29 October, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (7): 'The She-Wolf' by Pamela Bennetts

Published by Robert Hale in 1975, 205 pages. It's currently available from Amazon UK for the princely sum of 1p!

Most unusually for an Edward II novel, The She-Wolf opens in 1325, shortly before Edward sends Isabella to France to negotiate with her brother Charles IV over the Gascon situation. It closes just after Edward III's successful coup against his mother and Roger Mortimer in late 1330.

Pamela Bennetts has an excellent understanding of the politics and general comings and goings of Edward II's reign, although sometimes she uses infodumps in the narrative to get the point across. Also, the late opening of the novel requires a lot of flashbacks in the first chapter to see Piers Gaveston, and the fact that falling in love with men is a pattern of Edward's behaviour. However, these are minor criticisms; the dialogue and characterisation are uniformly excellent.

I've never read another Edward II novel where Queen Isabella is so unsympathetic - the title is highly appropriate! Much of The She-Wolf is seen through the eyes of Isabella's attendants, who slowly come to realise that the sweet, suffering woman they adore is in fact - not to put too fine a point on it - a complete bitch, calculating, manipulative and so full of anger and hatred that she's almost abnormal. Even Roger Mortimer, who's also described as almost insane with ambition and bitterness, is frightened at what he unleashes. Isabella watches the execution of the younger Despenser and regrets that he doesn't last longer and suffer more. She is completely indifferent to her husband's murder, and the execution of her brother-in-law Kent. And yet, the reader can't help but feel sorry for her, at least in the earlier part of the novel. She genuinely yearned for Edward when they first married, and felt unclean at the thought of his relationship with Gaveston. Her frustrated love is warped and twisted until she feels nothing but hatred and contempt for her husband, and her relationship with Mortimer has nothing sweet or tender about it - it's based on lust and control.

Mortimer and Isabella are masters of propaganda here - even Isabella's reunion with her younger children in Bristol in October 1326 is stage-managed in front of a crowd to increase their sympathy for a woman deprived of her children by her heartless husband, and Mortimer only pretends to care that his wife and own children have been imprisoned, because it gives him a stronger reason to take revenge on the king and Despenser. Even Mortimer doesn't trust Isabella completely.

Edward II himself is reasonably sympathetic. At the start of the novel, he and Isabella utterly detest one another - they speak honeyed words to each other in public, while wanting to spit at and slap each other. It's a lovely portrayal of a marriage that's gone as wrong as a marriage possibly could. Although Isabella chooses to believe otherwise, and spreads vicious rumours about them, he and Hugh Despenser are not lovers here. Edward loves Despenser, but only because Despenser supports him and takes on the burden of ruling, which Edward doesn't want.

Edward III, after his father's murder - by the usual method - realises that the only way he will survive and overcome Mortimer is to bide his time, and copy his mother in hiding his true feelings and his true nature, and pretending to be meek and biddable.

In conclusion, this short novel is well worth a read, with excellent characterisation and genuine suspense near the end, as the reader wonders whether Edward III will be successful in his coup against Isabella and Mortimer - even while knowing that, historically, he was. But it's definitely not a novel for anyone who believes the recently popular 'Isabella has been unfairly maligned by history' theory!


Gabriele Campbell said...

That sounds like a much more realistical portrait than some I've come across recently, including a certain PhD theses that better remains unnamed. :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great review! This is one of my favorites too.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I don't know where Blogger dug up my old ID from!

Kathryn Warner said...

Blogger is being seriously weird these days - wish they'd get rid of the bugs in the Beta thing.

Agree, Gabriele - and I noticed recently that said nameless PhD thesis is no longer online!

Personally, I find the Isabella depicted here, furious, vengeful and unrepentant, far more interesting and believable than the milk and water version you often read, being overruled by the men around her and suffering nobly and prettily.

Word verif - fmunthf - the sound Edward II made as he was suffocated at Berkeley?? :)

Carla said...

"Personally, I find the Isabella depicted here, furious, vengeful and unrepentant, far more interesting and believable than the milk and water version you often read, being overruled by the men around her and suffering nobly and prettily."
Hear hear to that!

Gabriele Campbell said...

the normal Blogger is even weirder than the Beta version. I got so pissed this weekend that I asked my brother to check if there's really a security risk - as my firewall kept telling me - and he said it's only a bug and I could change to Beta. What I did.

Now, if Beta only would let us stay logged in ....

Eric Avebury said...

But why read all these novels, when there are works that are based on the sources. Maybe you have reviewed Natalie Fryde The tyranny and fall of Edward II, CUP 1979, and Roy Martin Haines, King Edward II; his life, reign and its aftermath, 1284-1330, in some previous post? There can be no doubt that by the time he was deposed, Edward was even more unpopular than Mr Blair is now, and that was the reason why Isabella and Mortimer had an easy time when they invaded.

Kathryn Warner said...

Eric, I'm focusing on novels for now. Non-fiction reviews will come later. This blog is aimed more at a lay audience than Edward II experts, so I decided that reviews of novels would be more appealing. However, I do intend to eventually write posts about the Fryde and Haines books on Edward, as well as a few others.

And yet again, Beta drives me crazy by making me sign in 3 times...grr.