time, to Henry King of England. We have to wait till Elizabeth I in order to see the right of rule for women restored.
Alienor of Aquitaine is one of the most fascinating and legendary women in European history: the first in a triad of books centered on this charismatic and high-spirited character, Chadwick's novel is possibly the most original and unbiased interpretation of her life.
***Review copy graciously offered by the Publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest opinion.
Please welcome the author, Elizabeth Chadwick -- she's on the blog to answer a few questions about her latest book and her writing career.
1) Welcome to Mina’s Bookshelf, Elizabeth! Betty Trask Award for your first novel, The Wild Hunt; shortlisted for the UK's mainstream Best Romantic Novel of the Year Award 4 times and longlisted twice; The Scarlet Lion selected by the founder of the Historical Novel Society as one of the landmark historical novels of the last ten years; arguably "the best writer of medieval fiction currently around"...was this life of writing achievements in your bucket list when you started dreaming about being an author of historical fiction or it just happened? How did you become 'Elizabeth Chadwick'?
The awards are the icing on the cake really. I knew from the age of 15 that I wanted to write historical fiction for a living, but my goal was just that – to have my books published and earn a living wage doing it. I had told myself stories ever since I could remember and it just seemed like something I was good at and was meant to do. It began as my hobby and turned into my job. Even if I hadn’t been published I would still be writing – it’s part of who I am. How did I know I wanted to write historical fiction for a living rather than any other sort? That just kind of happened. I fell for a rather gorgeous guy in a historical TV programme called Desert Crusader. I began writing a story inspired by his adventures and it involved researching the 12th century in order for me to feel that it was right and authentic. The more I research the more interested I became and the more I wanted to write about the period. So I fell in love twice I guess. Once with the TV guy and once with the Middle Ages!
2) Did any particular life experience/book/author influence your decision to write about the Middle Ages? If you could write of any other time period, what would be your second best choice?
I think I’ve answered a bit of that above. The catalyst was the programme Desert Crusader. You can actually take a sneaky look at the episodes on Youtube if you type in Thibaud Ou le Croisades. It was dubbed from the French, but you can see the knight in white robes that started it all off for me! I began devouring fiction set in that period too and became an eager reader of the likes of Roberta Gellis, Sharon Kay Penman, Dorothy Dunnett and Ellis Peters with her Brother Cadfael stories. All of these authors made the Middle Ages come to life for me. I felt that both the history and the characters were real and that was what I aspired to myself.
3) Your writing style features a strong sense of time and place and it's safe to say you are one of the most gifted and accurate HF writers on the publishing scene today. How much do you enjoy the research part vs. the writing/creative process? How much of your fiction sticks to historical facts and records, and how much is fruit of your prolific imagination? How do you balance the two?
Thank you for saying that! I love doing the research because I think the more you know about your characters and their background, the more authentic it is going to feel for both the readers and the writer, as well as doing justice to the life and times. I want my characters to be of their time and not modern people in fancy dress. As far as the balance goes between research and the creative part: I would say that the research does several things and that it works in tandem with the creativity. I strive to get the scene setting right and that is based on research. Also my characters will have the mindsets and attitudes of their period as best I can make them. The creativity comes in moving them through their world and creating drama out of their lives. In illuminating incidents and bringing them to modern readers in the form of story. I always ask myself on a scale of 1-10 how likely something is to have happened. Would a character have thought or reacted like this? If the answer is between 8 and 10 I’ll go with it. If less, then I’ll find another way.
4) I was reading in one of your bios online that up to the late '90s you exclusively wrote about fictional characters and that you later shifted your focus on real historical figures. Why did you decide to turn in that direction?
A couple of reasons. One was that historical fiction was shifting in that direction anyway and if I wanted to keep my job then I needed to think about that. And actually it dovetailed beautifully with my own way of thinking. For a while I had been toying with the notion of writing about real people, but I kept wondering if I was up to doing the research when I couldn’t just make it up any more. It’s a skill to be able to stick to history but still tell a good story. I took the plunge with a novel titled Lords of the White Castle in the UK (retitled THE OUTLAW KNIGHT in the US), which was about a Medieval knight who turned outlaw when King John took away his ancestral lands. This man really lived and had a hugely adventurous life that I was able to tap into. I thoroughly enjoyed writing his story, it was shortlisted for a major UK award, and I realised that yes, I could do this, and make a good job of it.
5) Let's talk about your latest novel, THE SUMMER QUEEN, and its extraordinary protagonist, Eleonor of Aquitaine. Why did you choose to write about this 'controversial' woman? Historians haven't been particularly 'nice' to her in the past: are you trying to set the record straight about her motivations and 'adventurous' life?
I always begin writing novels because I become curious about someone. I begin asking ‘What were you really like? Are the stories true? Is there more to you than meets the eye? What can you tell me that you haven’t told anyone else? It goes from there. With Eleanor, I felt that there was a lot of debris clogging the view and I wanted to clear it away and get a clear idea of the woman beneath. Once I began digging, it quickly became obvious how much detritus there was to shift. For example Eleanor’s biographers were all describing her to fit their own ideas. I found her as a curvaceous brunette with snapping black eyes, a saucy hot-blooded blond with grey eyes, and a good-humoured green-eyed red-head. But actually there isn’t a single description of Eleanor in the historical record. Those supposed historical facts are just fantasy. Many of the rumours about her do not hold water when you look at the historical background in depth, so it was interesting sorting the fiction from the fact – in order to write my own fiction!
6) Historical accuracy, language consistent with the time period, love of details, strong characterizations, romantic flare, a really good story resonating with historical themes that can engage different readers for their universal validity: THE SUMMER QUEEN seems to possess all these qualities. Could readers of non-historical fiction enjoy your biographical account of Eleonor of Aquitaine?
Yes I’m sure they could. It’s a timeless story even while its roots are in the past. It’s about striving to do what’s right and what you can while the world throws its worst at you. It’s about grace in adversity and the fantastic adventure of an extraordinary woman’s life. Her name still resonates now, 900 years on and there’s a reason for that.
7) Can your novels be labeled as historical romance? Or it would be more correct to talk about romantic historical fiction?
I would say that they are mainstream historical fiction but with a romantic element in the widest sense. They are not historical romance because they involve more issues than just the hero/heroine relationship. I tell it like it is. They do contain the full scope of human relationships and experience. There are love stories of every kind in them. There is young, sweet love, there is the love of enduring relationships that grows into maturity and even old age. There is the flawed false love that turns to poison, the love between mother and child, between sisters, between brothers. It’s about the whole human condition. So no, they are not historical romances, but historical novels with some romantic elements in the mix.
8) If you could travel back in time for research purposes, which year and place would you choose and why?
I’d go to the 1170’s and watch William Marshal in a tournament and observe his technique. He was the greatest jouster of his age and it would be so interesting and exciting to watch him. I would also like to see the technique they used that involved grabbing their opponents by the bridle and forcibly dragging them off the field. It sounds incredibly dangerous and I’d like to see how it worked in practice. If not that, I’d go and spend a couple of days with Eleanor of Aquitaine soon after her marriage to Henry II, and see if the way I have portrayed her is anything like the real thing.
9) It must take a great deal of passion to write with such flair and craft about a long gone era. Do you think you were born in the wrong century?
No. I think this century is great for communication, for health issues and for personal comfort. Physically it was a lot harder then and medical issues we see as simple or curable were life threatening then. As a woman, I wouldn’t have been able to have a job like this for starters. I’d be involved in child care and manual labour! However, I would LOVE to go back in time for holidays and live the life for a few weeks each year. If you’re into reincarnation, then perhaps we have lived past lives in many eras. And once you get into quantum physics and all the new theories that are coming along, perhaps all time is one and those medieval lives are being lived right at this moment alongside our modern ones!
It was a pleasure to have you on the blog, Elizabeth! Thank you for the fabulous interview.