21. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
2012 seems to be the year for historical fiction to come out of its rut. Including The Sister Queens, The Winter Palace, and Gilt, I have now read three top-quality historical fiction novels this year from debut authors whose future work I am very excited to read!
In my area right now, a lot of us have been without power since a freak lightning storm that wielded hurricane-level damage on Friday night. I'm one of the lucky few that got power back on Saturday. The school where I'm working, however, will remain closed till Thursday due to storm damage, and, I imagine, power outage.
I mention this because it occurs to me how recent a phenomenon electricity, and especially air-conditioning, is. The characters in The Sister Queens brave Paris in the heat and cold, London's perpetual drizzle, winter in York, and years in the desert, all without benefit of modern technology.
But let me introduce you to these remarkable women. The novel features Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, two sisters in the thirteenth century who became the Queens of France and England respectively. The story is told in alternating viewpoints and includes Perinot's fictional recreations of the letters they sent to each other for twenty years (and there would be many more letters between these septuagenarian sisters after the book's pages close). While I am familiar with the Provencal sisters, including younger sisters Sanchia and Beatrice, from Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens, I don't believe this will be the case for many and think it was an inspired choice of subject, even if it did coincide with the release of Four Sisters, All Queens.
Margeurite is thirteen years old when she is chosen to be the bride of twenty-year-old Louis IX, King of France. It is a strategic alliance for Margeurite's powerful parents, Raymond Berenger V, the Count of Provence and his wife Beatrice of Savoy, as well as Beatrice's powerful Savoyard brothers, who hold positions of power in courts and churches all over Europe. Excited to be marrying the most handsome prince in the world, Marguerite is quickly disabused of her illusions when her domineering mother-in-law sends back every single one of her Provencal friends and servants, and her husband demands that she spend her wedding night kneeling in prayer.
Eleanor, jealous of Marguerite but also missing her bitterly, is pleased to be the chosen bride of Henry III of England, a position of power equal to her sister's. Also a bride at thirteen, she has second thoughts when she sees that her husband is old, short, and not very good-looking. Yet soon, as he strives to please her, ordering entertainments for her enjoyment and decorating her room as a surprise, she learns to love him and enjoy the considerable power that his affection allows her to wield.
Perinot's depiction of the sisters' relationship and even more so, their relationships with their husbands, is incredibly intimate and insightful. Over the ups and downs of their marriages and numerous childbirths, Perinot creates two very distinct women who are very much shaped by their circumstances, but also determined to succeed within the boundaries of their roles as wives, mothers, queens, and sisters. Perinot expounds on the women's feelings about known historical incidents, including Marguerite's successful ransom of Louis on Crusade while giving birth to their son (absolutely true story) and the sisters' brokering of a lasting peace between their nations. While she does indulge in some speculation, she has well documented historical evidence to support her.
My only complaint is that the language felt sometimes awkward and out of place, as Perinot attempted to meld modern language with more antiquated phrases. The attempts, I thought, were largely unsuccessful, and irrelevant, as they would not have written in English in any case. Perinot does on a few occasions have the sisters speak in langue d'oc, their native tongue, and while this is interesting, it can be distracting.
Besides being a fabulous example of historical fiction that truly brings historical characters to life without modernizing or censoring them, The Sister Queens provides a valuable perspective on marriage. While many novels end with the marriage of the protagonists, that is how this novel begins. And because, in those days, one did not divorce one's husband, the marriage had to persist in one form or another for the rest of one's life. This problem (or blessing) is one that both sisters will deal with and while they come to different solutions, those considering or experiencing marriage today will find their stories relevant.