20 July, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (5): 'The Queen and Mortimer' by Brenda Honeyman

Published in 1974, this novel is, unfortunately, rather hard to find these days, and is currently unavailable on both Amazon UK and Amazon US. That's a shame, because it's well worth a read.

The most appealing feature of the novel for me is that all the main characters - Edward II, Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer and Hugh Despenser - are portrayed very sympathetically, not something you find very often in Edward II novels. The characterisation is almost uniformly excellent. I didn't spot any glaring historical inaccuracies, except the story that Honeyman uses about Edward's murder: that Adam Orleton, Bishop of Hereford, suggests sending a letter in Latin ('Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est') to Edward's captors, that could either read 'Edward kill, not to fear the deed is good' or Edward kill not, to fear the deed is good', so that Isabella and Mortimer can remain free of suspicion in ordering Edward murdered. This story has been comprehensively discredited, and Orleton wasn't even in England at the time.

The Queen and Mortimer begins in 1318, and covers the main events of the second half of Edward's reign and the opening years of Edward III's reign, ending with the downfall of Isabella and Mortimer in 1330 (as Edward II novels almost invariably do). The complex politics of Edward II's reign are described in just enough detail, so that the reader understands the background, but are never allowed to swamp the narative, which focuses mainly on the relationships between the four main characters.

Perhaps surprisingly, there's almost no interaction between Edward and Isabella - there isn't a single scene in the novel where they appear alone together. Edward's attitude to his wife is never explored. Honeyman does examine Isabella's feelings for Edward, however. By 1318, she is intensely frustrated and comes to feel 'nothing but hatred and contempt' for him. However, he had once been a 'most satisfactory lover', even if their love had remained purely physical, and Edward had for a long time 'exercised a fascination for her in no way diminished by his sexual practices'. On the first page of the novel, Isabella remembers how happy she once was to be married to Edward, until she discovered that she was married to a 'sexually perverted husband'.

That is clearly Isabella's opinion, however, not Honeyman's, and I was pleased to see how sympathetic she is to Edward and his feelings for other men. Shortly before he and Hugh Despenser are captured in 1326, Edward remembers that 'from his adolescence on...he had been persecuted because he did not conform; because he was different; because he would not pretend to be something other than he was, a man who loved men.' The depiction of his relationship with Hugh is quite different from anything I've seen in other novels. Edward refuses to consummate his relationship with Hugh (a fact of which Isabella is perfectly well aware) because his 'deep and abiding love for Gaveston...precluded Edward's total giving of himself to any other man.' Hugh is lovesick, longing to make love with Edward, and sexually jealous both of Isabella and Piers Gaveston. Their relationship is stormy, and they often struggle for mastery. Finally, in 1323, they consummate it, in a lovely passage:

Edward could not say why he was about to betray the memory of Piers, to which he had remained faithful for so long...There was beauty in the world; why should he not have his share?
"Love me," he murmured, kissing his friend's lips. "Love me."

Tender and lovely.

Unfortunately for Isabella, now that Edward is 'blissfully fulfilled', he becomes totally indifferent to her needs, and Hugh becomes even more jealous of her, a jealousy which enormously increases his animosity towards her and causes him to work against her by depriving her of her estates and trying to petition the Pope for the annulment of the royal marriage. Isabella longs to take a lover, but dares not - at least, until she meets Roger Mortimer in Paris in late 1325.

Roger is attractively portrayed as energetic, vigorous, strong and ambitious. He is disgusted by Edward, but doesn't contemplate moving against the king until 1321, when he feels that Edward's actions give him no choice. Unusually for an Edward II novel, Isabella here plays no role in helping him escape from the Tower in 1323, and in fact she is almost unaware of his existence until 1325, when she dances with him in Paris and falls in love. Roger, too, has fallen in love with Isabella, a woman he had always been indifferent to. Unaware that Isabella feels the same way towards him, he attempts to begin an affair with another woman, until one day he and Isabella admit their feelings for each other. 'For now, she had no wish, no thought, no need but to give herself completely to this man whom she had coveted for so many weeks'.

Finally, Isabella comes to realise that she has little choice but to depose her husband, and execute the hated Despensers. She has inner conflict over her actions, though; after the execution of the younger Despenser - whom she detests, with good reason - she is frightened by her 'flight into barbarism' and terrified by the blood-lust she believes she has inherited from her father Philip IV. In 1330, she realises that 'what she had done was evil'. After the execution of her lover Roger, she comes to understand Edward much better: 'To both of them had been given the gifts of greatly loving and being loved...they had both known that fulfilment which only true and abiding love could bring'.

Most of the characterisation in the novel rings true to me. From the beginning, we see Isabella as a highly intelligent, capable woman who is intensely frustrated, both privately and politically. Nevertheless, she finds the strength to break out of her limited role. Edward II has been forced into a role he is unsuited for, but is an extremely likeable man, who is more interested in making a wooden doll for his daughter than in dealing with his rebellious barons in 1321. His key characteristic is his loyalty (although not to his wife...;). In 1326, he has the opportunity to make peace with the invading forces by giving up Hugh Despenser to Isabella and Roger, but he refuses to do it, although he realises that he has never loved Hugh.

Some of the minor characters are very well depicted, too. Shortly before his execution in 1322, Edward's cousin Thomas of Lancaster realises that he is dying for the crime of killing Piers Gaveston, which the king has never forgiven him for. 'And what good had that murder ever done him? Hatred and revenge, as Edward would soon discover, had a habit of going wrong.' Edward III's future wife Philippa appears in one scene, to tell Edward that she believes Isabella and Roger 'are concerned with...with seeking revenge for their own wrongs, not with righting the injustices of the people.' Edward III himself loves his father, but before the invasion he is determined to bring down the Despensers, so that his father can rule properly without his evil counsellors; 'He was too young to realise that the only real wound he could inflict upon the king was to deprive him of his lover.'

In conclusion, The Queen and Mortimer is a lovely little novel, filled with interesting insights. My only criticism is that, at less than 190 pages, it's much too short, and I would have loved to read more. Well worth a read for anyone interested in this period, if you can get hold of a copy.


Susan Higginbotham said...

The characterizations are great here--I really liked the part where Thomas of Brotherton suddenly thinks that he would do anything to save the kingdom from misgovernment, and then just as suddenly realizes that he won't do anything at all. And the writing's sharp here too. I loved this part:

"Flinging the heart [of Robert Bruce] towards the advancing infidels, the dying Earl [of Douglas] gasped: 'Go first, as you have always done!' (Which was just like the Scots, complained the English when they heard about it; always showing off and making gestures! No self-respecting Englishman ever made gestures, except rude ones at foreigners.)"

I'm longing to find the predecessor to this, The King's Minions.

Carla said...

What a shame this isn't in print! If ever I heard an argument for print-on-demand this is it - there are lots of books from only a few decades ago that would probably sell in small but respectable numbers if they were easy to find.

And some humour too. Care to mention that to Sarah J for her post over at Reading the Past?

Kathryn Warner said...

Just done it, Carla! And I agree completely about POD - there are quite a few Edward II novels that are close to impossible to find, that might sell reasonably well given the upsurge of interest in Edward these days.

Susan - yes, the characterisation is great. Many times, I found myself nodding in agreement, and thinking 'yep, that makes a lot of sense.'

Sarah Johnson said...

This does sound like a great novel. Thanks, Alianore! Very funny example, too, from Susan. Too bad this title's not in print any longer.

Forgive me for mentioning this if you know it already, but others of the author's books are still in print. She writes medieval mysteries as Kate Sedley. I haven't read any of them, but if they're just as well-written, they should be worth reading.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Sarah! I knew that Kate Sedley was the pen name of another author, but didn't know who it was, so thanks for the info! I read a couple of Sedley's 'Roger the Chapman' novels, but years ago, so can't really remember them too well. I enjoyed them, though.

I've read another of Honeyman's called Harry the King, about Henry V, but it's not nearly as good as this one.