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.