Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett

8. The Queen's Lover by Vanora Bennett

Despite the generic title and that I picked it out of the bargain books at B&N, The Queen's Lover really impressed me with its depth of atmosphere and character. I've been on a Wars of the Roses kick, mostly with Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War books, and The Queen's Lover smoothly fits in the historical overlap between the Wars of the Roses, and The Hundred Years' War between England and France. At the center of both is Catherine de Valois, the French princess turned English queen who embodied the English claim to the French throne, and later, the Tudor claim to the English throne.

Although the title character is "The Queen's Lover," and the book does begin with Owain Tudor, Catherine's future lover and grandfather of Henry VII,this is a book about a heroine. Surprisingly and delightfully, much of the first part of the book focuses on Christine de Pizan. I am familiar with Pizan as a writer, but apparently she was also a significant figure at the French court. Having been raised along with Catherine's father, King Charles, and his brothers, she became a caretaker for some time of the younger royal children. Under the conceit that Owain is housed with Christine during a parley between English and French forces, Bennett proceeds to explore Christine's world, books, and thoughts quite thoroughly. Bennett's Christine is an intriguing character, loyal and passionate, intelligent and fearful. And not a little vain. Bennett's Owain is an eager student, awed with early modern Paris and struggling to overcome the complications of his Welsh royal heritage. But more intriguing than Owain is the princess in rags that Christine so lovingly cares for.

According to the novel, Catherine and her younger brother Charles were neglected at the French court, left with old clothes and not regularly fed. I don't have a sense of the historical accuracy of this portrait, but it is a different one from later periods. It is possible that the late Middle Ages were more chaotic than the emerging early modern period, and that that chaos extended to less oversight for royal children. Catherine more than once escapes from the palace on horseback. But then, there are accounts that claim she was locked up, to preserve her virginity for Henry V. In any case, in this version, Catherine is faced with pitiful choices, and takes her fate into her own hands. As a heroine, she is sometimes infuriatingly naive, but satisfyingly adventurous and even impulsive.

As Bennett points out in the author's note, Catherine is a much-maligned character, a queen who "turned her back" on her royal blood to marry the steward of her house. Of course, as the Tudor monarchs would emphasize, Owain was descended from Welsh royalty. But in the time she married him, that counted for nothing, or was even more shameful than marrying a nobody. Who was this woman, who could make such a bold, such a defiant choice-and get away with it? Bennett's Catherine learns an important lesson, with the help of her mischievous mother, Queen Isabeau, that if she seeks what she wants, she may just get it. And, unbeknownst to her, she founded a royal house with its own share of renegades.

I enjoyed the extensive historical notes and sources at the back of the book. The feel of the book was well-researched, and that confirmed the feeling. I definitely intend to read more of Bennett, she has a more careful, considered quality than Gregory, but her characters are just as memorable and complex.

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