Isabella, Braveheart of France, novel, published by Cool Gus Publishing in September 2013, 218 pages.
"Do you know what it is to have someone who understands your very soul? This love your minstrels sing of, must it always be a knight and a lady? Who made this law? Was it God? Then God is a trickster, for there is no one else will do for me."
The novel is narrated in the present tense in close third person, entirely from Isabella's point of view, and begins just before Isabella's wedding to Edward II in January 1308 (as novels about her invariably do). I'm not really a fan of present tense in fiction, usually, but here it worked fine for me, more or less. The chapters are short and the writing style somewhat terse and dispassionate, which I liked, though I've seen reviews of the novel on Amazon and Goodreads which find it choppy and distant. I don't like the title at all, but at least the subject of the novel is made clear to the many people who've seen the film Braveheart, I suppose.
Novels about Edward II and Isabella of France generally fall into two groups. The larger category is sympathetic to Isabella and paints Edward as a horrible abusive cruel husband, often a grotesque caricature of a gay man who 'snivels' and stamps his foot frequently and 'insults' Isabella and her femininity by being attracted to men (as though he chose his sexuality on purpose to hurt her, for pity's sake). The smaller category is more concerned with Edward's relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, and reduces Isabella to an improbably irrelevant cipher. It's tiresome to me, the way so many writers - both of fiction and non-fiction - are so unable or unwilling to write both Edward and Isabella as rounded, sympathetic characters, and instead somehow feel that the only way to create reader sympathy for and interest in Isabella is to make Edward one-dimensionally awful. So it was extremely refreshing to read Colin Falconer's novel, which portrays both of them as real, flawed people, likable in many ways.
Isabella throughout the novel yearns for great love, is envious of her husband for finding it with Piers Gaveston, and wishes more than anything that he loved her as much as he loves Piers. In the hands of a lesser writer, her relationship with Roger Mortimer would of course fill this gap, and that's what I was expecting to find, as I have in pretty well every other novel ever written about Isabella. This generally seems to require Mortimer to be written as the antithesis of Horrid Gay Edward, the anti-Edward, as it were. Colin Falconer is a far more skilled and subtle writer than that, however. Fans of the Isabella and Roger Twu Wuv Forever school of thought are probably not going to like this one, but Falconer's take on their relationship is much more in line with the way I see it myself. The way he writes Edward and Isabella's own relationship is also gratifyingly different from the same old, same old I've read time and again. Even as late as 1327, Isabella finds herself wanting to throw her glass of wine into Edward's face when he tells her that Piers was his great love and his madness, and a jealous Isabella, even after nineteen years, still can't bear to hear it - this conversation is my favourite scene in the novel. Edward is honest with his wife about his limitations and tells her that he loves and honours her as much as he is capable of. This rings true to me and I thoroughly enjoyed Falconer's portrayal of Edward and Isabella's complex and nuanced relationship, far more interesting and plausible than the usual rubbish that their marriage was nothing but a disaster from start to finish. I genuinely think that Edward II (the real Edward, not the fictional character) did love Isabella in his way, not in the intense, passionate, obsessive, you-will-be-with-me-till-I-die way he loved Piers Gaveston - to the point of madness as Falconer suggests, perhaps - but as much as he was able to, and I also believe that Isabella loved Edward. Piers loves Edward too, here. The scene in Braveheart of France where Isabella witnesses Edward's reaction to Piers' death in 1312, where he literally keels over in the mud with grief, is genuinely moving. So is the scene near the beginning where a twelve-year-old Isabella falls in love with Edward at first sight at their wedding, or at least believes that she does: "He is tall, and blue eyed, and smiles at her with such easy charm it makes her blush. It is love at first sight...She closes her eyes and imagines him. He is hers. Her father was right, she is fortunate. He is beautiful, he is a king and he is all hers." Given that Isabella is shortly to find out that this perfect man is already deeply in love with another man, I find that poignant.
The novel ends shortly after Edward's death in 1327, when Isabella rejoices that after almost twenty years she has her husband's heart to herself at last, quite literally. There's a short epilogue, which I found very satisfying: I don't want to give it away, but Colin Falconer doesn't follow the traditional line of what happened to the former king in 1327. Shame that there's no author's note at the end to explain what happened to Roger Mortimer and Isabella and perhaps to provide further reading on the whole subject, a definite, albeit small, criticism I have of the novel. I did find myself liking and admiring Isabella a lot in this one, and I like Edward a lot in it too. Often in novels, I can't stand either of them.
I'm always delighted to find a book (fiction or non-fiction) about Edward II and Isabella that doesn't use Edward's non-heterosexuality as a cheap way of creating sympathy for the queen. It would of course be weird and anachronistic to portray everyone in the early fourteenth century as accepting of Edward's sexuality, that's not my issue, it's that some authors seem to share fourteenth-century prejudices and expect their readers to do so as well, by constantly describing Edward as unnatural and perverted because he loves men. Some books about Edward II, fiction and non-fiction, make me deeply uncomfortable. (I'm not going to mention them here and give them any publicity, so if you'd like to know which ones I mean, drop me an email.) There's absolutely none of that here, and Edward's love of men is handled sympathetically. And let's face it, an author only has to make Edward II's children really his children rather than some other random bloke's to make me want to weep with gratitude.
Colin Falconer clearly did his homework for the novel, which included reading my blog and taking my research and ideas on board (he kindly emailed me a few months ago to let me know). I appreciate his fairness to Edward. Some small errors remain, such as Roger Mortimer saying that he has a daughter of Isabella's own age - in fact he was only about eight years older than the queen - and Hugh Despenser the Younger being older than Edward, but nothing major and nothing which ruined my enjoyment or jolted me out of the story. There are some nice flashes of humour: I loved the bit about Hugh Despenser the Younger and his wife Eleanor where Isabella imagines that Hugh keeps a ledger of every time they have intercourse and holds Eleanor to account for all the occasions that don't result in pregnancy.
In short, I really enjoyed Isabella, Braveheart of France, and would definitely recommend it. It's not a novel that's going to appeal to fans of the highly romanticised modern take on Isabella and Roger Mortimer, however, or to people who want to believe all the silly myths about Edward II which are currently popular, but I find it far more accurate and plausible than all but a handful of other Edward II and Isabella of France novels, and in its rather dry way it's a touching take on the complex and difficult relationships between these complex and fascinating people. It's a thousand times better than the caricatured nonsense full of thinly-veiled prejudice masquerading as fiction I've so often read about Edward II, and my beloved king emerges as his deeply flawed, unconventional, capricious self without any tedious author moralising or ill-disguised contempt.