Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

I’m on a historical fiction mini-bender and thought I would try one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s newer offerings. I’ve read a lot of her earlier stuff but kind of went off her when she switched to writing only about real historical characters (instead of pure fiction set in medieval times). As I’ve complained before, being forced to stick to the historical record limits the choices an author can make, dramatically speaking. Like this story about Matilda, who ought to have been queen of England after the death of her father Henry I, but who was denied the throne by her scheming male cousins and their pals. The story would have been much better if Matilda beat those jerks at their own game and got the throne anyway, but alas, it didn’t happen that way so Chadwick can’t write it that way. Bummer for me, the reader.

And then there’s the temptation to short-circuit the whole reading experience via Wikipedia. After a while I just really had to know whether Matilda would triumph so I looked it up. (To be honest I sort of already knew, never having actually heard of the great Queen Matilda* of England.) Then once I had read the whole article on Wikipedia, the rest of the story became kind of anticlimactic. Another battle for the men, another death in childbirth for the women, ho hum.

To be fair, Chadwick writes well and creates fully realized characters. Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou had a tumultuous marriage--she was ten years older and they married when he was still a teenager and she already a widow. Chadwick brings these characters to life; we cheer for Matilda, we have a love-hate thing with Geoffrey, and the supporting characters are quirky and memorable. If you like Philippa Gregory (who also is constrained by the historical record) then you should try Elizabeth Chadwick, who I think is a more interesting writer, and who writes about a less familiar period of history (okay, less familiar to U.S. readers).

*Matilda’s cousin Stephen, who stole her throne, was married to a woman named Matilda (so technically she was Queen Matilda) but that is a different Matilda. Apparently it was a very common name in the 12th century.

(Book 7, 2013)


Lindsey said...

That's the tricky part about historical fiction, isn't it? I like reading it and feeling that I know more about a period or person, but I'm never sure how much liberty the author was taking!

Shelley said...

Good point: sometimes "quirky" characters can make the book (or a movie, for that matter). Think Dickens!

Post a Comment