30 April, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (1): 'Gaveston' by Chris Hunt

Beginning an occasional feature, where I review a novel of Edward II's reign. The first one is Gaveston by Chris Hunt, published by the Gay Men's Press in 1992, 309 pages.

The novel is narrated by Edward in the first person, dictated to his Fool, Robert, in 1322. The first few pages tell the story of Edward's boyhood and adolescence, spent mostly at Langley with his five elder sisters, in the shadow of his great and terrible father Edward I. On Edward's fourteenth birthday in 1298, he meets Piers Gaveston, who has been placed in his household by Edward's father. This marks the start of a passionate, doomed love affair, which is the main focus of the novel. Finally, Gaveston is murdered by several of Edward's barons, and the last forty pages or so detail Edward's grief and thirst for revenge, as well as his subsequent relationships with Hugh Audley, Roger Damory and especially Hugh Despenser. There are many explicit sex scenes in the novel.

Gaveston is, for the most part, extremely well-written. The moment when Edward first sees and falls in love with Gaveston is exquisite and touching, and bears repeated reading. Piers Gaveston comes vividly to life, beautiful, dazzling, strong, and Edward's love for him suffuses every page. Gaveston, to his credit, reciprocates Edward's love in full measure. There are many passages in the novel I read over and over again in pleasure at their poetry and lyricism. Edward's appalling grief when Gaveston is killed is extremely moving.

The novel is superbly well-researched. I could hardly be more impressed, and have so far been unable to find any historical inaccuracies in it, at least regarding characters, dates and chronology. Just about the only error I've found: Hunt makes Hugh Despenser the Younger the same age as Edward, when in fact he was several years younger. As errors go, it's hardly a major one! Hunt even realises that the Gilbert de Clare who lived in Edward's household when he was Prince of Wales was not the Earl of Gloucester, as assumed as almost every other novelist and historian, but his cousin of the same name, Lord of Thomond (who incidentally was the first husband of Hugh Despenser the Younger's sister Isabel).

Chris Hunt has a real talent for description. The early fourteenth century comes to life in well-chosen and interesting details which teach the reader a great deal about the period, but never swamp the narrative. We learn about festivals and rituals, banquets, clothes, buildings and many other things, and Hunt clearly did a lot of research on Edward's hobbies of digging, building, thatching and so on. The overall impression is one of a highly competent writer completely in control of his material.

Hunt, perhaps understandably in a gay novel, ignores the existence of Edward and Gaveston's illegitimate children (see here and here for my posts about them). As the existence of their legitimate children can't be ignored in the same way, he is forced to have Edward and Piers consummate their marriages, though this happens 'off-screen'.

Edward and Piers Gaveston are, of course, the main characters. Edward's first cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, is another major character, and plays a very interesting role here. In the first part of the novel, before Edward meets Gaveston, Lancaster is in lust with his young cousin and wishes to be his lover. Edward loses interest as soon as he meets Gaveston and rejects Lancaster, who is furious and never forgives them. He also lusts after Gaveston (as do a lot of the men in the novel, come to think of it)
Historically I find this extremely unlikely. Lancaster is known to have had a host of mistresses, and 'defouled a great multitude of women and gentle wenches' according to one of the chroniclers. In the novel, however, I think it works. Lancaster's sexual jealousy adds another dimension to his difficult relationship with Edward and provides a reason for him to want to destroy Gaveston. Lancaster - the historical one - was originally a supporter of Edward, but in 1308 moved against him and gradually became the leader of the opposition to the king, for reasons which remain obscure. In this novel at least, his opposition makes a lot of sense.

Some of the characterisation is not so impressive. As a woman, I'm rather annoyed by the lack of female characters in the novel - they appear, but rarely say anything. I realise it's a gay novel, but I don't see why the women should have to be so silent. Margaret de Clare, Edward's niece and Piers' wife, appears many times but doesn't get a single line of dialogue. Elizabeth and Joan, two of Edward's sisters, get a couple of lines each, and so does his stepmother Queen Margaret. Queen Isabella gets a few more scenes, but is a very unsympathetic character whom Edward dislikes, belittles and ignores.

The love between Edward and Piers, while beautiful, unfortunately starts to grate after several hundred pages. Sometimes, I found myself wanting to shake Edward for being unable to get Piers' 'arse' out of his head for more than about ten seconds. The king too often comes across as a lovesick boy, unable to think about anything or anyone else, neglecting his duties. It makes him seem selfish too. In1307, Edward marries his 14-year-old niece Margaret de Clare (called Meg here) to Piers, to bring his lover into the royal family. Piers leaves Meg on their wedding night and spends it instead wrapped in Edward's arms. This struck me as extremely callous and cruel, especially as neither man gives the poor girl a second thought. If they'd thought of her, they would have seemed much more sympathetic. Something along the lines of 'poor Meg, we must be hurting her, but we love each other so much we can't bear to spend even one night apart' would have made them more likeable. As it is, they come across as selfish and thoughtless, and I found myself not liking them very much, in this scene and a few others.

If they'd cared about other people, I would have cared about them more. After a while, I started to get really irritated by Edward. He cares about nothing and no-one except himself and Gaveston. We hear of his children, but never see them - except briefly when young Edward is born in 1312 - or Edward being a father. A few weeks before Gaveston's death, Edward magnanimously allows his wife Meg (and baby daughter Joan) to briefly say goodbye to him, before taking Gaveston off to the garden by himself to kiss him and tell him how much he adores him. I wanted to slap him for this piece of selfishness.

Unfortunately, Gaveston drags horribly in the middle. Gaveston was exiled twice by Edward's barons (in addition to his exile by Edward I) and Hunt describes the political machinations in detail both times. Frankly, it gets rather repetitive. The novel continues for a few pages after Gaveston's death, and continues to 1322. We see Edward getting revenge on Thomas of Lancaster for his role in Gaveston's death. His relationships with Roger Damory and, more significantly, Hugh Despenser are briefly covered. Although the novel is titled Gaveston, I would have liked to see more on Edward's later life and less on every twist and turn in the period 1307-1312. Either that, or the novel should have ended with Gaveston's death. As it is, the last few pages seem rushed.

The ending is ambiguous. Edward is joyous that he has avenged Gaveston and brought Despenser back from exile. He thinks that all will be well. The Fool, Robert, narrates the last paragraph and sounds a note of caution. He sees what Edward cannot: that Despenser is with Edward for ambition, not love, and that Isabella is not the irrelevance that Edward thinks she is.

In conclusion, this novel is well worth a read for anyone interested in the story of Edward II and Gaveston. You might want to skip a few dozen pages in the middle, though.


Anonymous said...

Great review Alianore. I can really see where you're coming from when you say that if the author had have made Ed and Piers give even the briefest thought to 'Meg' they would have appeared more sympathetic. I mean, I know it's a gay novel, but gay men have hearts! It's a shame he goes into the political machinations in such detail though - I always feel things like that aren't as important in a novel as they would be in a non fiction book. Still, the fact that you couldn't find a major error speaks volumes - there's not many historical novels one can say that about!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Correct historical background and gay sex - what's not to like. *grin*

I'll mark that one for future purchase.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I was especially impressed by the fact that Hunt got his Gilbert de Clares straight (no pun intended)!

I also liked the way Hunt allowed Edward's fool to get a gentle jibe in now and then--it added a perspective lacking in Edward now and then.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, there's quite a bit of gentle humour in the novel, which I liked. You don't often get that in Edward II novels!

BTW, when I wrote the post, I assumed that Chris Hunt was a man. I've since seen a couple of websites that say she's a woman!

Sarah Johnson said...

Alianore, thanks for this review - very interesting! It sounds like Edward's fool (as is typical for fools!) is wiser than anyone gives him credit for. I think I have a copy of this novel somewhere around here... this sounds like a good opportunity to dig it out.

I see on Amazon that Chris Hunt has written another historical about the court of James I, but I don't know as much about that period.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Sarah! Yes, I saw on Amazon that Chris Hunt has written a few other historical novels, too. Off the top of my head, there's 'The Bisley Boy' and 'Street Lavender' as well as a couple of others. I haven't read them, though. If s/he (??) has done as much research for the others as for this one, I'd imagine they're pretty good.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I thought Chris was a man, too, but I'm not surprised it turns out she's a woman. Most slash writers are. ;)

Aricia Gavriel said...

Very good review of what I remember as a "difficult" novel ... vast amounts of research and a real "feel" for the time, place, subject -- and the gay aspect ... but it got to be hard going in places, for someone who's not really into polics even of our current era!

Chris Hunt is always a good read. Her stories focus on PEOPLE. I do agree 100% that her Edward and Piers are terribly self-centered. I have a strong suspicion this is how she came to visualize them after doing the months' or years' worth of research needed to make the novel so believable!

I haven't read GAVESTON in years, but I remember thinking at one point, "Damn, these guys are so selfish" ... and I think, actulally, this is the impression Chris wanted to give. She's too good a writer to "miss" that aspect of the narrative -- ie., it was done by mistake.

I have three all-time favorite gay historical novels, and one is by Chris Hunt, and the other two are by Mel Keegan -- who, oddly enough, was a contemporary of Hunt's at GMP, way back in the 1990s. My favorites are Street Lavender (GMP); Dangerous Moonlight (DreamCraft); and Fortunes of War (GMP), in no specific order. Depends what I feel like on the day!

Thanks for this review! I'm putting together a blog on old favorite gay novels from long ago, and to be honest, I'd forgotten GAVESTON! Got to dig it out and reread it. Soon.

Best wishes,

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Aricia. Yes, Chris is such a talented writer I'm sure she intended to portray Ed and Piers as thoughtlessly selfish, rather than it coming across inadvertently. (I've expressed that really badly, but hope you get what I mean.) Gaveston is the only novel of hers I've read, but I would like to try the others - agh, so many books, so little time! ;) I have heard of Mel Keegan, but haven't read any - thanks for the tip.

BTW, I've put in a link to your blog in the sidebar, in the 'Blogs I Read' bit.

Hope you enjoy your re-read of Gaveston! The research really is terrific, absolutely spot-on. I've never read another Ed II novel (and I've read a LOT) that's so fantastically historically accurate. Bravo, Chris.

Best wishes, A.

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, forgot to add - if you can get hold of a copy of Brenda Honeyman's The King's Minions, which I reviewed a few months ago (link on the left) I highly recommend it. Gorgeous portrayal of two men (Ed and Piers) in love. The sequel, The Queen and Mortimer, is pretty damn good too, with a very interesting take on Ed's relationship with Hugh Despenser.

RuthC said...

The scene where Edward learns of Piers' death always struck me as so very very believable - him at first almost numb with shock and then sending outsiders away and then the storm of grief.

The ending is almost as heartbreaking, with Edward cheerfully thinking all is well and Robert being in a way "our" viewpoint - Robert fears, and we KNOW, that things will end in tragedy because Despenser is not Piers and Isabella has been too badly (if unthinkingly so) treated.