08 February, 2014

Isabella, Braveheart of France by Colin Falconer: Book Review

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.

16 comments:

Jayne Smith said...

Great review and this is now on my to read list . Thank you Kathryn

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Jayne! It's well worth a read, and very reasonably priced on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review ... it will be in my next order to Amazon

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Hope you enjoy it, Esther!

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Thank you for the recommendation, Kathryn! The title itself can be misleading, though :-) Braveheart of France, hmm...

Deirdre O'Mahony said...

Sounds like a great read! I'll definitely give this a look...thanks for such an interesting & informative review!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the great review, Kathryn. I am looking forward to reading the book, and in particular to seeing how the author handles the relationship between Isabella and Mortimer. I would like to ask you a question on that subject, if it is possible to answer without giving away any spoilers for this book.
In fact (rather than fiction, I mean), how sure can we be that Isabella and Mortimer actually had an affair? Does it make more sense to see their relationship as based on something like political convenience rather than physical attraction (initially at least)? I can’t help thinking that misogynistic medievals might accept the rumours of infidelity at face value and explain the events of 1327-30 just in terms of a woman’s passion being out of control, irrespective of whether the rumours were true or not.
Just a thought anyway, best wishes, Henry

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Henry, it's long been my belief that the relationship between Isabella and Roger was not the passionate love affair of popular legend. There's surprisingly little evidence for such in contemporary chronicles: Adam Murimuth says the two had a 'familiarity' (and says the same thing about Edward and Piers); Lanercost in the 1340s says there was a rumour of a liaison between them; the scurrilous chronicler Geoffrey le Baker in c. 1350 goes a bit further; and many decades later Jean Froissart claimed Isabella was pregnant in 1330 (which is not supported by any other evidence). That's about it. Other chronicles just call Roger Isabella's 'chief counsellor' or even just 'of her faction' and don't seem to have known anything at all about them being lovers.

I think that a lot of people nowadays assume that Edward and Isabella's relationship was nothing but awful and disastrous, then assume that Isabella and Roger's relationship must necessarily have been the exact opposite of that, and write Isabella as though she's a fictional character escaping an unsatisfactory marriage into a wonderfully fulfilling affair. It's become an extremely popular interpretation, but that doesn't make it true.

Myself, I find it impossible to believe that Roger just so conveniently happened to fall madly in love or lust with Isabella in 1326, given the enormous benefits he got out of the relationship, in the same way that I certainly don't believe Hugh Despenser just happened to fall madly in love with Edward II in about 1318. I think first and foremost it was a political alliance between two people who loathed the Despensers and wanted their lands, income and position back, and used each other to get it. For sure they may have fallen in love at some point, they may have slept together, I don't know. But no, I definitely don't think it was a wildly romantic passionate love affair, and it may not even have been sexual. (Maybe Edward's relationship with Hugh wasn't either.)

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, I've been watching the mini series World Without End.I think Edward has been avenged, for this time it's Roger who has been depicted as a "feeble court fop" :-) Just my humble opinion.

P.S. I don't like the series much, although I suspect that Edward survives???? ( I haven't read the novel).

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, I've had that series on DVD for ages and have still only seen a few minutes of it - couldn't get much past the bit at the beginning where it seems to be a battlefield and Edward handing over his crown to his wide ;) I do like that it has him surviving past 1327, but his ultimate fate in the novel/series is deeply weird.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Polish TV has started to show it every Friday night. I've missed two episodes so far, not that i regret it much. It's all highly dramatic and exaggerated (for example Isabella's position and influnce after Mortimer's downfall).

Anonymous said...

Dear Kathryn, Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a detailed answer to my question. That was fascinating stuff! Henry

Anerje said...

Thanks for this review of this refreshing novel!

Kasia - I've watched World Without End - oh dear! is all I can say!

Sami Parkkonen said...

It's about the time some one in the filed of fiction wrote something sensible about the complex man Edward was.

For me the real life event when Edward carried Isabella out from a burning building, when they were both - krhm, less than well dressed-, is a proof that there was more going on between them than many people are willing to admit. He could have let her to die that night, easily, and it would have gone down as accident. That is, if he did not love her.

But what he did? He litterally carried her out from a burning building. Now, honestly, how many of you would/could do the same thing even if you wanted?

chris y said...

Sami - to be fair, there's quite a lot of room between loving somebody and deliberately letting them die in a fire.

Carla said...

Great review. The title would have put me off instantly if I hadn't seen your review. The book sounds very promising - thank you!