12 April, 2012

Novel Review: The Vows Of The Peacock

Author, Alice Walworth Graham; published in 1955 by Eyre and Spottiswoode.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Elisabeth (spelt with a 's' for some reason) Beauchamp, one of the daughters of Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick - the man who abducted Piers Gaveston in June 1312 - and Alice Toeni.  Elisabeth is selected in early 1308 to be one of the companions of Isabella, the new queen of England, when she (Elisabeth) is said to be a little younger than the queen and eleven years old, which would place her birth in 1296 or early 1297. The immediate problem with this is that Earl Guy and Alice didn't actually marry until 1309; Alice's first husband Thomas Leyburne, father of her daughter Juliana, died in the summer of 1307.  So the choice of narrator is somewhat odd.  Perhaps fifty-odd years ago it was assumed that Guy and Alice's marriage had taken place much earlier than it did.  Anyway, it gives the author a narrator close to Isabella and Edward II who can see and report on the events and personalities of his reign, though (as sometimes happens when writers choose first-person narrators, especially female ones) events are often reported to her afterwards rather than her experiencing them personally, which can make the narrative seem distant and uninvolving, particularly when the battle of Bannockburn and Edward III's arrest of Roger Mortimer in 1330 are explained to Elisabeth at rather tedious length after they happen.

The novel is extremely descriptive and contains little action; it's a pretty traditional re-telling of Edward II's reign, beginning with Isabella's arrival in England in 1308 and ending - as Edward II novels almost invariably do - with the arrest of Roger Mortimer in October 1330.  The novel's title refers to Edward and Isabella's long visit to the court of her father Philip IV in 1313, when the royals swore vows to, variously, go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, defeat Robert Bruce once and for all, promote good relations between England and France, and so forth.  Much of the novel is about Elisabeth's marriage to Thomas Astley, and it often feels as though the real story is happening elsewhere while she talks about feasts and hunts and spending time with her in-laws and the endless minutiae of her daily life.  (The couple didn't actually marry until the 1330s, and at least one of their children lived into the 1400s.)  Piers Gaveston barely appears, except to sneer at the queen and Elisabeth in very sneery fashion, and is described as 'graceless' and 'of low birth', which doesn't sound like the Piers I know.  The narrative moves so fast that one minute we're in 1308, then suddenly it's 1312 and Piers is dead, then we're in 1314 and Edward loses at Bannockburn, and a few pages later it's suddenly 1321.  Edward II is at first described as extremely handsome, but he soon 'loses his youth' and gains a 'thickened' body and features, and is kind of gross and overweight.  (Yes, the sporty athletic Edward II who spent a lot of time outdoors swimming and digging and so on.)  He's contrasted unfavourably with the very manly and wonderful Roger Mortimer, with whom Elisabeth is obsessed, who is often talked about in the narrative off doing very manly and wonderful things in Ireland and elsewhere while Edward II drinks and behaves pettishly and very little else.  Isabella is a far more complex character than her husband, depicted sympathetically though not uncritically.  She despises her husband - not surprising, given the way Walworth Graham has written Edward as astonishingly dislikeable - and falls madly in love or lust with Mortimer.  In this novel, you can see why, and they're described several times as lions, fierce, 'snarling and snatching'.  Edward, Hugh Despenser, Piers Gaveston, Thomas of Lancaster, in fact all the characters apart from Isabella, Roger Mortimer and the weirdly too-old Elisabeth Beauchamp, are enigmas, barely characterised beyond the absolute basics.


Vows of the Peacock is another of those novels that have to describe Isabella's beauty constantly, which gets really dull (at least for me).  None of the other women, except Elisabeth herself, are attractive: Piers Gaveston's wife Margaret de Clare, for instance, is called 'blowsy' and 'florid' in 1308, with breasts that are already starting to sag.  Poor Margaret, fourteen years old and already looking like a forty-year-old.  Her sister Eleanor is a barely even one-dimensional 'sheep of a woman', and - groooooooooooan - Edward II arranges her marriage to Hugh Despenser in or after 1321 (it's hard to get a sense of the correct date in the narrative), a mere fifteen years too late.  Walworth Graham appears confused about the age of the de Clare siblings, and says that the earl of Gloucester was not yet eighteen at the time of his death at Bannockburn - actually he was twenty-three - and yet describes his sister Margaret as already middle-aged shortly after her marriage to Piers a few years earlier.  The novel is reasonably accurate historically, although Edward II's sister Joan of Acre is still alive at the time of her daughter Margaret's marriage to Piers, and Margaret's second marriage to Hugh Audley has already taken place in 1313, four years too early.  Henry of Lancaster's wife Maud Chaworth appears unaware that she is Hugh Despenser the Younger's half-sister, while Henry himself and his brother Thomas are unaware that they are Isabella's uncles.  (In fairness, a lot of writers have missed that, including someone who gained her doctorate writing about Isabella.)  Did the English nobility in the 1300s really still think of themselves as solely 'Norman' and the rest of the English as 'Saxons', and the English language as 'barbarous'?

Vows of the Peacock overall is a reasonably good read if you find a copy, though the narrative manages at once to be too slow and endlessly descriptive, and too fast, by skating over most of the major events of the reign.  There's a great deal about daily life in the fourteenth century, which some readers will certainly enjoy, though anyone looking for an in-depth historical study and character-driven fiction will probably be disappointed.

14 comments:

Undine said...

I've never understood why writers of historical fiction are so fond of using minor characters as narrators. I suppose they're trying to bring a "unique perspective" to the story, but--as you indicated in your review--the reader usually winds up feeling the actual novel is taking place just out of view, and you're left feeling rather cheated.

Although I suppose that with books as silly as this one sounds, that's just as well.

Kathryn Warner said...

Agree, Undine. It can be very problematic, either for the reason we state, and also because, if the narrator is present for every major historical event of the time, it can feel very implausible and oh-how-convenient. It's a rare novel that mixes fictional characters with real people and actually feels 'right' to me (not counting walk-on parts, of course, only major fictional characters). Two that do it really well, IMHO, are Valerie Anand's Gildenford and The Norman Pretender, set between 1036 and 1066. There's another Edward II novel which is narrated by his Fool, but I can't for the life of me remember what it's like and whether I enjoyed it or not. (Which is probably telling, as if it worked well, I'd most likely remember it.)

Undine said...

Margaret George wrote a novel about Henry VIII narrated by his "fool," Will Somers, that worked quite well. Of course, she had Somers quoting very long passages from Henry's "secret diary," which I suppose could be called cheating. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Funnily enough, that novel occurred to me too after I posted the comment! ;)

Anerje said...

Haven't come across this novel before. Thanks for blogging about it. Piers Gaveston sneering, I can cope with (he does it in every novel practically!), but graceless?! Even chroniclers of the time describe him as graceful and well-mannered, and hence a suitable companion for Prince Edward. And as Piers is often sneering, Mortimer is just soooo manly! And Isa so beautiful....And Ed weak and at his cups. All so predictable, eh?

Kathryn Warner said...

Exactly, Anerje! He's said to be graceless, and on the rare occasions he appears is just rude and unpleasant. It's very hard to see why Edward loves him so much. Roger Mortimer and Isabella are physically described numerous times.

Elizabeth said...

I remember reading this book and I also was annoyed by how beautiful Isabella was - I hope some author dares to put a freckle (oh my!) on her one of these days. God forbid, maybe a pimple! My one serious contribution to this would be to ask you if maybe the spelling of Elizabeth with an 's' could be in favor of the Beauchamp French ancestry? Perhaps that is getting too involved for this book?

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Elizabeth - so glad I wasn't the only one who felt like that! :) It gets so tedious to have this perfectly amazingly beautiful Isabella in novels all the time. You could be right about the 's'! ;

Anerje said...

It doesn't matter how beautiful Isa was - she just wasn't Edward's type ;> But it is so annoying - it's like 'how dare he not fall in love with her! She's just too beautiful not to!'

Kathryn Warner said...

I sense indignation among some of Isabella's fans towards Edward for not falling madly in love with her. As though physical beauty is the only criterion for falling in love! And I also wonder if her beauty is overstated - English chronicles don't mention it - only a French poem about her and Edward's trip to France in 1313.

Gabriele C. said...

Now I have an imagie of Mortimer touching Isa's freckles, one by one. "This is land and of the earl of X and this the estate of the baron Y, and look, here we have the manor of Z .... darling, I love those freckles of yours."

And Isa swoons with pleasure about his manly playfulness and gives him all those lands. :D

Kathryn Warner said...

Hehehe! I soooo have to write that scene. :-)

Jo S said...

I read and re-read this book as a teenager and have loved it in memory as well as fact. I am sure there are inaccuracies but somehow for me that is not an issue. I have read many books since about the period so have a fairly good idea of the true facts, It makes no difference to my love of this book. In fact have just taken my copy of the shelf to lend to my 12 year old daughter.
Jo S

Kathryn Warner said...

I understand that, Jo! There are novels I really like too, even if they're not historically accurate.