19 July, 2015

The Confession Of Piers Gaveston by Brandy Purdy: Review

The Confession of Piers Gaveston, Brandy Purdy's first novel, was self-published with iUniverse in 2007 and is 181 pages long.  The original cover was unfortunately cartoonish, though it was later improved somewhat.

My copy of the novel, with the original cover.
The novel is narrated in the first person by Piers himself, in modern English with the occasional word like 'mayhap' thrown in, and reminds me in countless ways of Chris Hunt's 1992 novel Gaveston, a much longer, insightful and, for all its excessively purple prose, a far more accomplished work.  I knew I wasn't going to get on well with Confession when in the very first scene we see Piers Gaveston's mother Claramonde de Marsan being burned alive as a witch - this story is an invention of John Stow in the late sixteenth century, and Claramonde in fact died a perfectly natural death - and shortly afterwards are introduced to a Piers who is lowborn and destitute and has an uncle who's an innkeeper.  Let us remember at this point that a) Piers Gaveston's father and grandfathers historically were among the leading barons of Béarn, and b) Edward I himself placed Piers in his son's, the future king of England's, household as one of his nobly-born companions, along with the earl of Gloucester's nephew, two of the earl of Warwick's grandchildren, the earl of Ulster's eldest daughter and so on.  Are we supposed to imagine that the king would place someone whose mother was burned alive as a witch and whose uncle is an innkeeper in his son's household as his companion?  Good grief.  I also groaned out loud on page 2 when Edward II is addressed as 'Nedikins', a nickname to which the unfortunate reader is subjected throughout, and called His Most Christian Majesty, as though Edward was a king of France.  Piers is, tediously and improbably, depicted as a Goddess-worshipper, a frequent cliché found in novels featuring him (e.g. the Chris Hunt one and Sandra Wilson's Alice) based on the entirely false story invented a few centuries later that his mother was burned as a witch, and presumably on the statements of various contemporaries that he had bewitched the king and "was accounted a sorcerer."  Although he died excommunicate because he had returned to England in 1312 after being perpetually banished, there is no reason to think that Piers wasn't as much of a devout Christian as anyone else in England and France at the time.

Early in the novel, when he is only nine years old, Piers' body is sold to a lodger by his "unscrupulous innkeeper" uncle - a nobleman of the late thirteenth century has an 'innkeeper uncle', just LOL - and he thereafter chooses to become a "boy-harlot."  This may be triggering for some readers, as it certainly was for me.  Child sex abuse, rape and child prostitution are not topics that I personally want to read about, and frankly I didn't expect to find them in a novel about Piers Gaveston.  "My rapist had opened my eyes to my allure, and my value.  The Goddess gifted me with great beauty, the kind that inspires awe and takes the beholder's breath away...".  The novel is pretty well just about Piers' sex life, and his life as a prostitute, and how he has sex with lots of men and women, then has more sex, then some more sex, and just when you think he might actually do something interesting or different, he meets someone else and has lots more sex.  As a few readers will know, this is par for the course in a Purdy novel; there are people who'll never look at Tudor history the same way again after reading her scene involving Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and a jar of honey.  Edward II and Piers also have lots of sex, including in a carriage on the way from Dover to London after Edward arrives back in the country with his new wife, Isabella.  There is a scene where Piers leaves his new wife Margaret's bed on their wedding night to sleep with Edward, which scene also appears in Chris Hunt's novel about Piers.  Piers is so seductive in Confession that even men who normally only fancy women find themselves lusting after him, including Edward's cousin the earl of Richmond, which is also - like so much else in the novel - reminiscent of Chris Hunt's Gaveston (pretty well all the men in that one fancy Piers too, including Edward's cousin the earl of Lancaster).  Piers insists on telling the reader frequently and at length how cold and empty all the paid-for sex makes him, a "practised tart" as we are told over and over, feel.  Diddums.  No doubt this makes some readers feel sympathy and empathy with him, but it just made me feel impatient and bored.  "Practised tart," indeed, a man who in reality was lord lieutenant of Ireland, regent of England, a jousting champion, an excellent soldier and so on.  Although the fact that Piers did have a life outside the bedchamber is occasionally mentioned, we see nothing at all of his abilities and experiences as a soldier, jouster, military and political leader, earl, estate manager, regent.  It's all just about his sex life and how about beautiful and seductive he is and how horrible it is that no-one, including Edward, loves him for himself and not his physical attributes (Edward "was too blinded by my beauty to actually see me" is a typical refrain).

The characterisation of Edward II in Confession, a "feckless, addle-pated king" and a "buttercup blonde" (pp. 5, 14), appears to have been taken straight from the Big Book Of Horrible Dated Gay Caricatures.  He sobs constantly, he pouts, he sighs, he yelps, he wails, he stamps his foot and throws silly tantrums, he swoons, he shrieks, he behaves like a teenage girl with a crush.  I find it offensive.  Edward in general is deeply selfish, extraordinarily shallow and unpleasant throughout, and a wholly unlikeable character who doesn't change or develop at all.  Piers claims to genuinely love him, though it's hard to see why; there is nothing remotely loveable or likeable about this character.  Piers himself also comes across as a stereotype, the bisexual man willing to have sex with anything that has a pulse, who preens, flirts and simpers.  I may be in a minority here, as there are quite a few positive reviews of the novel online, but I don't see any depth to Purdy's creation of Piers Gaveston, don't find Piers' relationship with Edward plausible or interesting, don't feel any sympathy or liking for any of the characters, don't see Piers' famous wit, don't see anything at all that makes me think this is in any way a realistic retelling of Piers' and Edward's story.

An Amazon review of the novel states: "Some of the scenes in the novel seem almost unbelievably melodramatic - such as Edward abandoning his bride on their wedding day for his male lover's company and actually giving him the jewelry that had been a wedding gift from the queen's father - but these are all documented historical events! Brandy Purdy's depiction of them is insightful and accurate, outrageous though it may seem that a king would behave that way."  It is emphatically not 'accurate'; Edward and Piers didn't meet again until almost two weeks after Edward's wedding to Isabella so he couldn't have 'abandoned' her on their wedding day, and Edward did not give Isabella's jewels to Piers, an invention of Agnes Strickland five and a half centuries later (I am more sick than I can adequately express of that wretched myth).  Purdy has Eleanor de Clare marrying Hugh Despenser in 1318 after he has become her uncle's favourite, a dozen years after she actually did.  Edward, naturally, abandons Isabella when she's pregnant in 1312 to save Piers, even though he didn't really.  In short, it's yet another of those novels which repeat the same tired old myths and clichés about Edward II.

I asked myself if I'd like the novel more if it weren't about Piers Gaveston and Edward II, but about an invented king and his invented promiscuous lover.  In all honesty I probably wouldn't dislike it quite as much as I do, but I'm afraid I'm really not a fan of Purdy's overly melodramatic writing style, with breathless italics and countless exclamation marks!!! on just about every page.  On page 52, for example, twenty-two words are written in italics and there are twenty exclamation marks.  Page 61 has sixteen exclamation marks and fifteen words in italics; page 147 has twenty-one exclamation marks and no fewer than thirty-four words in italics.  On one page.  I find it tiring and tiresome to read.  There are some things I do like in the novel: Piers' attempts to be kind and affectionate towards his innocent young wife Margaret de Clare - even though he does abandon her on their wedding night to sleep with her uncle - and his love for his daughters Joan (with Margaret) and Amy (with a woman named Sarah).  A lot of the description is very well and vividly done, and Piers as 'unreliable narrator' is at times skilfully done and Purdy makes good use of her choice to write in first person.  But it's a shame to see a fascinating man like Piers Gaveston written simply as a prostitute, and a shame to see a novel perpetuating unpleasant stereotypes about gay and bi men.  OK if you want a quick salacious read, but Confession has precious little to do with history.


Anonymous said...

Even when you rant you do it elegantly and with great wit. I love it!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you! :-)

Anerje said...

OMG - I could hardly bring myself to read your review as the mere mention of the WORST Piers novel ever, and, in all honesty, one of the worst novels ever written, makes my blood boil! The only good thing about it was that after reading it I discovered your blog! Your rant is self-contained - how did you manage it?:> It's so awful! Piers as some sort of male prostitute, who'll sleep with anything with a pulse, whatever they offer him - it's awful! Where's the chivalric knight who fought in battle and was considered so graceful and well-mannered Edward I chose him as a role model for his son. And as for poor Edward - shudder! Dreadful portrayal - especially when he appears to rape Piers after they have an argument at a tavern. Where Piers, of course, has to wear gloves so no-one recognises his burned hands when he tried to save his mother from the flames - and yes, I am now doubled up with laughter - however did he learn to fight with such scarred hands? ridiculous novel and deserves the review you gave it!

Ulrik said...

Sounds like a poorly written book, no matter who starred. I'm sure you would be willing to concede a few historical inaccuracies even it was well written, not? ;-)

Anyway, I once told my partners at a plotting session for a comic book - waaay back - that it was all right to have sex in the story, if it wasn't the entire 'plot'. I still hold it at that. Some books, though, straddle the line between plot with sex and just sex to tantalize. But if they veer toward the latter category, 181 pages or what it was, seem excessive. Especially if there are so many other things NOT to like about this book, including the characters.

Thanks for steering the rest of us clear of this apparent mess, Kathryn. I hope a good Piers-book will soon drop into your lap, though - you deserve it :-)



Sami Parkkonen said...

Oh why, Lord, oh why oh why...

What is wrong people when they can not write fantasy as fantasy but have to write "historical" novels instead? If one is writing completely fantastic stuff, why not do so openly and honestly?

And what is this with the "fantastic elements" in these babblings? Goddess worshipping in medieval England? Give me a break!

It seems to me that some writers have forgotten one thing: the historical fact is far more interesting than these pubertic fantasies about "dark hidden secrets".

And then again: what is wrong with these people when they depict Edward II? Can't they read documents? Have they never taken time to find out what kind of a man he was?

Yes, he may have been gay, he may have been bi, most likely he did not even think about it, but he was certainly not a weakling. Just check what he did at the field of Bannockburn. I reommend any writer to repeat that. Yes, put on full ice hockey gear, the helmet too, and then go out with your mates and beat each other with hockey sticks for couple of hours, take a breather, and repeat it. All this on horseback too. Now you get a very small idea of what he did.

Except at Bannockburn people really died and were killed and maimed all the time. And Edward had to be taken away from all that. Doesn't sound much of a sissy, does it?

Anonymous said...

Katherine ... IMO, reading Brandy Purdy to warn the rest of the world is heroism going beyond the call of duty. That writer is a serial defamer of the dead (she does a hatchet job on both Jane Parker Boleyn in "The Boleyn Wife" and Elizabeth Howard in "The Boleyn Bride")and I would like to know what she has been smoking!


Jerry Bennett said...

I have never read anything by this author, but I'm almost tempted to try one of her books, just out of curiosity. This book sounds utterly awful. I might have to learn to speed-read first, so if it is as bad as it sounds I won't waste too much time on it. The name "Brandy Purdy" sounds almost like a Mills and Boon author, or one of those writers whose paperbacks are tucked away on the top shelf of a Motorway Services shop.

Why does anyone need to exaggerate like this when actual history can be just as sensational without straying too far from known facts. The fourteenth century has an awful lot of gaps into which a skilled novelist can weave an excellent plot. Possibly the hardest thing of all is actually getting inside the mind of real historical personalities, based on what they did, said or wrote, and try to work out what was dominating their thoughts or actions at the time. What external influences caused them to act in a certain way, and were some of the things they did actually a bit out of character?

For example, there are times when I think I can understand Edward, and other times when I haven't a clue what was going through his mind, most notably his actions in 1322 after his retreat from Scotland and how Isabella came to be marooned at Tynemouth. Given that Edward is well documented, how much more difficult is it to do that for other key persons in his reign, like Piers Gaveston, Thomas of Lancaster, Pembroke, both the Despensers, Roger d'Amory, Roger Mortimer or Andrew Harclay (my personal favourite)? There is some terrific scope in there for anyone with imagination, and that can even include a bit of red-hot sex from time to time.

Did Ms. Purdy have Piers in an emotional relationship with Jaques de Molay and the entire senior echelon of the Knights Templar's? If not, she missed a trick there. Can't be much good as an author then!

Anonymous said...

I can't judge because I have read nothing by this author but your feature has not encouraged me to sample her works. There may have been witches and warlocks (or people who considered themselves to be such) in Medieval England - in my hometown in the sixties and early seventies some half-timbered buildings were knocked down (it was the fashion to do so then and of course now they are gone for ever) but in one a written spell was found behind a wall - that may have dated from a little later than true medieval times however.

I think Sami has the right of it when he/she (sorry Sami I don't know which) says that people who want to write fantasy should do so - only with fictional characters instead of maligning people who actually lived.

The late Agnes Stickland, bless her little cotton socks does seem to have made errors in writings about historical personnages. I quite liked Norah Lofts' "The Concubine" - a book about Anne Boleyn when I read it some time ago but I discovered later that their were some inaccuracies (like giving Anne a step-mother) that resulted from Ms Lofts having used a work of Agnes Strickland as some of her source material.

Patricia O

chris y said...

What is wrong people when they can not write fantasy as fantasy but have to write "historical" novels instead? If one is writing completely fantastic stuff, why not do so openly and honestly?

This, a thousand times. Fantasy is an established and reputable genre with a huge book buying public. Leave historical fiction to people who actually give a damn about the period they're trying to portray.