Saturday, 4 April 2015

Review: 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' - Sharon Penman

The so-called Anarchy of the 12th century – the civil war in England and Normandy between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda - is an exciting yet surprisingly neglected period of history. It often appears only as a background for the story of Henry II, Matilda’s son, or as a brief sidenote in Tudor history textbooks, using Matilda to comment on the perceived calamities of having a Queen Regnant.
In the second half of the 20th century, with the discovery of the second half of the Gesta Stephani (a very important contemporary chronicle) and the subsequent publication of RHC Davis’ King Stephen, still considered to be the ‘Bible of the reign’ (Jim Bradbury, 2004) the Anarchy has finally received a bit more attention.
Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept isn’t the only popular work of literature to be set during the period. It is portrayed reasonably accurately in  Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series, and less accurately in the nevertheless acclaimed novel The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. At a hefty 900 or so pages, Penman’s novel is the first to focus on the key political players rather than characters on the periphery, and does so with commendable accuracy.

The narrative begins in 1120, with the sinking of the White Ship, a disaster that claimed the life of William the Æthling, the only legitimate son of Henry I, thus throwing the royal succession up in the air. In 1126, King Henry ordered the barons to swear an oath of fealty to Matilda (known in the novel by the vernacular version of the name: Maude) as his heir. She was then married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, enemy of the Normans. Fears of being ruled by a woman, and of having an Angevin as the King, the barons did not offer Maude their support when Henry I died in 1135. Instead, they offered it to her cousin Stephen, who quickly sailed from France to claim the crown for himself.

The novel then details, from various perspectives, the 19 year civil war that ensued. Two thirds of the way through, our attention switches to France, to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Having heard snippets of her story through the gossip of other characters, we now see for ourselves marriage to Louis IX disintegrate, and Henry of Anjou’s successful bid to wed her himself. The novel closes with the death of Stephen the accession of Henry and Eleanor as King and Queen of England. Saints is actually the first novel in a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it finishes with an annoyingly prophetic ring of triumph for dramatic effect.

The 21st century has already seen significant progress in revising Stephen’s reign and the extent of the chaos it caused. Published in 1994, Saints obviously doesn’t include this, meaning that behind the heavy research woven through the text, there remains the underlying assumption that Stephen was a kind man but an utterly hopeless King. In its bare essence, this is true, but it would have been nice to see a more open attitude to the Scottish truce in 1148, or the appointment of Theobald of Bec as Archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen had sensible reasons for making these decisions, no matter how disastrous the consequences. There is also some debate as to the strength of Maude’s power base, and the equal weighting Penman gives to Stephen and Maude may not have been strictly the case, but the lack of evidence and a division of historical opinion for some leeway here.

Obviously, Penman is a novelist, not an historian, so perhaps this nit-picking on my part is unfair. However, she researches her novels better than most other novelists, and so I feel inclined to raise the bar.

Something that intrigues me about Penman’s writing is her decision to switch suddenly between fiction and non-fiction at the end of chapters. Occasionally, she will give us an overview of what happened, accompanied with a quotation from a contemporary chronicle. Sometimes this works to the novel’s advantage, allowing the reader to consolidate what they know, and reminding them that these are not merely characters, but historical figures. It encourages reflection and caution when reading. At times, however, all it serves to do is pull the reader out of the narrative. Also, I’m a great lover of monastic chronicles, and they aren’t nearly as inaccurate as some people make them out to be, but planting extracts in the novel creates unhelpful melodrama. England was not completely desolated by the Anarchy, and the chronicles give the opposite impression.

One of the peripheral characters in the novel is Ranulf, an illegitimate son of Henry I and staunch supporter of Maude, though his past in Stephen’s service allows him to be more open-minded than some of the other characters. Ranulf does not exist in the historical record, but is an original creation of Penman’s. As she writes in her author’s note: ‘Since Henry I is known to have sired at least twenty illegitimate children, I decided one more wouldn’t hurt!’ Thankfully, his presence does not upset the historical narrative. Instead, he is a charming and relatable character, who endears himself to us early in the novel. Even I – who tend to dislike original characters in historical fiction – found myself growing rather attached to him.

The problem comes when Ranulf runs away to have adventures on his own. These adventures in Cantebrigge (now Cambridge) and Wales were entertaining in their own right, but as someone who picked up the book to read about the actual historical personalities involved, it did grow tiresome when none of them appeared for 50 pages at a time. I didn’t come to the novel for romance and heroism – as important as those things were in the 12th century anyway – but for political intrigue and siege warfare. Thankfully, these were also in abundance, and were covered in extraordinary detail. The pages dedicated to the Rout of Winchester were a tour de force in world-building.

Another aspect in which Penman has done an admirable job is in naming her characters. The medieval nobility were notoriously unimaginative in naming their children, and Penman has managed to juggle four Matildas, two Henrys, two Theobalds and an uncountable number of Williams around in such a way that one is rarely confused. It took a while for me to accept that the Empress was called Maude, not Matilda, but I had 900 pages to warm to the idea.

Historical novels are always a drag when you already know the story, a fact that is not helped when the book is heavy enough to use as a weapon. It’s heavy-going, but if you’re fond of the period, Saints is definitely worth a read.


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