17 February, 2011

Book Review: The Ruling Passion by David Pownall

Published in September 2008 by Herbert Adler Publishing.  Somehow I thought I'd written about the novel on the blog ages ago, and have just realised I didn't!

I was so thrilled when I heard that The Ruling Passion, a novel about Edward II and Piers Gaveston, was coming out.  Featured on BBC Radio Four as a Book At Bedtime, it promises to tell the story of "a passionate and defiant relationship that was to bring England to the brink of civil war" and "a story of infatuation and a relationship pursued to destruction".  Amen to that, I thought; I'm always in the market for a novel about the relationship between Edward and Piers, and there's precious little fiction worth reading about them.  I read two excellent reviews of the novel on Amazon UK calling it "deeply engaging" and "really gripping," and various websites repeated that it's a "superbly crafted historical novel," and so I ordered Ruling Passion with great anticipation, expecting a passionate, compelling story about my favourite couple in history.

Well.  For a novel with the word 'passion' in the title, how utterly disappointing and passionless it proved. A large part of the book, and I do mean a large part, involves Edward II's father King Edward I discussing his son's relationship with Piers with his adviser, William Wild.  Who is always, always referred to either by his full name or as 'the Irishman', which made me grit my teeth with irritation; the first four words of the novel are in fact 'William Wild, the Irishman', and he is referred to as 'the Irishman' four times on the first page alone.  (I had a similar problem with Liz Jensen's novel The Rapture, where one of the main characters is always referred to as 'Frazer Melville' and never, ever as just 'Frazer'.)  In point of fact, Ruling Passion is not really 'about' Edward II and Piers Gaveston at all; the dull and made-up William Wild The Irishman and his wife Valmai are, contrary to what the blurb says, the main characters.  It reminds me of Edith Felber's Queen of Shadows, which claims to be a novel about Isabella of France but is just as much the story of her dull, invented attendant Gwenith.

There's far too much telling in Ruling Passion and not nearly enough showing; why do we need to read endless pages where two men discuss the relationship of two other men when we could be reading about the relationship itself?  (The novel opens in 1303, when the future Edward II is nineteen and four years before Edward I dies, and ends shortly after Piers' murder in June 1312.)  And when we do get to see Edward and Piers, it's impossible to see why this is a "relationship pursued to destruction" as the blurb says, or threatens the English throne as the blurb says, or why Edward is so infatuated with his lover.  We're told, constantly, that Edward adores Piers but not *shown* it.  We're told that their relationship will bring England to civil war, but not why.  Piers' characterisation is utterly minimal, and even at the end of the novel I had no idea what kind of man he's meant to be, except that he's bisexual and...ummm, well, that's about it.  It's never made clear why this man is so sexy, so seductive and so powerful that he can topple thrones.  A boring Piers Gaveston??  I would have thought that was impossible, but there's nothing at all here of the historical Piers' famous wit and charisma.  Likewise, Queen Isabella remains a one-dimensional enigma throughout the novel.  We're told what she's like ("Strong within outlandish contradictions [huh?], austere, sensual, pious and violent"), but she seldom does anything to demonstrate that she is any of these things, and appears to be much older than her stated age of thirteen.  There is very little description and action and a lot, a lot, of talking in the novel; the first thing anyone says is Edward I telling William Wild to "Sit down, you old whore".  Lovely.  Usually I enjoy 'talky' novels, but the dialogue in Ruling Passion for the most part reveals very little about the characters and too often, in my humble opinion anyway, comes across as excessively modern and/or anachronistic (such as William Wild The Irishman Who Is Irish asking his wife "How do you know I'm not a former homosexual?").

There are few sex scenes in Ruling Passion, rather oddly in my opinion, in view of the subject matter (unless I blinked and missed them).  One of the very, very few has Edward "being noisily buggered" by Piers in front of a group of actors, one of whom later brains himself "rather than live with such poisonous shame."  Yes, that's the exact quotation; yes, that's the entire description of the sex; yes, it's as incredibly unerotic as it sounds.  Oh, and there's another bit where Piers "fondles" Edward in front of the archbishop of York, not out of sexual desire but from a wish to embarrass and shock the archbishop, which just seemed childish to me.  There is no passion in The Ruling Passion at all.  NONE AT ALL.  A strange inconsistency: Edward tells Piers at one point "I can't possibly get a woman with child" but half a dozen lines later tells him that he has, in fact, made a woman pregnant, and has an illegitimate son called Adam.  Regarding his impending marriage to Isabella of France, Edward tells his lover that he will never be able to have intercourse with women as "their bodies appal me" and the thought revolts him, and that "It doesn't matter how beautiful she [Isabella] is, I won't be able to do it."  But a few chapters later he consummates his marriage with Isabella with no problems or hesitation at all and with no awareness that women's bodies are meant to 'appal' him, despite the fact that - bizarrely - her father's pet dwarf is spying on them from the bed hangings.  (Seriously.)  And a few chapters after that, Isabella is pregnant with Edward III.  Equally bizarrely in the consummation scene, the pubescent Isabella tells her new husband that she has previously enjoyed sex on her knees "like the animals," and Edward shows not the slightest shock or horror that his young royal bride is not a virgin, saying merely "God's Mother, what have I got here?".  There is not enough 'What the hell???' in my vocabulary.  This is some alternate reality, not Europe in the fourteenth century.  There are other contradictions: William Wild at one point says about Edward "It's not that he doesn't like women...In fact he likes them as people more than most men," yet later in the novel the narrative says "Almost incidentally, Ned revealed his attitude to women - which was not entirely hostile..." being one example.

I did like some parts of the novel.  There are some lovely insights into Edward II's character, which make it obvious how hopelessly unsuited he is to his position as heir to the throne and king, and some nice flashes of humour, such as Edward - or Ned, as he's called throughout - groaning "why couldn't I have been born someone else?" when realising he'll have to consummate his marriage while being spied on by a voyeuristic heavily-breathing dwarf.  There are some great bits showing the king's historically-documented love of physical labour, and a vivid scene on a bridge just after Edward has recalled Piers from exile in 1307, where Edward is unsure whether to continue to stand with his arms open to welcome Piers, who is kneeling a few yards away, or whether he's starting to look ridiculous.  William Wild (The Irishman Who Is Irish, lest we forget) remembers Edward's long-dead mother Eleanor of Castile with great affection and comments several times how much Edward resembles her in character, which I liked - I've often wondered how much, or whether, Edward resembled Queen Eleanor in appearance or personality.  I'm extremely glad that Pownall didn't go the clichéd route of making Piers a Goddess-worshipper - boooooooring and based on a myth about Piers's witchy mother not recorded until three centuries later - and didn't turn Edward into the usual shrieking, foot-stamping, snivelling, tantrum-throwing stereotype so beloved of bad novelists.  The novel is reasonably historically accurate, with a few exceptions (such as portraying Hugh Despenser becoming Edward's 'favourite' just after Piers' death, a good six years too early) and at least it doesn't depict Isabella taking a lover who fathers Edward III, for all Edward II's protestations that he won't be able to make her pregnant.  But overall, Ruling Passion achieved something I always thought was impossible: made me bored with a novel about Edward II.  It took me a few months to finish it, because every time I put it down there was nothing at all compelling to make me want to pick it up again and I turned to other books instead.  I still feel like I've missed plot threads in the novel - there's something going on between William Wild The Irishman Who Is Irish's wife Valmai and Piers Gaveston, but I don't know what and couldn't possibly care less - because I skimmed rather a lot of it in sheer boredom.  A novel about such a passionate, obsessive and destructive relationship should make the reader feel lots of things, but 'bored' is not one of them.  There's an excellent review of the novel by Fiona Glass on Speak Its Name, which identifies much of what is wrong with Ruling Passion: basically, it's incredibly dull.  Brenda Honeyman's The King's Minions, despite being a very short novel, contains far more genuine passion, infatuation and eroticism between Edward II and Piers Gaveston in a handful of pages than Ruling Passion manages in its entirety.

15 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

Sorry to hear this books was a disappointment. You'll need to write your own version, it seems. ;)

And thanks for small mercies, at least Ed 2 sired Ed 3 and not Willy or Bob. :P

Kathryn Warner said...

True! My expectations of Edward II novels are extremely low, unfortunately (there's so much rubbish out there), but at least he didn't go that route. :-)

Anerje said...

Good review Kathryn. The title promised so much and as you say, the focus is on William Wild, who is Irish - in case you didn't know:> This is one of the few novels that portrays Piers as a blonde as well - not that that has got much to do with the plot!LOL! I'm not sure about Wild's relationship with Piers either - because he sort of becomes besotted with Piers himself but we're not sure why. It's also a bit silly when Edward makes his first 'kill' in battle.

Carla said...

Oh, dear. First rule of fiction: try not to bore the reader. It doesn't exactly sound like a gripping read (!). Was it as dire when it was on Book at Bedtime? Usually I think something is lost in the abridging, but I am wondering if the reverse was true in this case.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

My first thought was that it was very kind and generous of you to give a book like this such a careful review. From what you tell us the writing has all the trademarks of much pulp fiction - lazy characterization and gratuitous sensation. Edward, Gaveston and Isabella (and you know this better than I do) must have been complex characters whose lives were made more interesting by events. Perfect material you would think for a good novelist who is prepared to inhabit the characters and reveal them to the reader.
This requires a great deal of hard work, and until someone comes along with the talent and dedication and sheer grit you may continue to be disappointed by hack writers who whisk off boilerplate novels.

Queen Echo said...

In "The Prince of Darkness" Piers is depicted as a murderer as well as a practitioner of Black Magic. That is really going too far even for fiction!

Undine said...

Ugh. Thanks for tipping us off on a book to avoid. My life is weird enough without reading about voyeur dwarves.

As an aside, it's been my experience that when you encounter a "historical" novel--of any era--where one or more lead characters are completely invented by the author, it's usually a sign of trouble ahead.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje! My heart sank a few pages in when I realised The Irishman William Wild Who Is An Irishman And Irish was going to be the main character. Dammit, it's marketed as a novel about Ed and Piers!!! I read the last few pages again yesterday and saw that he's made Piers blond - cannot imagine that.

Carla, I didn't hear it on BAB, unfortunately - my mother phoned to tell me it was on as she knew I'd be interested in an Ed II novel, but I don't think she listened to it. I bet they left out the 'noisily b*ggered' bit. :-)

Thanks, Bryan. David Pownall has (apparently; I'd never heard of him before, I have to admit) a good reputation as a writer, so I was expecting the novel to be much better. I've written quite a lot of Ed II fiction myself which I hope will be a completed novel sometime before the end of the century (!!) - but as you say, it's really hard work, and I don't often have the time to dedicate myself to it as much as I'd like.

Queen Echo, quite agree that's going waaaaay too far. I found that one a pretty bizarre novel, all round. What the heck was all that with Piers setting his dogs on (Corbett, I think)??

Thanks, Undine! I'd put the novel into the 'Life's too short when there are so many great books out there' category, I'm afraid. (Although two people on Amazon UK evidently disagree with me.) I definitely agree with you about the invented characters! Oh, one exception I've just remembered: Valerie Anand's quartet of books set in 11th-century England, which features the Godwinsons, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror etc mixed with fictional characters who play important roles, but IMHO it works brilliantly. Very hard to do well though, and too often, it fails.

Kate S said...

I can see sound sense in making Piers blond - in case he has to father Edward III after all! :)))

Kathryn Warner said...

*big grin* :-))

Ragged Staff said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the comment about invented characters. The only HF book I've read where that's done successfully is We Speak No Treason - here the OCs don't even have names and are very much there as vehicles to tell the story *not* wish fulfillment characters (though the Maiden could be accused of that). I try to avoid all novels of this type, whatever era they're set.

Kathryn Warner said...

Completely agree about the wish fulfilment issue, Ragged Staff - these fictional characters often come across to me as author inserts, the dreaded Mary-Sues/Marty-Stus!

Miss Moppet said...

Thanks for the review, Kathryn. This is eligible for the Royal Mistress Challenge (which includes male favourites) so I'll add it to the list but I'll also link to your post so people know what to expect!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Miss Moppet - I appreciate you adding the link!

chetannarayan said...

The British Royal family and not Hitler should be historically accused of commiting the most heinous atrocities against human beings across the world and killing the most number of people!

There is nothing royal about them and the present ones Charles, Harry and Edward should hang their heads in shame for what their forefathers did.

And yes, in this globalized world, no on really cares who their father was, they are irrelevant!