11 March, 2018

Book Review: 'The Pearl of France' by Caroline Newark

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I'm often pretty harsh on novels which feature Edward II and Isabella of France as characters, and I tend to approach them with extreme caution. (At the library recently, I picked up a novel published in 2016 which described Piers Gaveston as "effeminate," at which I sighed loudly and put it back on the shelf. Can we really not get past such prejudiced, stereotypical nonsense well into the second decade of the twenty-first century?). Conversely, I'm also truly delighted on the rare occasions when I find novels about Edward which I enjoy, and was thrilled to come across Caroline Newark's recently-published The Pearl of France, which is narrated in the first person by Edward II's stepmother Marguerite of France. She married sixty-year-old Edward I as his second wife in September 1299 when she was twenty, and was younger than many of his children, though was about five years older than his fourth but only surviving son the future Edward II. It's an excellent novel with likeable, very well-depicted main characters, and thoroughly researched. (This blog is listed at the end of the book as one of the author's sources.) I've read far too many Edward II novels with absurdly one-sided and biased characterisation or where all the characters are horrible, malicious, ugly and uninteresting *cough Maurice Druon cough*. The Pearl of France is a novel in which the author has succeeded in making all her main characters complex and sympathetic, yet also flawed and very human. I felt strongly that she respected, cared about and liked all the historical figures she was writing about, which I appreciated very much.

We meet Marguerite in her youth at the court of her almost inhumanly cold half-brother Philip IV of France, and see the negotiations for her marriage to Edward I of England, a man forty years her senior, as a way of making peace between England and France (Marguerite's niece Isabella is betrothed to Edward's son Edward of Caernarfon at the same time). When Marguerite arrives in England in the late summer of 1299, she meets her stepchildren Ned (Edward of Caernarfon), who's fifteen, Joan of Acre who's a few years her senior, Mary the nun, and, a little later, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan after she's widowed from her first husband the count of Holland. Edward I's nephew Henry of Lancaster (b. 1280/81) also appears briefly, which I really enjoyed; I'm a big fan of Henry, and can't remember ever seeing him as a fictional character before. His sister-in-law Alice de Lacy appears more often and is a confidante of Queen Marguerite, as does Elizabeth of Rhuddlan's second husband, the good-looking and charming Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford. Joan of Acre's three Clare daughters Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth, Marguerite's step-granddaughters, briefly appear, and Joan says proudly that Eleanor is "as sharp as a needle." Robert Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306, is also a character. The novel takes us through the eight years of Marguerite's marriage, and the narrative ends soon after the death of Edward I and the accession of Marguerite's stepson Edward II in 1307. A brief epilogue after the dowager queen's death in 1318 closes the novel.

Both Edward I and his son Ned are vividly drawn, complex and fascinating characters. I loved the scene with the king and Marguerite shortly after their wedding where Edward I asks her to "look at me as a man," a man she can desire. Marguerite expects to find an elderly and frail dotard, and instead meets a fearsome and powerful warrior. Edward I is still mourning for his first, beloved wife Eleanor of Castile, and often talks of her and even sometimes calls his second wife by his first wife's name. I felt much sympathy for Marguerite, who never really feels like Edward's true wife, and who often struggles to know how to behave around Edward. He's capable on occasion of the most affectionate tenderness towards her - which was lovely, actually - but also often capable of taking her innocently-meant words and actions the wrong way and snapping at her. He never hurts her physically, but she often feels she has to tread on eggshells around him, and feels that she cannot compete with his amazing first wife. We see both the stern and terrifying warrior and the loving husband, and I felt I saw a side of 'Longshanks' I'd never seen before.

Edward of Caernarfon or 'Ned' is portrayed exactly as he really was, a far cry from the caricatured feeble, camp court fop inept writers so frequently resort to: he's hugely strong and handsome, and loves taking part in pastimes such as rowing, swimming, digging and thatching that baffle and annoy his family. His swim at Windsor with his Fool Robert Bussard in February 1303 (historical fact!) appears here, with Marguerite having to tear her eyes away from the pleasant spectacle of her nearly naked and extremely attractive teenage stepson. On another occasion, she sees Ned digging at his palace of Langley, and is again baffled at the overly familiar manner he allows his low-born fellow workers to adopt towards him. Piers Gaveston also appears in the novel, not that often, but it's clear how much Ned adores him. Edward I exiles Piers from England in 1307 after Ned asks permission to give him his county of Ponthieu, and Ned gets hopelessly drunk and tells his stepmother exactly how the loss of Piers makes him feel. It's an incredibly moving scene that brought me to tears. Ned is immensely likeable, but it's clear how unsuited he is to his position as prince of Wales and heir to the throne, and the tensions between him and his barons which will come to the fore a little later when he's king are also made apparent. Whatever pleasant characteristics he has, the novel makes it clear that he's entirely unlike his father and not a man who can make his barons respect and fear him. All in all, a very accurate and very fair depiction of the future Edward II, as far as I'm concerned, and it's not often I say that. I have to admit that I'm not particularly a fan of the real Queen Marguerite, but The Pearl of France made me like her a heck of a lot more than I did before.

A very well-written and compelling novel with some really excellent characterisation. Highly recommended!


Anerje said...

Thanks for the recommendation! Adding it to my list of books.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kathryn, I'll search for this book. Amanda