Part two of my post on Virginia Henley's Notorious and Edith Felber's Queen of Shadows: A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II. The first part is directly below this one, or you can read it here.
This part also includes some comments on Alison Weir's Isabella, She-Wolf of France, Queen of England.
**Warning: plot spoilers!**
Characterisation and Stereotyping
Virginia Henley's depiction of Edward II in Notorious is just horrible. He's presented as "flabby...soft...his mouth is weak and petulant, like that of a spoiled woman". He's a worm of a man who makes women shudder with distaste whenever they see him, including Isabella, who by contrast is depicted as perfect in every respect. There's so much hatred and contempt for Edward in the novel that I actually felt quite ill reading it - even his lover Hugh Despenser despises him and watches him with "veiled contempt". Edward doesn't have a single redeeming feature; he doesn't even care about his children, and only "grudgingly agreed to pay for the children's nursemaids". Isabella says that Edward gives her no money to pay for her household, which isn't correct - although her income was drastically reduced, she certainly had enough money to pay her servants. And this reduction occurred in 1324, not 1321 or earlier as shown in Notorious.
And, offensively, Edward is highly feminised. Once more, in Notorious we're fed the stereotype that 'a man who loves men = feminine and weak'. Even the non-fictional biography of Isabella by Alison Weir is guilty of this. Weir describes Roger Mortimer as "everything that Edward II was not: strong, manly, unequivocally heterosexual, virile..."
Weir also describes Despenser's presumed sexual dominance over Edward as "perverted"; however, Mortimer's presumed sexual dominance over Isabella is proof of his manliness and strength, and also provides a convenient excuse for Isabella not to be responsible for any of their unpleasant deeds. Such depictions of non-heterosexual men are pretty nasty and offensive, especially given that we're in the 2000s - and notice that the excuse of 'sexual dominance' doesn't apply to Edward II, who's held completely responsible for his misdeeds and for allowing Despenser to rule him. In the Introduction to the biography, Weir even describes Isabella as "the victim, not of her own wickedness, but of circumstances, unscrupulous men and the sexual prejudices of those who chose to record her story." Given the negative attitude on display towards Edward II's non-heterosexuality, complaining about 'sexual prejudices' strikes me as deeply ironic.
And ah yes, those useful unscrupulous men, who often crop up to take the rap when a woman does something 'bad'. I'm not sure whether the "sexual prejudices" belong to fourteenth-century chroniclers, or historians of more recent times, or both, but yet again, here's the 'woman as perpetual victim' theme. Am I the only one getting really sick of it? "She's a strong, empowered woman...but ooooh, she did something horrid! Blame a man, quick! It can't possibly be her fault! She's not strong after all, a nasty man made her do it, poor ickle thing! But look, now she's doing something praiseworthy! Suddenly she's strong and empowered again, and the man had nothing to do with it!"
Much of Weir's biography has the effect of making Isabella seem weak, not strong - apparently, men are responsible for their own actions, whereas women are not. This attitude reduces women to the level of children. And almost every time Isabella does something that's less than perfect, Weir jumps in to defend and justify her actions. Edward's mistakes and misdeeds are evidence of his incompetence and weakness, and are frequently exaggerated; Isabella's are merely an understandable reaction to her long 'suffering' and are minimised as much as possible. Weir is at least honest enough to admit that the 1326 executions of the Earl of Arundel and his friends were "acts of tyranny, and Isabella was a party to them"; she also acknowledges Isabella's role in the judicial murder of her brother-in-law the Earl of Kent.
Weir does, however, ignore some of Isabella's more spiteful actions, such as the forced veiling of three of Hugh Despenser's young daughters, and her shabby treatment of Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln, her aunt by marriage, by allowing Roger Mortimer to take over her most valuable lands. Although Weir states that Isabella "had sworn on the soul of her father that she would have justice" and had ordered the bailiffs of Winchester to execute Kent without delay, on the next page she states that Isabella was "deeply in thrall" to her lover, "[b]linded by her lust or love for him", and "tainted by association with him". Right at the end of the book, she comments "Isabella's downfall lay in her involvement with the rapacious Mortimer". To me, all this makes her sound passive, tolerating Mortimer's actions rather than sharing full responsibility for them, or even instigating them. Paul Doherty in Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II agrees, saying that "Isabella was a remarkable queen, a woman of outstanding ability, flawed by her infatuation with Mortimer."
However, the mother of all one-sided depictions of Isabella is Katherine Allocco's PhD thesis, which is less an evaluation of Isabella's life and roles than it is a demand for her immediate canonisation.
I get that Isabella was vilified as 'the She-Wolf' for centuries, and a more balanced, sympathetic view of her was long overdue. But why do we have to go so far in the other direction? Isabella wasn't a she-wolf. But neither was she a long-suffering much-wronged saint, or an empowered feminist icon. She was a complex character with some great qualities, and a few flaws too - just like everyone else, including Edward II.
In the comments on my first part of this post, Susan pointed out the analogy with Richard III - for nearly five centuries, until around 1970, he was seen as practically the epitome of evil; these days, he's viewed by many people as the exact opposite, a hero with no discernable flaws, with several recent novels implausibly portraying him as the next best thing to a saint. But surely it's far more interesting to show people's flaws, too?
As I wrote a few months ago in a comment on Susan's post on Isabella, the modern re-telling of Isabella's life strikes me as a twenty-first century narrative, not a medieval one. A popular theme of recent years has been of people suffering through terrible situations, such as abuse, grinding poverty, drug addiction, etc, and overcoming them. And also, women finding the strength to get out of a bad, abusive marriage and take control of their own destiny, discovering happiness and fulfilment with lovers who are far superior to their husbands.
Isabella's story is made to fit into this category, which involves exaggerating her sufferings (and I'm not at all denying here that Edward II and Hugh Despenser treated her badly) and glossing over her faults - and also glossing over the fact that Mortimer himself was married. Weir barely mentions Joan de Geneville, and neither does Edith Felber in Shadows; I talk briefly about Henley's depiction of her in Notorious, below.
Rather belatedly coming back to the main topic of the post: Edith Felber, to her immense credit, doesn't go the route of feminising Edward II in Shadows. I read a review of the novel somewhere which said that Edward's homosexuality [bisexuality, surely?] is "clumsily handled." I don't agree. There's nothing remotely feminine about Edward here; in fact, he's described as an image of "masculine perfection" and called "a beautiful man" on several occasions. He's "tall, but lithe and graceful and perfect in every proportion." He's also courteous, "an intelligent man, and, according to his lights, a good one." Even in 1321, he makes Isabella's breath catch when she sees him, and she shivers in pleasure as she remembers the feel of his soft hair on her skin when they made love, a nicely erotic image. Even Gwenith, his "mortal enemy" (why??), thinks he's "beautiful and bright, clever and astonishingly charming". He's rather wonderful, in fact. ;)
And although Isabella recalls an occasion when she saw Edward and Piers Gaveston making love together, and knows full well that Hugh Despenser shares her husband's bed, there's not a hint that the reader is meant to be disgusted by this, and, again to Felber's great credit, she doesn't use Edward's sexuality as an easy way to garner sympathy for Isabella. It's Hugh Despenser's political power and disrespect towards Isabella that she hates and refuses to tolerate any longer.
So I was even more disappointed when I saw that I wouldn't be getting the balanced, sympathetic view of Edward and Isabella I expected from the early part of the novel. At times later in the novel, Edward is witty, sparkling, often very likeable, and near the end, there's a nice scene where he acknowledges his faults and his infatuation with Hugh Despenser, which he describes "like a high fever...leaving me weak and foolish". But nooo, for the most part, the usual clichés of Isabella The Great Victim are trotted out, such as 'losing' her children, and Edward running away and abandoning her "behind your enemy's lines" (an oddly modern-sounding phrase) in Scotland. Not to mention the atrocities he didn't commit in Wales and the Jewish people he didn't murder.
And coming back to unbalanced portrayals, everyone and everything in Notorious is totally black or white. Edward II and Hugh Despenser are totally bad, while Isabella and Roger Mortimer are perfectly good. I've enjoyed some of Henley's other romances, and she can write much more nuanced characterisation than she shows here. Her Marriage Prize, which I really enjoyed, is much more historically accurate than this one, and the characters are not nearly so stereotyped and one-dimensional. In Notorious, Edward is reduced to nothing more than a feeble, pathetic caricature, whereas Roger Mortimer is such a big manly hunk of manly chivalrous manly macho manly testosterone-ridden manly manliness as to be totally unbelievable. All the female characters swoon over him, while shuddering over Edward. Everything Roger is and does in the novel is over-valued - for example, the fact that many of the English nobility are his cousins is somehow proof of his "shrewdness". Umm, how? Did he go back in time and order his ancestors to make advantageous marriage alliances?
Roger's wife Joan de Geneville is an unsympathetic, rather pathetic figure in Notorious, despite being the hero's mother. She's very overweight and unattractive, presumably to ensure that she's not a rival to Isabella -who's incredibly beautiful, naturally - in any way. At the end, we learn that Joan is happy to put up with her husband's infidelity with Isabella because she gets her lands back. Which conveniently absolves Perfect Isabella and Perfect Roger from having to feel any guilt. Roger grants his and Joan's son Wolf the lands and possessions of his late uncle, Mortimer of Chirk - Henley conveniently forgetting to mention Chirk's grandson John Mortimer, who was disinherited by his cousin in 1330 (Roger claimed he was illegitimate, and took over his lands. Hugh Despenser would have been proud.)
In Queen of Shadows, Roger Mortimer never came to life for me at all. We're often told that he's handsome and brave, but somehow I never really felt it. Then there's the problematic expository dialogue, which does nothing to improve his characterisation.
By contrast, Hugh Despenser is by far the most vivid character in the novel, which improves immeasurably every time he gets a scene. He knows exactly what he is and why he does what he does; this self-insight makes him rather appealing, although he's a total lecher, with men and women - as well as greedy, ruthless and cruel. But kudos to Felber for not having him rape Isabella in the story, as Paul Doherty and Alison Weir have recently suggested (with zero evidence) he might have done. He desires her, but says that he'd never touch her without her permission.
On the subject of lechers, I found the hero of Notorious, Wolf Mortimer, pretty creepy. Henley dusts off another useful cliché, that of the Celtic character with the gift of second sight and other advanced mental powers - this time, it's Wolf. Mostly, he doesn't use his talents for anything useful - like warning his father that Edward is going to arrest him - but to spy on Brianna, watching her (in his mind) undressing. Eww.
Notorious has a pretty abrupt ending. We don't see the successful 1326 invasion of England, or Hugh Despenser's execution, or Edward's deposition, but only read it about before it happens through one of Wolf's numerous visions. The final scene takes place in June 1327, Perfect Isabella and Perfect Roger are being perfect, and everyone (except Edward II, one presumes) is deliriously happy - including Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who's looking pretty good for a man who's been dead for twelve years. He's even partially regained his lost sight, but I suppose that's a minor miracle for a man who's been animating a corpse for more than a decade.
The ending of Shadows is so abrupt I looked for the missing chapters, then wondered if Felber had a pressing deadline from her publisher, or if she'd reached her word count and just put her pen down. It doesn't end, it just - stops, when the story is starting to get really exciting. Isabella is coming to realise what a horrible mistake she's made and how wrong she was about Roger - there's a nice bit where she sees Hugh Despenser sitting on the throne, then realises it's her lover. He has imprisoned Edward III (which didn't happen historically) and is proving to be every bit as tyrannical as Despenser. You turn the page and - suddenly it's 1355. The whole story is wrapped up in a couple of pages. Mortimer's fate is dealt with in a paragraph - apparently Isabella, who's overthrown a king, inexplicably becomes unable to deal with a mere baron and has to wait for her teenage son to save her.
Then there's the odd lines "Her beloved grandson Edward was the image of his father. God willing, he'd never know that." How would Edward of Woodstock, who lived to his mid forties, not know if he looked like his father Edward III or not?? I can only assume that 'grandson' is a mistake for 'son', and Felber meant to say that Edward III looks just like his real father - whoever he may be. Even right at the end, we never learn the identity of Isabella's mysterious lover.
In both novels, even the Author's Note/Afterword at the end contain historical errors. Henley says that "most historians" agree that Edward II suffered the 'red-hot poker' death. Wish she'd tell me one historian who believes it to be totally, definitively true, never mind 'most'. Felber says that Edward III moved against Roger Mortimer "almost immediately" after his marriage to Philippa; it was nearly three years later. The Earl of Lancaster didn't die of plague in 1345, as it hadn't reached England then. Edward III didn't have "many mistresses" and "many illegitimate children" that anyone knows of (only one acknowledged mistress, Alice Perrers, and three illegitimate children). And it's disengenuous of Henley to claim that Isabella only became known as 'the She-Wolf' because of her marital infidelity. That's part of it, but I'd imagine that invading her husband's country, imprisoning him, deposing him, executing his friends, not allowing him to see his children, and (just possibly) being responsible for his murder comes into it too.
Probably a lot of people would say "But this is fiction, not a history book!" Of course, and I should point out that I don't think it's possible to write historical fiction without some errors. I'm not looking for perfection. But there are many gaps in our knowledge, and that's where historical novels can really come into their own. In the fourteenth century, we know what people did, but for the most part we have no idea why, or how they felt or what they thought. How Isabella really felt about her husband before the 1320s is anyone's guess. Maybe she truly loved him, or maybe she was dissatisfied in her marriage but made the best of it, or maybe she took the decision to depose him reluctantly and at the last minute, or maybe she had long despised him and plotted his downfall...there's no way of knowing, and this is something historical fiction can explore.
But if you choose to write about real people, I think you have a duty to stay as close to the known facts as possible. If you don't want to do that, why not invent your own characters? Then you can do anything you like with them! If Isabella was known not to be in Scotland in 1312 - and she certainly wasn't - then you shouldn't put her there. In Paul Doherty's Death of a King, he changes Edward III's date of birth from November 1312 to March 1312, so that he can work in the plot device that Roger Mortimer was his real father [which, in fact, still doesn't work, as Mortimer was in Ireland]. Maybe lots of readers would say 'March, November, what's the difference?' But I think that changing a historical date which is not in doubt or dispute to hang a major plot point on it, without acknowledging the fact, is, simply, cheating. Doherty was awarded a DPhil from Oxford for his thesis on Queen Isabella; obviously, he knows Edward III's correct date of birth.
Personally, I much prefer Sharon Penman's approach. She sticks closely to the facts, rounds out her characters brilliantly, and mentions in her Author's Note when she changes something, which are only ever small details. For example, in Falls the Shadow, she changes the date of a meeting by a few weeks, to accommodate the birth of Eleanor and Simon de Montfort's son Harry - which is a pretty minor change anyway.
Ultimately, I found Notorious and especially Queen of Shadows terribly frustrating, because both authors are capable of so much better. Some of Henley's other romances are far superior to this stereotypical, one-dimensional, melodramatic, totally inaccurate effort - and Brianna's often-repeated credo "I shouldn't...but I shall!" is even more irritating than Jory's "I've quite made up my mind!" in Infamous.
In much of Queen of Shadows, you can see what a good writer Edith Felber is, and there are occasional glimpses of what a terrific novel this could have been - but isn't. Some scenes sparkle and crackle with tension, some are pretty moving, and Hugh Despenser is such a well-developed and well-written character he comes right off the page. But Felber lets herself down with most of her dialogue, the endless repetition, the silly coy hints of Isabella's affair, the many historical inaccuracies, and the bizarrely abrupt ending. A good edit would have made this an infinitely better novel, and would have left a lot more space to explore Isabella's actions and feelings during the most eventful phase of her life, 1327-30.
Throughout much of the post, I found myself wanting to write a disclaimer about Notorious - something along the lines of "well, it's only a romance". But that sounds pretty insulting to the romance genre, which I don't mean at all. I've read and enjoyed some damn good romances, and I don't see why their characterisation, dialogue etc shouldn't be judged in the same way as other genres. Maybe Henley's fans would argue that the romance is key - which of course it is - and that the background doesn't matter. But if Henley chooses to write about real people and events rather than invented ones, she should make a much greater effort to get them correct. If she chooses real political events to serve as the backdrop to her novel, then I think I have the right to point out all her errors.
If an author wants complete control over her characters, then she should invent them. If she writes about real people, she shouldn't change most of the details of their lives to suit her story. And if she wants to write about people who lived 700 years ago, she shouldn't give them modern attitudes, ideas, and freedoms - especially when the sympathetic characters hold twenty-first century, politically correct opinions, while the unsympathetic ones hold views compatible with their time and society. That's just dishonest.