28 February, 2011

Book Review: The Darkening Glass by Paul Doherty

The Darkening Glass by Paul Doherty, published in 2009 by Headline Publishing.  This is the third novel in Doherty's murder mystery series featuring Mathilde ('of Westminster'), a French physician who joins the retinue of Isabella of France and travels to England with her when Isabella marries Edward II.  All the novels are narrated in the first person by Mathilde herself in old age, sometime after 1358 (as she mentions that Isabella is dead and - GAH - buried next to Roger Mortimer at the Greyfriars in London.  No, she wasn't!).  The first novel is set at the time of Isabella's marriage and arrival in England in 1308, the second a few months after this as Edward's barons try to get Piers Gaveston exiled, and Darkening Glass in 1312, covering the period of Piers' return from his third exile and his murder.

Darkening Glass is typical Doherty, and no doubt will please his legions of fans with its vivid depictions of fourteenth-century life, glimpses into power politics and a juicy whodunit.  For me, there's too much description in Darkening Glass and in Doherty's novels in general; this is a matter of personal taste, but I find the pace of the novel too slow and I get a strong sense of déjà vu from his previous novels - Doherty seems to recycle a lot of his descriptions of street scenes, clothes, feasts and so on.  I don't want to give away the novel's plot, but much of it hangs on Doherty's theory that Edward II has lost interest in Piers Gaveston, who is bitterly jealous of Isabella's pregnancy and her influence over her husband, aware that he is losing the king's favour, and blackmailing Edward in desperation.  Unfortunately I don't come anywhere close to believing this, so much of the novel didn't ring true to me and therefore I found it very hard to enjoy it.

Doherty's author's note at the end of the novel says that Edward II's reaction to Piers Gaveston's murder was "strangely muted.  He called Gaveston a fool, and only much later did he kindle his angry hatred against the earls....".  That made me blink rapidly.  Edward very nearly went to war against Piers' killers the earls of Lancaster, Warwick and Hereford in the summer of 1312, and the Vita Edwardi Secundi says "having summoned his counsellors, he enquired from them what should be done about these things, although he had already decided to destroy those who had killed Piers."  Other chroniclers comment on Edward's desire for revenge and on the utter rage he felt towards Piers' killers.  Yes, what Edward said in public, as recorded by the Vita, might sound callous - but (assuming the words are accurately recorded) to me they're a sign not of indifference but of deep shock and horror - focusing on how a terrible event can have happened before the trauma of losing a loved one has had time to sink in.  Anyway, actions speak louder than words, and it's perfectly obvious that Edward II adored Piers Gaveston, felt deep grief and rage at his death, yearned for revenge, and cherished Piers' memory for the rest of his reign.  Although Doherty's take on events of 1312 is original and fresh, and his portrayal of Piers' death is moving, it's too far removed from reality for me.

Doherty also claims in his author's note that "Isabella's separation from her husband during the crisis was also very curious, bearing in mind that she was pregnant."  I'm really not sure what he means here.  The queen wasn't separated from her husband for most of the period from mid-February to late June 1312, and was with him at York when he heard of Piers' death on or before 26 June (Alison Weir in her biography of Isabella also misses the fact that the king and queen were together when news came of Piers' murder).  Edward left York for London on 28 June leaving Isabella behind, which strikes me as an entirely sensible, understandable and thoughtful precaution to keep her out of harm's way in the north if he went to war against Piers' killers, not least because she was pregnant.  He summoned her south a few weeks later when the situation had calmed somewhat.  Doherty also claims in the author's note that "Isabella was trapped at Tynemouth and had to fight her way out.  Some chroniclers place this in 1312, others 1323, and others claim that such an escape happened twice."  I don't know of any chroniclers who place this event in 1312 or say that it happened twice; one French chronicle says that she had to escape from Tynemouth in 1322 (not 1323) when Robert Bruce's army was nearby, but the story is not mentioned by any English chronicler that I've seen.  Isabella's own household book proves that she didn't have to 'fight her way out' of Tynemouth in May 1312 and was not 'trapped' there: she travelled uneventfully to York by land and was reunited there a few days later with her husband, who had gone by sea via Scarborough with Piers Gaveston.  (See here and here.)  Paul Doherty's author's notes and lists of historical characters almost invariably contain errors, such as calling Piers Gaveston the 'duke' of Cornwall, calling Edward II's brother-in-law the earl of Hereford 'Henry Bohun' instead of Humphrey, saying that Eleanor of Castile died in 1296 (recte 1290) and that Edward I and Marguerite of France had four children (recte three), claiming that the 'duke' (recte earl) of Warwick himself stabbed Piers Gaveston to death with his dagger when in reality he wasn't even present, and so on and so on.  Most unimpressive.

One of the most problematic aspects of Darkening Glass for me is the way Mathilde, a first-person narrator, describes the queen: she constantly - or at least that's how it feels - tells the reader how incredibly beautiful and desirable Isabella is.  Mathilde is, throughout the series, in love with a former Knight Templar called Demontaigu, and there is no indication that she is sexually attracted to women.  Yet she describes Isabella like this:

"Queen Isabella was on the verge of full ripeness.  Sixteen summers old, she had matured rich and fertile, a fairy-tale Queen from the romances she so ardently read.  A beautiful woman, tall, willowy and slender, her face as perfect as an angel, with lustrous blonde hair, rose-kissed lips and eyes that could dazzle with life." 

This passage, especially the 'ripeness' bit, made me squirm, as did Mathilde/Doherty's reference in the prologue (which is set a few decades after the events of the rest of the novel) to Isabella's tomb at Greyfriars which contains "her beautiful body" (Isabella was in her sixties when she died in 1358).  We also get "She looked radiant...Never had she looked so glorious," "though beautiful and graceful, [she] was sturdy as an oak.  Sixteen she was, of full height...Pregnancy had brought a fresh bloom to those blue eyes and that golden face," "Her face, framed in a white wimple, looked truly beautiful, her skin translucent, those eyes a deeper blue, sensuous red lips slightly parted," and "Isabella was that rare flower, elegantly beautiful and lissom but in fact hard and tough as the finest armour in the land."  In the first Mathilde novel, Cup of Ghosts, she is said to have "a body even a friar would lust after."  OK, OK, Isabella has an incredibly beautiful, desirable body and an incredibly beautiful face.  I get it.

By contrast, the only physical description of Edward II I can remember in the entire novel is "Edward's face grew soft, smiling, full of that lazy charm that could so easily disarm you."  Shouldn't a woman who is supposed to be attracted to men notice and comment on the fact that Edward is tall, muscular and good-looking a wee bit more often?  Shouldn't Mathilde be noticing his 'beautiful body' rather than Isabella's, and why on earth would she be constantly thinking about Isabella's 'ripeness' and sensuous, 'rose-kissed lips' (whatever they are)?  I'm afraid the frequent and tedious talk of Isabella's amazing gorgeousness and 'beautiful [dead] body' struck me as the author leering over her.  There's a huge disconnect between what Doherty wants to describe and the way his chosen narrator would think and feel and react to those around her; he seems unable or unwilling to write from the perspective of a person who desires men, not women.  This has been a problem throughout the Mathilde of Westminster series, but it's particularly acute in the third one.  It seems to me too that no other woman in the novels is allowed to be either physically attractive or a sympathetic well-rounded character, and thus risk overshadowing Isabella.

Piers Gaveston, meanwhile, is "pretty-faced" and "a spoilt pampered fop," and has "woman-like features."  Well, of course he does.  He's Edward's lover.  We've got to get those stereotypes in there somewhere, and never mind the fact that the real Piers was a great soldier and jouster and - like Edward II himself - about a million miles away from being a pampered fop.  Piers' supporters, the so-called Aquilae Petri or 'Eagles of Piers' (an invention of Doherty's), have "foppish ways, curled coiffed hair, painted eyes...".  But of course.  They are supporters and allies of a man who is in love with and has sex with another man.  Obviously, despite being "deadly" and expert soldiers, they have to wear make-up and be as girly as possible.

Turning to characterisation in Darkening Glass, it's rather one-dimensional.  Stephen Dunheved, who temporarily rescued Edward from Berkeley in 1327 and joined the earl of Kent's plot in 1330, and is a Dominican friar here, is "a wolf disguised as a lamb," a fanatic, devious and evil; even in his author's note, Doherty calls him a "real and very sinister figure."  Err, why was Dunheved 'sinister'?  No idea.  Edward II is a feeble brainless idiot; Piers Gaveston has "a heart full of murderous deceit"; the Beaumont siblings Henry, Louis and Isabella, relatives of both Edward II and his queen, are an "unholy trinity, those imps of Satan, falseness incarnate..."; the earl of Warwick is "violent and malicious...the devil at the feast"; the earl of Hereford is fat and stupid; Isabella's father Philippe IV of France and her three brothers are evil and nasty and sex abusers to boot.  Edward III is mentioned briefly in the prologue, and has been depicted in previous Doherty novels as - bizarrely - some kind of raving psychopath.  (From Cup of Ghosts: "The king ordered me here screaming, his foam-flecked lips curling like those of a snarling dog.")  The Mathilde novels are plot-driven rather than character-driven, but still, I'd hoped for more subtle characterisation than this.  Pretty well all the characters in the series except Isabella, Mathilde herself and her lover Demontaigu are horrible and/or evil and/or stupid (with the exception of Margaret de Clare, who's a bland "little mouse"), and Isabella is, completely implausibly, perfect and wonderful with no character flaws whatsoever.  (As well as being incredibly amazingly beautiful and and having a gorgeous desirable beautiful body, in case you hadn't noticed.)

In Death Of A King, Doherty changed Edward III's date of birth by eight months in order to make Roger Mortimer his real father. (AGH!!!!)  In Darkening Glass he graciously allows Edward II to be the father of his own son, but we do get a passage that made me snort with laughter:

"In the February of 1312, the favourite's wife, that little mouse, the sanctimonious and ever pious Margaret de Clare, gave birth to a girl child.  Six weeks later, Isabella announced to a delighted court that she too was expecting a child.  I had known this since the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January].  I advised the queen that she was to be a mother: her courses had stopped for at least three months…"

Edward III was born on 13 November 1312, yet Mathilde knows at the beginning of January that Isabella is expecting - and it appears that Isabella's menstruation had ceased at least three months prior to that, so in September 1311.  Blimey, that's a long pregnancy, isn't it? 

Paul Doherty claims in his author's note that "The events of this novel are closely based on fact...".  Unfortunately, I'd have to disagree with that.  It's a slow-moving and rather implausible murder mystery based extremely loosely on real historical people and events.  I often feel with Doherty that the speed with which he writes his books - several a year - has a negative impact on their quality, and I don't think The Darkening Glass is one of his better ones.  Probably a good idea to go back to one of his Hugh Corbett novels instead.


Bryan Dunleavy said...

You are a stalwart Kathryn! I don't think I would have the patience to wade through these books. But you make two interesting observations.If you're going to write a historical novel with footnote and pretensions to historical accuracy you should at least get that one right. Otherwise (and probably the better course)write an interesting and readable history-based novel and if you get a few facts wrong then Heigh Ho - it's only a novel!
The other point, with regard to Doherty's choosing to take a woman's perspective on events. As you have pointed out it's full of pitfalls and the wiser course would have been to write from what he knows. The story possibly could have been told better from a male viewpoint (which it appears to be anyway) and include dialogue from female participants to reveal their thought on events.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Get a room, Mathilde, as they say! Think I'll pass on this one.

Anerje said...

This book is just so annoying, and for all the reasons you listed. Doherty makes some reference that something 'awful/sinister' went on at Scarborough castle, as if Edward waved Piers off and left him to his fate. Basically, Scarborough wasn't prepared for a long siege, and when Piers did surrender, he had no ide he would fall into Warwick's hands. He had surrendered in very favourable terms to Pembroke, with the promise he could return to Scarborough Castle and fortify it for a siege. So nothng 'awful/sinister' happened. There's no way that Edward II tired of Piers abandonned him to his fate. He'd only just re-called him from exile! Edward's re-action to Piers' death was not 'muted'. We only have what the chronicles tell us, and to me, his remarks show someone in shock. He couldn't bear to bury Piers for 3 years and gave him a fine tomb, as well as providing for his wife and child. Plus, as you've pointed out, he never forgot the treachery of the nobles, and when he finally brought Lancaster to trial, and ordered his execution, it was carried out with Piers in mind.

Anerje said...

And in his novel 'The prince of Darkness', he says Edward treats Piers 'as his wife' - now that to me is an odd comment. Why not say he openly shows that Piers is his lover? Why use the word 'wife'? It doesn't make sense.

As for Mathilde - 'she' plainly adores Isabella, and I'm sure at one point, she actually says she's 'in love' with Isabella.

Anonymous said...

Doherty is the last feuilleton writer, in the Dumasian sense of the word. Everything is over the top, the baddies are full-time evil and the good are melodramatic. As such he's an acquired taste - I happen to like him but I understand those who don't. He seems to follow Dumas' general idea that history needs to be raped in order to get beautiful baby novels to the extreme consequence. I'm not so tolerant his retake of Roman history, mind you.

As for Isabel, in the first novel of the series Mathilde mentions having been her lover, which may explain the oversexed descriptions. Isabel comes out as charming, cunning and beautiful but also deeply traumatized from an abusive childhood and rather deranged, IMHO.
I appreciated the sexy Templar that is portrayed as a priest in the full sense of the word instead of a random free-to-take medieval hunk as it's so often the case in historical romances. Anyway Doherty is one of my guilty pleasures. I'm satisfied that I could choose far worse :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Bryan - it's a bit much when a writer with an Oxford doctorate makes such sloppy, basic errors in his author's notes (though having read his non-fiction Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, maybe I shouldn't be surprised...). Maybe writing in the third person would have been a better choice here.

Susan: my thoughts exactly!

Anerje, I remember us talking about this one via email a while ago, with some irritation. Totally agree with your points!

Courtaud, can you remember where in the first novel Mathilde says she and Isabella have been lovers? I don't remember that at all, only that Isabella's father and three brothers are infatuated with her sexually (isn't everyone, except Edward?) with the result that she's not a virgin when she marries - which struck me as rather implausible.
For sure there are far worse writers than Doherty and I've enjoyed quite a few of his novels, but there are probably very few writers with doctorates on the 14th century who make so many errors in their historical notes.

Anonymous said...

Mathilde says in the Prologue to 'The Poison Maiden': "I Mathilde, formerly handmaid, henchwoman, counsellor, phisician and even lover of Isabelle, former Queen of England". I remember it because I did read this book first and thought "wait, what?" at the time.
Doherty is always over the top in describing characters, but the drivel at the beginning of the first book is told by Mathilde - in uberpurple prose even for Doherty - to the old and unworldly Father Guardian and is not necessarily the truth as Mathilde sees it. In fact it's not: we are told that Edward died of red hot poker up the bum 'as the croniclers say' and that he was 'big of body and small of mind' but we see in the same book that he's not stupid at all. Moody and not quite nice, but not stupid at all - it's clearly shown and said that he plays the fool.
Isabella is really a damaged child, and a very dangerous one. Her relationship with Edward and Piers is intriguing to say the last, but begins as a political, not a personal one. I think this Isabella married a virgin no matter what games her sibling played with her - she clearly says that marriage, well, hurt. A lot.

As for Doherty's errors, I think he's aware that he's adlibbing history. He's a careless historian but not that careless, he just enjoys melodrama more than correctness. I found that reading his books as fantasy helps enourmously :)

Carla said...

This sounds rather unimpressive, to say the least, and not just from the historical perspective - the quoted description of Isabella is, ahem, on the purple side. It probably doesn't hurt sales, though...

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla: yes, it's rather melodramatic and purple! I wouldn't mind the inaccuracies nearly as much if he didn't claim that the novel is based on fact.

Courtaud: ah, thanks for that! I'd forgotten that bit completely. After reading the prologue of Cup of Ghosts I almost didn't read the rest of the novel, for the reasons you mention - the inaccuracies, calling Edward 'large of body and small of brain' and the ludicrously purple and overwrought prose like Isabella sighing 'bury me next to my lover' (gag) and she 'tore her husband from his throne and sealed him up at Berkeley like a rabid animal'. What. The. Hell??? I haven't read the novel for ages, but seem to remember Isabella mentioning her father's concern that he's sending her to her husband not a virgin, but then she says consummating her marriage hurt her, so I don't know. Weird.

Yes, I agree that Doherty's novels are best read as fantasy, taking place in some alternate reality that bears a passing resemblance in some ways to 14c England. :D

Kate S said...

Thanks for the great article!
I really lost the pulse of the novel in those lengthy descriptions. And I had impression that not every detail in his interiors etc is accurate, but I'm not pretending to be an expert. I shall remember, if and when I write a historical fiction, to call it fantasy rightaway. )))

Anerje said...

Thanks Courtaud - I was certain Mathilde had said that, but couldn't remember which book, so settled on saying she had said she loved Isa. I remember she just comes out and says it, but there is no other reference from Isabella herself or Mathilde, and no mention of any sexual encounters between them anywhere else - right?

Anerje said...

As for Doherty writing orks of fantasy, it's a shame he tries to use his 'reputation' as a historian to sell his books. he clearly does this in 'The darkening Glass'. And it's an even bigger shame that his non-fiction work is full of inaccuracies. He just needs to stick to fiction:>

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Kate - really glad you liked the review! Normally I love description, but I think it's excessive in this one.

Anerje, I agree! :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

He's written books about Rome, too? Dear me. *makes note not to read any of those; they'd only make me froth at the mouth* :)

Kate S said...

I opened it again and stumbled on another rather strange thing. Doherty states that the Earl of Gloucester came to Gaveston's execution at Warwick castle, craving for his blood, or something like that. I've imagined, from what I know, that he certainly couldn't be there, he was petitioned by poor Pembroke around this time???

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: *grins* :-))

Oh, how strange, Kate! :-( You're absolutely right - Gloucester definitely wasn't there, and refused Pembroke's pleas for help. Bizarre...

Kate S said...

Are there any facts or evidence about Gloucester's exact whereabouts in those days? I think if they exist, you are the one who knows about them. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Aww,thanks, Kate! ;-)

I've just checked the chronicle which says Gloucester refused to help Pembroke in June 1312, and it doesn't give his location. Unless his household accounts happen to survive, it's probably impossible to figure out where he was at the time - though as Pembroke went to Oxford afterwards to ask for the university's help, Gloucester was presumably somewhere not too far from Oxford.

Kate S said...

Thanks Kathryn!
Looking through Doherty with your lens is quite poisonous! I've just noticed that he calls William Marshal Pembroke's predecessor, but not his immediate family. He was family! Aymer is his direct great-grandson!
God, I think I just need to throw that book away finally. :-))

Kathryn Warner said...

Probably not a bad idea, I think, Kate! :-)) Yes, you're absolutely right about Aymer! He was the grandson of William Marshal's youngest daughter Joan, if memory serves?