Elizabeth Chadwick’s novel The Summer Queen tells the story of young Alienor (Eleanor), from her childhood with her sister Petronella in Aquitaine, through her marriage to Louis of France, the birth of their two daughters, and finally their divorce, and her remarriage. The novel retells historical events, adding personalities to historical characters. I’m not sure how much was embellished for the book — the actual events are pretty dramatic by themselves. (When I read, I’m really a history hobbyist, not a serious scholar, so as long as characters aren’t using technology that hasn’t been invented yet, or traveling across Europe at unreasonable speeds for horseback, I’m happy.)
The Summer Queen shines with complex version of historical characters. Louis was trained for the church before the untimely death of his older brother made him the heir, and it’s clear that he would have prefered to become a monk than be a husband. This puts a lot of strain on their marriage, what with Louis constantly on pilgrimage or doing penance or observing a saint’s day, or basically coming up with a thousand religious reasons to avoid Eleanor. He’s not painted as an evil villain, even though his goals are at odds with Eleanor throughout most of the book.
Our heroine Eleanor, is a loyal daughter of Aquitaine, an intelligent and educated ruler, but it’s her flaws, specifically her yearning for home and love for one her vassals, that make her most sympathetic to the reader. Even more minor characters, like Petronella, have personality and depth.
In the author’s note at the end, Elizabeth Chadwick explains why she found the possible Eleanor / Raymond romance unlikely. Mostly because an incestuous affair seems like a bizarre and destructive choice for a woman who was so intelligent, while cooking up rumors of an incestuous affair, seems like a logical choice by enemies in court, looking for ways to discredit the queen. The “affair” seems like a pearl-clutching mock-horror to show complete depravity, and a pretty unsurprising response from certain men in court who were terrified by a powerful woman, with enough scandal to have it repeated by bored courtiers and shocked commoners alike.
The novel is the first in a (planned) trilogy about Eleanor, so it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I mean, it’s not clickbait, but this is the story of a woman who was queen of two countries, and the novel ends before she gets to England. I’m looking forward to reading the next part of her story.