I hate being critical of this book. The Wife got it for me at a dollar-book sale. It was exquisitely researched. Its author, Sharon Kay Penman, has managed to attract a very loyal fan base and I admire her skill in leaving the life of a tax attorney to write historical novels. I’d like to do such a thing myself (at times) and I think this is the sort of book I’d enjoy researching and writing. The book was true to history — both in terms of geopolitics, military activities, and social customs. It made the history come alive, especially thinking back over the book after reading it all.
But it was dull. I plodded my way through the 440-page book for something like six weeks. If a book is quickly-paced and exciting, I can devour a hundred pages a day. With this one, I felt exhausted going at a tenth of that pace. It left the grand drama of the assassination of Thomas Becket feeling like a foregone conclusion. There was little understanding of the sweep of events and personalities that led to the downfall of the Archbishop who used to be the king’s man.
The book tries to tell parallel tales of the kingdoms of England and Wales, in the age of Henry II. Henry is married to the beautiful and glamorous Eleanor of Aquitaine, and thus Europe’s most powerful secular ruler, governing as he does England and more of what is today considered France than the King of France himself. He is perpetually at odds with King Louis IV of France, who is also Eleanor’s ex-husband.
His formidable military and political skills, however, are ultimately not sufficient to the task of governing so great a realm — he must continually put down rebellions and secure the loyalty of his barons and knights in one realm or another and it seems no sooner does he sail for England than the French lords begin to revolt, and vice versa. He must find a way to heal England from the rifts caused by the war between the former King Stephen and his mother, the Empress Maud, whose claim to the throne against Stephen’s was finally worked out by having both of them agree to Henry succeeding Stephen as King of England.
At the beginning of the novel, we see that Henry can keep a lid on things, as long as he has the able assistance of three important people: his wife Eleanor, his chancellor Thomas Becket, and his uncle Hywel (a character whose historical reality is only hinted at from the record, but who is elevated to be a bastard brother of Henry’s father) who is half-Welsh, half-English, and who owes loyalty to both the King of Wales and Henry. Henry is comfortable with his partnerships in power; in all three relationships he is the senior member of each partnership and essentially by managing these critical political relationships and keeping his soldiers happy, he can rule with competence and efficacy. But his personality is such that he ultimately does things that drive away each of these people.
We do not see a lot of battlefield action. The author shies away from men with swords and bows and armor the way other authors shy away from sex. Only one scene, late in the book, reveals much of any military activity — and that scene is violently sexual in nature; the allusion to rape comes as Henry breaks into a castle in France; it occurs during a time of sharp marital discord between Henry and Eleanor, and thus seems to not be of interest to show Henry’s military power but rather to show that he has become a brute to his wife.
The author attempts to parallel the shift of power away from the harmonious quadruple alliance in England with the drawn-out and uncertain issue of dynastic succession in Wales. The result is not a study of parallels but rather one of contrasts — as Henry pushes his allies away from himself, one by one; in Wales a clear successor to the aging king emerges from a court of candidates. Ultimately, Henry must swallow his pride and attempt reconciliation with his former allies who have become his enemies; and the incoming king of Wales confront the issue of whether he can survive the treachery of his father’s court before taking power.
All good stuff, in terms of historical drama and tension. The author did a fine job of capturing these kinds of tensions and themes, and if she had attempted only to tell these stories, she could have done a few different things with Hywel and told the parallel stories nicely.
But the novel wants to focus on the tension between Henry and Becket. The author wants to make the escalating tension between the two men her great theme; and in this I am afraid I must report that she fails. We are left with no idea whatsoever what would have possessed Becket to turn on his king once he was made Archbishop of Canterbury. He is portrayed before assuming clerical office as a loyal and able servant of the king, a lover of earthly pleasures and a sharp player in the world of medieval politics. He is absolutely the king’s man. It makes perfect sense that, given legal and political tensions between crown and church, Henry would elevate such a man to the highest clerical office in England, the better to bring the Church under his control. Unexplained is why everyone but Henry thinks this is a terrible idea — by all accounts, it was a brilliant idea, both in real-life history and in the book.
But the critics of the elevation, including Becket himself, are proven right. Becket almost instantly turns on the King upon becoming Archbishop, jealously and stubbornly insisting upon the church’s prerogatives over various spheres of justice, autonomy, and finance. In making his able minister the Archbishop, Henry has created a monster, and put a sword in the hands of the church he had sought to tame. Again — it really happened and that’s really cool and interesting. What the author completely fails to do is to explain why Becket’s attitude would change. Like Henry and the rest of his court, we readers cannot understand and therefore must guess at what is motivating Archbishop Becket to do as he does, even as he suffers through numerous legal and political maneuvers in which he is ultimately outclassed and forced into exile.
Had the entire story been told from Hywel’s point of view, it might have been more interesting. We would not, however, have been given the interesting and lusty scenes of Henry and Eleanor together. Instead, the story shifts focus from character to character periodically, one moment following Hywel, the next Becket, then Eleanor, then Henry. We see Henry running his court and deftly executing political maneuvers; we feel his lusts as he feels his manhood reach full potency. We see Eleanor fret about her age and whether she can keep the interest of her young husband; we see Henry impetuously misreading people while still working his keen intelligence and fine mind. Hywel is a man torn between nations and loyalties. He never seems to find a vision of a harmonious England and Wales; while he does a good job explaining the motivations of one king to the other, we never get a sense that he has formed his own vision of how to keep peace in Britain; he thrashes about diplomatically and twice fails to prevent war. Becket, though, is a bland and insipid figure; the initial vision of the man who more than anyone else personifies the wealth and extravagance of England becomes a bland, dour, and doctrinaire cleric who is both an insufferable prig and a a bore.
Without understanding Becket’s motivation, the great conflict of the story does not make a lot of sense. Historically, we know it happened. But a historical novel is supposed to give us an emotional read on the events of history, an insight into the minds and hearts of the people who did the sorts of things we can read about in the history books. The author does this exquisitely well when she confronts the issue of the break between Henry and Eleanor — she shows this in a very tragic light; a husband who has strayed and a wife ready to forgive him, and both willing to set their pride aside to make amends, tragically not communicating their intentions to one another and destroying a valuable political as well as personal relationship as a result.
It may be that the murder of Becket is the best-chronicled event in all of European medieval history; there are numerous eyewitness accounts and it electrified Europe when it happened, generating all sorts of diplomatic correspondence. But while we get a sense of why Henry and Eleanor split, and it is easy to see why Hywel and Henry split, the biggest and most critical split of all, between Henry and Becket, remains a great mystery and cannot be understood at all. The result is an incomplete and unsatisfying climax, one which does not ring true despite its apparent historical authenticity.
The secondary characters are ultimately more interesting than the primary ones, with the possible exception of Eleanor. Hywel’s blind wife Rhiannon is a most interesting figure. Owain the old king of Wales catches the eye and makes the reader wonder about what he has planned. Eleanor’s confidante, her loyal retainer, the young Richard Lionheart, and Hywel’s former lover are also striking characters whose brief entrances and exits on the stage of the story do not satisfy — the reader wants more of them.
But what this reader really wanted was to understand the tension between Henry and Becket. The stakes of the struggle were only partly described. The battleground was only partly described. The reason proffered for the fight happening in the first place — Becket became a true believer in the religion — is totally unilluminating. The climactic murder itself does not feel so much climactic as it does the logical conclusion of the previous events.
The prose in the book was not lively, but it got the job done and in retrospect its measured pace was appropriate to describe a ten-year sweep of political events. I’d have liked more battles. I’d have liked a more colorful Thomas Becket and more narrative describing him. I’d have liked more of Rhiannon and the young Richard Lionheart. I might even have liked more of Henry wenching around and making his wife jealous for the emotional tension. But although I know that Sharon Kay Penman has assembled an intensely loyal fan following for her historical novels, I do not think I will return to this well again.