Two things are clear after reading Eleanor the Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Norah Lofts. Eleanor was one hell of a woman, and Lofts was one hell of a writer. The combination makes for an amazing story.
Eleanor the Queen begins in 1137 with the death of Eleanor’s father, the Duke, and ends in 1190 when Eleanor is 68, an almost unheard of age in the 12th century. In between, we see Eleanor marry twice, divorce once, bear ten children, suffer numerous betrayals, and survive two crusades, a plague, and approximately fifteen years of imprisonment. Not bad for a book that’s only a little over 300 pages.
The book masterfully mixes plot, character, and setting. Its opening gambit—“Just before the moon rose to full glory over the city of Bordeaux in that June of 1137, a young man who had been moving swiftly and secretively through the deserted streets came to the end of his journey at the foot of a tall round tower”—sets the tone for political intrigue, mystery, and betrayal. The rest of the book does not disappoint.
Some adversaries are quickly identified. For example, “there were now two men in Paris who had been warned that, behind a courteous manner, their new Queen [Eleanor] concealed a cunning disposition and a desire to manage. And since that description applied exactly to themselves and they wanted no competition, they watched her as closely and as coldly and as distrustfully as even Sir Godfroi could have wished.”
Lofts herself is cunning, too, with other characters and their motivations and alliances. Not only does Eleanor often not know who is a friend and who is a foe—but the audience is just as uncertain. Moreover, sometimes strangers, including a peddler and a maid/jailor, make better allies than members of Eleanor’s own family.
The plot might move a touch slowly in the opening chapters and occasionally contains some distracting foreshadowing but, for the most part, it is nicely paced, beautifully phrased, and wonderfully focused. Lofts even describes Eleanor’s many years of imprisonment, swiftly but in a way that shows Eleanor’s agony:
The days dragged on. Until one had nothing to which to look forward, one did not realize how great a part of life consists of merely looking forward, in thinking, Next Thursday I shall do this or that…. in April this or that will happen. To look ahead and know that next Thursday will be as like this Thursday as this Monday was like last Monday, that next April will be the blank-faced dragging month that this one is, can be a specially subtle kind of torture.
Along with this intricate plot comes carefully crafted characters and a solid sense of place. Sometimes, it is the dialogue that creates the character. We hear from one of Eleanor’s jailors in fragments, brief responses to requests to look out the window or for an apple to accompany her daily meals of bread and cheese: “Madam, I only carry out the orders of my master…” or “Madam, nothing in my orders would justify me…” or “Madam I have no orders to that effect…”
More often, though, the characters are drawn with descriptions, such as the one that introduces Eleanor’s second husband: “the solid, barrel-chested, long-legged figure, the cocksure set of the head, the red hair showing under the cap with its jaunty sprig of broom—the planta genesta, from which his family took its name…so young, so handsome, so high-hearted.” Clearly, one of Lofts many strengths as a writer is her knack for descriptive writing, and it adds much to the setting and tone of the novel.
When Eleanor returns to her homeland after her divorce from Louis the Seventh, the King of France, the setting is spring: “In the orchards outside the city of Poitiers the plum and peach and pear blossoms had lost their first brightness and the petals were falling, but the tide of gay wild flowers had run over the orchard grass and over the roadside verges and all the air was full of the sweetness of newly cut hay.”
This is such a contrast to the final passages in the previous chapter, the chapter where Eleanor’s marriage ends, and she is forced to leave her children with her ex-husband, the King of France: “it remained for her to lift them in her arms and kiss the soft childish faces—and she must control herself, allow no sign of her own grief at parting to be seen. So soft, so young, so very dear. She gave them little ornaments, then slipped away and stood in the dim chill corridor until she was in control of herself again.”
The ending is also a pleasant surprise, and my favorite part of the book. Instead of ending with Eleanor’s death, it ends with an allusion to her next adventure: “I will knit these people together into the great nation I know they are capable of being. I will have them ready to welcome you back with joy. That shall be my contribution to this crusade. I can do it because all my life, including even my worst failures, has been schooling me for this task. I shall do it well.” This sent me straight to my computer to find out exactly what happened next.
Of course, Lofts couldn’t have planned that. Personal computers, let alone the Internet, didn’t exist when Lofts wrote this book. Still, if you didn’t know this book was written in the 1950s, most likely you would never guess. Nothing about it feels dated or awkward. So timelessly crafted, It could have been written last week, last year—or last century.